Was it only a familiarisation trip?

M. Serajul Islam | Published: April 15, 2018 21:10:50 | Updated: April 16, 2018 22:26:46

New Indian Foreign Secretary (FS) Bijay Keshav Gokhale completed a two-day official visit to Dhaka from April 8-9. He held official meeting with his Bangladeshi counterpart Shahidul Huq during the visit and made courtesy calls on the President and the Prime Minister. In addition, the Indian FS, who assumed office only this January, also addressed a seminar on Bangladesh-India relations, attended by the members of Bangladesh's civil society, at a Dhaka-based think tank.

The Indian secretary's visit was undertaken more like a familiarisation trip rather than conducting serious businesses related to bilateral relations between the two countries. That was evident from the outcome of the visit. In all, six memorandums of understanding (MoUs) were signed. These were on cooperation between Bangladesh Betar and Prasar Bharati; an addendum to an earlier agreement between the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission (BAEC) and Global Centre for Nuclear Energy Partnership (GCNEP); friendship pipeline between Numaligarh of Assam and Parbatipur of Dinajpur; launching of ICCR Urdu Chair at Dhaka University; grant for language labs in 500 schools; and upgrading of different roads in Rangpur city.

The MoUs are related to bilateral issues that can be described at best to be totally innocuous and benign. Neither during his call-on the President nor during the meeting with Prime Minister did the Indian FS raise any issue related to the internal politics in Bangladesh with the national election in the country now on the horizon and the country in heightened 'tension' over the issue with major political party-Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)'s Chairperson Khaleda Zia being 'incarcerated' and the ruling party tending to indicate that it may go ahead and hold another election, not  much unlike the one held in January 2014.

In contrast, Sujata Singh, the Indian FS during the last national election in Bangladesh, had visited Dhaka just before the January 2014 polls and had devoted her entire visit to Bangladesh's domestic politics. She was then reported to have been quite critical of the BNP for its role in politics at that time. She had met Jatiya Party chief and former President HM Ershad and had furthermore reported to have 'arm-twisted' him to force the party to participate in that election. She, as a section of the media reported then, had told HM Ershad that if his party stayed out of the election and did not take part to bring the AL to power a second time, the BNP-Jamaat would come to power instead. 'Untrustworthy' as the former President was, he narrated verbatim his conversation with her to the media as soon as Sujata Singh had left the meeting. Her visit to Bangladesh would, on some perceived reasons, be considered unwholesome in the context of bilateral relations between two countries.

The major substantive issue in which the Bangladesh government is involved in at present, where India's cooperation is seriously needed and that the Indian FS discussed in Dhaka, was the issue of Rohingya people. The Indian FS assured Bangladesh counterpart of his government's full support to the efforts of the Bangladesh government. He said, "Bangladesh's humanitarian gesture in supporting thousands of displaced persons from the Rakhine state of Myanmar is admirable…India has been fully supportive of the efforts being made to resolve the crisis, including the early repatriation of the displaced people. On the part of the Indian government, we had sent relief materials for 300,000 people in September last year under 'Operation Insaniyat' to support Bangladesh government in its humanitarian efforts."

India's stand on the Rohingya issue was of course not the same when this major humanitarian crisis had erupted towards the end of August last year, following the killing of four Myanmar military personnel by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a riff-raff terrorist organisation. The Myanmar military thereafter went on a rampage that was described separately by the UN and the international media as genocide and ethnic cleansing. India had supported the action of the Myanmar military as necessary for dealing with extremism and terrorism. The drastic change in stance taken by the Indian FS in Dhaka on the Rohingyas, of course, has become necessary. With a million Rohingyas now in Bangladesh and with the Myanmar military in no mood to take them, New Delhi now realises that the lingering Rohingya crisis would affect its own security as much as that of Bangladesh's.

The Indian FS also discussed a major pending issue in Bangladesh-India relations - the Teesta deal. He nevertheless had nothing new to add to the same narrative it has carried since 2011 saying that the country was doing its level-best about the Teesta water-sharing agreement and Bangladesh could expect some good news "soon." Dhaka is now well aware where the Teesta crisis became entangled and that the promise of "soon" is one that does not give it hope anymore although it does not do any good to India's standing and credibility with the people of Bangladesh.

At this time, the general perception in Bangladesh is that the course of the next general election in the country would largely be 'influenced' by the way New Delhi would lean. Hence, there was a lot to take from the Indian secretary's visit from what he did not do or say rather than from what he did do and say. He stayed clear about Bangladesh's domestic politics though, with the possible visits of the Indian Prime Minister and Foreign Minister (FM) on the cards according to media reports - besides the possibility of a bilateral meeting between the prime ministers of  the two countries on the sidelines of the summit of the Commonwealth heads of states of governments --, his visit would have been used differently if New Delhi had anything in mind to play the sort of 'interfering role' that it played during 2013-14.

Perhaps, his visit was undertaken to send a message to Bangladesh and its ruling party that New Delhi's role in the next general election would be different. In fact, through his silence on Bangladesh's domestic politics, he may have re-asserted what the Indian FM had said during her visit in November last year - that New Delhi wanted a participatory election in Bangladesh and it was up to the Bangladesh government to ensure the conditions for the participation of all the political parties in that election. New Delhi, now no longer under a Congress government, is well aware that the conditions under which it had interfered in the 2014 election - the Shahbag movement, the war crimes trials and the mistakes of the BNP - no longer exist and with 1.0 million Rohingyas in the country, it cannot take chances by forcing a one-sided national election again in this country.

The fact that the Indian FS did not choose BIISS, the official think tank of Bangladesh's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defence, for his important vision statement on Bangladesh-India relations may, therefore, have been a decision taken deliberately. At a time when the ruling party is keenly looking towards New Delhi to support it as it had done in the last general election, the choice of a different think tank other than the BIISS could have been to flag New Delhi's disappointment with the Bangladesh government for moving towards China.

Bangladesh has recently decided to back fully China's One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. New Delhi has otherwise been lukewarm about OBOR. To make matters worse for New Delhi, Bangladesh announced its decision to join OBOR through its FS while he was on a visit to New Delhi. The Bangladesh PM in a public statement recently asked New Delhi not to worry over its overtures towards China while reiterating that it would not affect Bangladesh-India relations. And now, Bangladesh is reported to be set about choosing China over India for the Dhaka Stock Exchange as the latter's strategies partner.

Therefore, one way of looking at the visit of the Indian FS would be that it was little more than a familiarisation trip. Another perspective would be that behind that façade, the visit may have been undertaken as a message to Bangladesh that New Delhi for its own security interests, particularly with the unresolved Rohingya crisis and the Bangladesh government's recent overtures towards China, would like to see the reflection of people's will in the next election in Bangladesh, alongside the rest of South Asia, where India's acceptance is falling.

M. Serajul Islam is a former ambassador.


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