The ‘India factor’ looms large over Bangladesh politics after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to Delhi (September 5–8), with the Islamist Opposition stepping up its violent agitation to oust her government, blaming her for failing to get much out of India. During Hasina’s visit, the two countries signed seven Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) in the areas of river water sharing, space, science and technology, broadcasting, and capacity building among the railway and judicial personnel of the two countries.
Only the MoU to finalise an interim bilateral agreement on withdrawing water from the common border river Kushiyara seems to have given Hasina some mileage. But the Islamist Opposition is writing it off as a clever Indian ploy to divert attention from the Teesta water sharing issue, on which there is no commitment yet from the Modi government. Regional parties in Assam’s Barak Valley are already opposing the deal.
Hasina did push hard on the Teesta issue, but it seems Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not yet able to brush aside West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s stiff opposition to the Teesta deal on the grounds that West Bengal will suffer. That is one deal that would matter most for the Bangladesh prime minister in the run-up to the parliament polls due end of next year, not the least because it has become an emotive issue. The deal was to be signed during the 2011 visit to Dhaka by PM Manmohan Singh, who had cleared the draft that gave India the right to 42.5% of Teesta’s water and Bangladesh the right to 37.5%. But Manmohan pulled back following Mamata’s tantrums, and Modi has not managed a breakthrough in the last eight years.
Hasina only managed to remind Modi of the need to sign a treaty on Teesta at “an early date”, but her entourage appeared clearly frustrated by India’s attitude. When she was back in Dhaka, Opposition leaders were ripping Hasina apart for giving India too much and getting little in return. They pointed to her offering India use of the Chittagong port to access its Northeast in April this year.
India has offered reciprocal access to Bangladesh to reach third countries like Nepal through India. So, in her press conference following her return from Delhi, Hasina did insist she had not returned empty-handed and pointed to the mutual transit deals as a win-win for both countries.
But Opposition leaders like the BNP’s Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir were quick to blame Hasina “for her complete failure to deal with India”, overlooking the 1996 Ganges Water Sharing Treaty and the 1997 Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord signed during her first term in power.
Both those agreements were piloted by the late West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, who once told me that such gestures were “necessary to help Hasina stay in power and keep the beards (Islamists) out”. That most contemporary Indian politicians lack Basu’s understanding of the India-Bangladesh dynamics can only add to Hasina’s worries, especially after the rise of the Hindu Right in India.
The BNP and ally Jamaat-e-Islami have already declined to participate in the 2023 parliament polls, saying they can never expect a fair election under Hasina. The Western powers, including the USA, are pressing Hasina hard for a “fair and inclusive election”, which will not be possible without the participation of leading Opposition parties. But these parties appear determined first to bring down the Hasina government through violent street agitations rather than join the polls.
The US sanctions against seven Bangladesh security officials, including outgoing police chief Benazir Ahmed, is also seen as a ploy to demoralise the law-enforcing agencies which have so far successfully curbed the Opposition’s street violence that erupts at periodic intervals over issues as diverse as commissioning of Mujib statues (considered un-Islamic) and PM Modi’s visit to Bangladesh. The BNP-led opposition may be taking heart from the sanctions because that may deter tough policing that has so far foiled the Opposition roadmap of capturing power through violent street agitations.
Backing up this campaign is the one by local human rights groups who feel energised by a UN Working Group report on Enforced Disappearances which details 76 such cases. The report was, however, exposed to be full of errors, with names of even two Manipuri insurgents figuring in the list of 76. Several Bangladeshis described as missing were found to have contested local elections or given interviews to some anti-government media outlets. Some leading Bangladesh rights activists like Sultana Kamal have asked the UN to more carefully examine alleged cases of enforced disappearances and not wholly depend on local groups, some of whom clearly have a political agenda. That, however, does not stop the Opposition or civil society groups from crying foul over the human rights situation in Bangladesh.
Hasina’s fate in the 2023 polls must be a top priority for India. If India is able to take away its army units from the Northeast for deployment against China because of a sharp drop in ethnic insurgencies in recent years, much of it is due to Hasina’s crackdown against Northeast Indian rebels since 2009. She has addressed India’s security and connectivity concerns as none else in the region. Delhi treats her as India’s most reliable friend in South Asia, but many think it is payback time for India.
Domestic issues will indeed dominate Bangladesh polls, and Hasina will surely try to showcase her ‘decade of development’ to justify a record fourth term in office. But with Bangladesh facing tough economic challenges due to rising food and fuel prices following the Ukraine war, it would help Hasina if she could show people back home something big she has got out of India. Her party, the Awami League, has always looked up to India since her total support to the 1971 Liberation War but history does not always help in the present.
Hasina’s garrulous foreign minister Abdul Momen had added considerably to her difficulties by publicly saying he had requested India for support to help Hasina stay in power. This helps bolster perceptions in Bangladesh that India has helped Hasina survive two elections (which many allege were less than fair) but given Bangladesh little. That does not help Hasina, who has to rejuvenate her party that suffers the usual anti-incumbency after nearly 14 years in power. Settling the succession issue may also be important, given her age.
Former BBC correspondent in South Asia, served as senior editor in Dhaka-based bdnews24.com