Sheikh Hasina Visit May Bolster India-Bangladesh Ties But Will They Survive Threat Of Religious Extremism?

India and Bangladesh have succeeded in isolating bilateral ties from the sound and fury of domestic politics. With national elections slated for next year, Islamic groups will try to disrupt Sheikh Hasina’s chances with attacks on Hindus to trigger a backlash in India. Can New Delhi and Dhaka stall these forces?

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi

India and Bangladesh ties have soared since Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina came to power in 2009. The two countries have dubbed is as the golden period of bilateral relations. Much of the credit has to go to the Bangladesh leader who has succeeded in giving top priority to relations with India and isolating it from the BJPs domestic agenda that had targeted Bangladeshi immigrants and discriminated against Muslims while fast-forwarding citizenship rules for Sikhs, Hindus, Christians and Buddhists living in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

The passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in December 2019 and BJP leaders publicly promising to extend the National Register of Citizens (NRC) beyond Assam to the rest of the states had led to massive protests. Talk of deporting those who did not qualify as Indian citizens in the NRC back to Bangladesh and reports that a huge prison was being constructed in Assam to house the illegal immigrants till they were sent back fuelled fear across Bengali-speaking Muslims. This naturally had repercussions in Bangladesh, where those opposed to Sheikh Hasina had the perfect opportunity to target the Prime Minister. Religious parties like the Jamaat, which had always supported Pakistan were out in the streets protesting the government’s weak-kneed response to India. On its part, New Delhi had constantly reassured Bangladesh that the NRC was India’s internal issue and Dhaka had nothing to worry. So far India has stuck to its promise. But any change in New Delhi’s policy in future could have a major impact on relations.

The Delhi riots further fuelled anger in Bangladesh and gave wind to the opposition. At that time two or three visits by ministers and senior officials from Dhaka were dropped, though the reason was never spelt out. Protests continued in several cities in Bangladesh and the police took a tough stand. Then came the attack on puja pandals and the attacks on businesses of Hindu minorities living in Bangladesh. There was angry rhetoric in India but the government kept a cool head.

With national elections due in December next year, the Jamaat will try to incite communal violence. There may be incidents during Durga puja celebrations again as the opposition will up its anti-India rhetoric against Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League. During the controversy over remarks by former BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma, while most Islamic countries protested, Bangladesh did not make any public comments. Communal tension in either country will trigger counterattacks on the other.

Both India and Bangladesh have benefited from the relationship and Sheikh Hasina’s visit to New Delhi, the first since covid  2019 will help to further extend the bond. "Bangladesh and India have been steadily increasing cooperation since Sheikh Hasina came to power when Manmohan Singh was PM. This has continued under Prime Minister  Modi. Now with elections slated for next December, she needs support from India in river water sharing. An agreement on Teesta before the elections would be the icing in the cake, but that seems unlikely unless there is a change of mood in West Bengal. Her threat is from radical Islamic groups that hate her and would love to see the back of her,’’ says S.D.Muni, analyst and expert on South Asia. While a Teesta pact may not be on the cards just yet, last month India and Bangladesh finalised the text of an interim agreement on sharing water of the Kushiyara river. The two countries share 54 rivers of which seven were identified earlier for water-sharing agreements. "She will have to balance ties with India with that of China as economic problems threaten Bangladesh,’’ Muni adds.

The pandemic followed by the Ukraine war and the hike in energy and commodity prices has threatened Bangladesh’s economy. There was talk at one time that Bangladesh could face problems similar to Sri Lanka's. Though that seems unlikely,  Sheikh Hasina needs both India and China to stabilise her country’s economy and keep prices manageable. She is likely to push for buying energy from India to ease the current crisis. Delhi is likely to help out.

Some in  India expect Sheikh Hasina to turn her back on China because of her close connections with New Delhi and India’s role in the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. This is silly, as nations look after their self-interest first. A day ahead of  Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India, she inaugurated the eighth bridge built by China in her country. Some have interpreted this as Hasina playing the China card. Every small country in South Asia wants to have good relations with both India and China. New Delhi has not disrupted its ties with Russia because of its newfound friendship with the US. The same applies to Bangladesh and other neighbours like Nepal and Sri Lanka.

In the last decade and more land, air and river connectivity between India and Bangladesh has expanded with new routes being inaugurated. The latest is the inauguration of the passenger train Mitali Express from New Jalpaiguri to Dhaka in June.

Trade is also flourishing with bilateral trade jumping from USD 9 billion to USD 18 billion in the last five years. Bangladesh is now India’s biggest trade partner in South Asia and the fourth largest export destination for India. Indian exports have risen from$ 9.69 billion in 2020-2021 to $16.15 billion in 2021-2022.  Bangladesh is India's largest development partner with nearly one-fourth of New Delhi's Line of Credit going to that country. Ends