Stability of Bangladesh Imperative to Counter India’s Security Challenges on Eastern Borders

What are the pending issues between Bangladesh and India? What are Dhaka’s internal challenges which it has to grapple with? What are Chinese and US interests? India’s security concerns and what New Delhi can or should do? And finally, the Future?


Stability of Bangladesh Imperative to Counter India’s Security Challenges on Eastern Borders

Editor's Note: This article is based on a letter dated 1 Nov 2020 sent by the author to the Prime Ministers Office (PMO) and the Higher Defence Organisations (HDO)

Introduction

Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the leader of Awami League who won a thumping majority in the elections (country’s first in seven years) on Dec 18,2008 visited India on Dec 18, 2009 and discussed many issues. Bangladesh is an important neighbour to India in more ways than one. What happens inside Bangladesh has an impact on India’s security particularly on the North Eastern states.

There have been many issues awaiting resolution since Bangladesh’s inception in 1971. Further, the Chinese interest in the country is increasing. Fortunately, Sheikh Hasina and Awami League are well disposed towards India. Last time Sheikh Hasina took over as the Prime Minister was on Jun 23, 1996. But Indo-Bangladesh issues remain unresolved.

Therefore, once again New Delhi has a chance to develop and cement a permanent relationship and alliance with Dhaka. Accordingly, the questions which arise are: What are the pending issues between Bangladesh and India? What are Dhaka’s internal challenges which it has to grapple with? What are Chinese and US interests? India’s security concerns and what New Delhi can or should do? And finally, the Future? But before that, a word about the Background and the present scenario

Background

"Bangladesh has had a chequered history. After the 1971 Indo-Pak war when east Pakistan emerged as Bangladesh, Dhaka has had a history of military coups and dictatorships."
Old map of Bangladesh; Archival image for representative purposes

Here is a strife torn country with a history of three bloody and eighteen attempted coups in the last 39 years, Sharing a border of 4095 km with India this poor country of 147 million, with 1/3rd of its territory impoverished with floods every year, is surrounded on three sides with Indian states (West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram). Bangladesh has had a chequered history.

After the 1971 Indo-Pak war when east Pakistan emerged as Bangladesh, Dhaka has had a history of military coups and dictatorships. It is with this in view, that a 15 member committee had then  been constituted to review the 1972 constitution to obviate any chances of a future military coup.

In between, it is to be noted that amendments made to the 1972 constitution had altered the secular character of the constitution and allowed politics based on religion. Fortunately, this serious lapse has now been corrected by a supreme court judgment in 2014.

In 1975 military coup Sheikh Hasina’s parents and three brothers were assassinated. Later, Gen Zia was assassinated. And since then, the two Begums, Khaleda Zia-wife of assassinated Gen Zia and chairman of Bangladesh National Party

(BNP) and Sheikh Hasina-daughter of assassinated Sheikh Mujibur Rehman - founding father of Bangladesh, have been more or less at war with each other. Besides, attempts were made by other quarters to wipe out Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League (pro democracy party). Intention was to create a 3rd Islamic state in line with a long standing design to create a Greater Islamic Bangladesh.

It is of interest to note that Bangladesh shifted to the Prime Minister style of government instead of the Presidential form, with fresh responsibilities defined for the Prime Minister and the Cabinet in 1996.And Sheikh Hasina, the then Prime Minister paid her first state visit to China for five days in the first week of Sep 1996 at the head of a 40 strong delegation. Bangladesh and Beijing discussed economic cooperation, foreign policy and defence.

In Nov 1996, Chief of Army Staff of Bangladesh army visited Beijing. He was even received by the Chinese President who assured necessary defence cooperation between the two countries. There was no serious reaction to these visits to China from India. In fact, the then Indian prime Minister I K Gujral felt, as Sino-India relations were improving, such visits would further help towards improving the process.

At one stage in Apr 2007, Begum Zia was to be exiled and Sheikh Hasina charged with murder. An important issue, besides others, which remains pending is the issue of Enclaves, located on both sides of the fencing marking Indo Bangladesh border for the last 20 years. Besides, there is the question of the relationship between a small and a big country. India sees its interest in Bangladesh in getting transit facilities to its NE states. While Bangladesh has other issues on its  agenda.

Our Finance Minister visited Dhaka in Feb 2009 and signed two pacts on investment and trade. And suggested  a joint anti-terrorism mechanism to deal with cross border terrorism. And then again in Aug 2010 after Sheikh Hasina’s visit to New Delhi in Dec 2009, he signed a one billion dollar loan deal with Bangladesh.

According to Veena Sikri, ex High Commissioner to Dhaka, the biggest mistake we have made is, to only reach out to the regime in power and not to the people. While we feel that Bangladesh has forgotten India’s sacrifices the Bangladeshis feel, that India has forgotten them.

There should be no doubt that besides India, a large number of other countries are interested in Bangladesh for various reasons. The US tried to play a mediatory role between Sheikh Hasina and Begum Zia, the opposition leader; China and the US have been seeking various opportunities in Bangladesh which have to be studied by India from a security point of view.

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An important issue which hardly drew any notice was the non-renewal of Indo-Bangladesh Treaty of Peace and Friendship. It was due for renewal on Mar 17, 1997.It had two important clauses: One; that neither country will enter into alliance against the other. And two; not to let its territory be used for operations against the other country. But it was to stress Bangladesh’s sovereignty that in 1996, Sheikh Hasina undertook her first important state visit to China and not to India and declined to renew the Treaty.

She then visited India from 11-13 Dec 1996  to sign an interim accord on the sharing of Ganga waters which will be in force for 30 years with a provision for review every 5 years. Her action not to renew the Treaty can be deemed to have brought sufficient pressure on India to hasten the signing of Indo-Bangladesh water sharing interim agreement.

Accordingly, there is no reason as to why China should not expand its commercial contacts to ensure that country’s markets are flooded with Chinese goods in due course as has happened in India’s eastern flank in Myanmar or is happening in Nepal. Also, China would be in a position to supply defence hardware and train Bangladesh’s armed forces. In addition, once the naval ports in southern Myanmar (Sittwe) become operational, Chinese ships would be docking at Chittagong.

Will India be in a position to tell China not to trade with Bangladesh or not to supply arms or hold joint Army and Naval exercises with it? Obviously not, further, it is so easy to whip up anti India propaganda or to twist India by providing more active support to the insurgents in India’s northeast from bases in Bangladesh who  have been getting arms from Thailand, China through Chittagong.

Indo - Bangladesh Issues

"New Delhi considers that Pakistan’s ISI has been operating in Bangladesh and that there were 195 training camps for militants."
Indian and Bangladesh Border guardsmen during a flag meeting; File Photo 

During Her visit to India in Dec 2009, Sheikh Hasina raised many issues: Sharing of river waters, electricity connectivity, negotiation on laying a gas pipeline from Myanmar via Bangladesh, Pacts on mutual legal assistance, combating terrorism, smuggling of goods and drugs, transit to India’s NE states, while India had more or less agreed to use of its territory connecting Nepal and Bhutan to Bangladesh for trade and transit.

New Delhi has been wanting gas from Bangladesh for a long time, but the matter remains unresolved. As regards a Free trade Area, Dhaka had set four conditions, agreed in principle, but no final decision has been reached. For the river linking projects, India wants a waterways connection across Bangladesh from Chittagong-Kolkata port and a passage across the country to its NE states for movement of goods while Dhaka wants a similar transit facility to Nepal and Bhutan. Further, Dhaka wants an assurance that no damage would be caused to Bangladesh when the projects are undertaken.

A number of meetings have been held on the subjects mentioned in the last 40 years but problems remain pending. Further, New Delhi considers that Pakistan’s ISI has been operating in Bangladesh and that there were 195 training camps for militants. In Sep 2004, Indian Home Secretary had led a delegation asking Dhaka to close down these camps. India is convinced that arms were being procured from abroad through Bangladesh.

As regards illegal immigrants in Assam, in a High Court judgment by Justice Sharma on Jul 28, 2008: immigrants had infiltrated every nook and corner of Assam. That the day was no far off when they will take over all important posts in Assam. While All Assam Students Union blames the government in Assam for its soft and indifferent attitude towards infiltration.

Domestic

Sheikh Hasina favors strong ties with India. And that is where the problems lie. She is against Fundamentalism and has announced the clearing of Bangladesh of NE militants and Islamic terrorists. Immediately after her taking over, there was a mutiny in Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) who had a confrontation with the Army.

When 130 officers were taken as hostages and there was much bloodshed. But fortunately for her, the Army announced its full support to Hasina’s government. The probe pointed to the opposition's hand in the mutiny. Nearly 1000 BDR personnel were charged for arson and murder.

China and Pakistan

"Beijing had signed a defence agreement with Dhaka in Jan 2003. A view is that China is trying to create a "Pakistan 2" on India’s eastern flank."
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (second from left) attends a meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan (third from right) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on Oct. 8, 2019. YUKIE NISHIZAWA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Beijing had signed a defence agreement with Dhaka in Jan 2003.A view is that China is trying to create a "Pakistan 2" on India’s eastern flank. Besides, they have been given transit facilities through Chittagong. And are now moving closer to establish a direct rail and road link to connect Yunan through Myanmar (only 111 Kms) to the Chittagong port. And are helping in construction of Sonadia deep sea port in Cox’s Bazar.

Thus, they will be taking another step to implementing their Strings of Pearls strategy by connecting Sittwe (Myanmar), Sonadia and Hambantota deep sea port in southern Sri Lanka.

While we look upon these developments as mere observers. As regards Pakistan, it had offered nuclear technology to Bangladesh and to build a nuclear reactor at Rooppur in North Bangladesh’s Pabna district while Dhaka had also discussed this with Russia and China and even the US but the outcome does not seem to have worked out.

Security Issues

"With the increasing pressure in Pakistan, Al Qaeda and ISI activities have been increasing in Bangladesh...According to DG BSF, ISI had shifted training bases for J&K militants to Bangladesh."
Bangladesh Border Guards (BGB) in riot gear; File Photo

The main threats to India are: insurgency and illegal immigration of Bangladeshis. These amounts to nearly 2 crores. The Supreme Court had given directions in Dec 2004 regarding grant of citizenship and voting rights given to them which should  not  have been done. And that they should have been returned to Bangladesh. But they continue to stay on. Besides, there are intrusions by China and other countries.

In addition, with the increasing pressure in Pakistan, Al Qaeda and ISI activities have been increasing in Bangladesh. As mentioned earlier, there were 195 training camps in Bangladesh which had been giving shelter to militants. According to DG BSF, ISI had shifted training bases for J&K militants to Bangladesh. Internally, the government faces threats from the Fundamentalist Jamaat E Islami in league with BNP.

A prime target of Fundamentalists has been the Hindu community-subjected to loot and threats. Concurrently, Bangladesh’s Home Ministry says that it is difficult to stop infiltration. Although they have made requests for training of BDR at the BSF Academy at Tikampur.

In 2004, Bangladesh Coast Guard discovered a huge quantity of arms and ammunition (2090 MGs,2500 grenades,150 rocket launchers and 1.1 million bullets) which took 10 trucks to carry. These, it was later found, were meant for ULFA and the ISI had a hand in it.

Bangladesh has also been negotiating for weapons and other defence hardware with other countries. In 2008, it finalized a deal for missiles (Otomat Mk 2, SAM radius 180 miles) with a European country.lt negotiated with a Turkish arms dealer for Shorad (short, range AD system)and set up a launch pad at Chittagong with Chinese help and even fired a C-802 (cruise missile) from a Chinese built warship in May 2008.The question is, what happens if these missiles fall in the hands of Fundamentalists?

Inferences

What inferences can be drawn from the very brief preceding scenario?

  1. India needs a special relationship with Bangladesh. Its absence is a sad commentary on the handling of relations with Dhaka in the past. It is time our politicians clearly formulated their views on the exact policy to be followed with Bangladesh. If there are no regional ambitions and status quo is to be maintained, then Bangladesh must be reassured accordingly. But if there are security considerations, then too the country must be told accordingly in no uncertain terms.
  2. India has lost two important opportunities while dealing with Bangladesh. First, when the Indo-Bangladesh Treaty was signed in 1971, clauses like the provision for transit facilities to the north-east and sharing of waters etc., should have been foreseen. Obviously, no foresight was shown. More important, insufficient attention was paid to the likelihood of China expanding its contacts with Dhaka in the future especially when China had already inflicted a defeat on India in 1962. Secondly, India neglected its relations with Bangladesh for nearly 20-25 years after the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Indian intelligence had no clue about this assassination. And now, India is placed in a situation wherein it is not strong or influential enough to exercise any pressure on Bangladesh. At one time, the US wanted to sign a ‘Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA)’ with Bangladesh which would have given them unrestricted movement into Bangladesh by the US armed forces. Should Dhaka choose to sign a treaty with China or the US, whatever influence New Delhi has on Bangladesh will also disappear,

What Should India do?

  1. Sign a fresh Indo-Bangladesh Treaty on the lines of 1971 Friendship Treaty. It should specify in no uncertain terms Indian interests like security, transit facilities to NE states and give similar concessions to Bangladesh for a corridor on Indian territory to Nepal and Bhutan.
  2. Prepare for a situation in case there is another military coup or the Prime Minister is removed. After all, our Foreign Secretary had gone to Dhaka in 2011 to warn Sheikh Hasina of a possible attempt on Her life. This is an issue on which our NSA, NSC, R&AW, NIA, NSAB and the three Chiefs should put their heads together and come out with positive options.
  3. Enter into Confidence building measures with Dhaka.
  4. Let us get in touch more with the people of Bangladesh who have not forgotten the atrocities of Pak Army and still remember liberation by India.
  5. Let us sort out the illegal immigrant problem instead of keeping it pending.
For Advt. Inquiries Contact Us At: colvinaydalvi@missionvictoryindia.com

Conclusion

Bangladesh is now struggling between China and Japan to balance trade related issues. Dhaka and Tokyo are busy in developing the Bay of Bengal as an industrial growth belt besides establishing an exclusive economic zone for Japan at Chittagong. While Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Chi during his visit on 23 Dec 2014 has assured PM Sheikh Hasina that Beijing will always remain by the side of Bangladesh. While she stated that Bangladesh would like to follow China as a role model.

On the other hand the strikes in Bangladesh have hit Indo-Bangladesh badly. Although during the visit of Bangladesh President Abdul Hamid on Dec 92014 to India, our PM assured him that India's Look East policy starts with Bangladesh nothing much has emerged from our Foreign Ministry since the last  visit   by  our   Foreign  Minister  except  that  we  have  been  busy  with  Land   swapping agreement.

Bangladesh, created by the valour of our armed forces is going to remain very important for India as explained in the missive for a long time. It is therefore important for the nation to know as to what exactly is our policy towards Dhaka in the present and changing scenario in the future.

Last Word

It is more than clear that Bangladesh looks for assistance and development. And if New Delhi fails to seize this opportunity, Chinese will be rolling out a large number of projects in India’s soft underbelly which could have grave security implications.

(Maj Gen. VK Madhok is a product of the 1st Course JSW/NDA and was commissioned into the 3 GR. He was the BGS HQ Southern Command and the COS at HQ 4 Corps. He retired as the ADG (TA). He lives in Pune. The author can be reached on Email: majgenvkmadhok@gmail.com)

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