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Bangladesh: Indian Imperatives for a Comprehensive Strategic Investment:

Paper No.5416                                         Dated 5-Mar-2013

By Dr Subhash Kapila

Bangladesh today is at critical crossroads in its national history where under the able and visionary leadership of the present Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is surging towards a radical transformation of purging Bangladesh of Islamist bigotry and fundamentalism from its political dynamics.

In motion today is a widespread upsurge of Bangladesh’s Generation X on the streets of the nation demanding that Bangladesh exorcise its political life of the ghosts of 1971 who collaborated with the Pakistan Army in inflicting genocide on Bangladesh and barbarity against women in untold numbers. The sentences of hanging of a number of Jamaat leaders for behaving treacherously during Bangladesh’s Liberation War in 1971stand widely welcomed by Bangladesh’s Generation X and this is a heartening factor for Bangladesh political dynamics.

The violent reactions by the supporters fundamentalist Islamist organisations was also an expected corollary to the above and it is no surprise that this has been met with strong Government ripostes in terms of management of Islamist organisations inspired violence

 Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina seems determined to put Bangladesh on the path towards emergence as an Islamic moderate, democratic and stable nation. Her present struggle should be welcomed by India and all major nations like the United States who believe in democratic orders and democratic institutions.

India carries a heavier weight in this direction in terms of comprehensive strategic engagement and partnership with Bangladesh. India has legitimate strategic interests in the stability and security of Bangladesh as an Indian national security imperative.

Bangladesh under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has amply demonstrated in her second tenure as Prime Minister from 2009 onwards that Bangladesh’s foreign policy formulations on India were positive and shedding prevailing political mind-sets in Bangladesh that propagated that India was the source of all Bangladeshi national insecurities.

The record from 2009 amply indicates that Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has steered away Bangladesh’s traditional policies of “balancing India “ by closer proximity to China and Pakistan to one of a “balanced and equitable policy” with more positive initiatives towards India.

On this note what one would like to stress is that in the last few years India and Bangladesh have engaged in mutually beneficial engagements on countering terrorists threats and sharing of intelligence, all of which transcend some of the divergences on water-sharing and exchange of enclaves. The credit for this goes to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for injecting some strategic realism in the Bangladesh political establishment.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina today seems to be at critical crossroads with Islamist reactionary elements waging a vicious violent campaign against her Government to create unmanageable law and order situations to disrupt the on-going campaign to try and sentence Bangladeshi war-criminals for the atrocities committed against their own countrymen. This seems to be a survival campaign to retain their relevance in the political scheme of things in Bangladesh and an effort in which external aid and support to the Islamist groups cannot be ruled out. It could turn into a more vicious and violent campaign.

Such external sources ranging from Pakistan to Gulf Region countries would not like Bangladesh to emerge as a moderate and democratic entity. This also needs to be viewed from the perspective of tying down India on its vulnerable Eastern Flank by use of proxy Islamist anti-Indian groups. It also ranges to changing the demographic profiles in India’s border states like Assam and Eastern Bihar.

With the above backdrop it should be evident that it is in India’s national security interests to work out comprehensive strategic investments in Bangladesh to ensure that the Bangladesh Government under the leadership of PM Sheikh Hasina continues to be stable and strong to successfully overcome the challenges posed by the Islamist supporters of the Bangladeshi war criminals mostly belonging to the Jamaat. It is not to suggest that India intervenes in the domestic politics of Bangladesh.

Politically, this would involve devising strategies of clear political preferences in terms of Indian support and patronage. It would also involve that such anti-Bangladeshi elements are not able to obtain sanctuaries within India on the strength of facilitation by local Islamist fringe elements furthering Pakistani etc. designs. Politically it may also be considered whether it is wise to play host to the Bangladeshi main Opposition leaders on their visits to India as the Jammat is one of the coalition partners of the Opposition coalition. The last minute cancellation of her meeting with President Pranab Mukherjee by Opposition leader Beum Khaleda Zia has been a sorry episode which highlights that for narrow political gains the main Opposition Party in Bangladesh slinked away from a scheduled meeting just to indicate that they are not hob-knobbing with India.

In terms of making substantial political investments in Bangladesh, India needs to adopt a more magnanimous stance on contentious issues like the Teesta Waters and other such issues. Political concessions made by India in this realm could buttress the Bangladesh PMs political standing in her nation at a critical juncture and offset her critics’ main criticism of selling Bangladesh short on crucial issues.

In the economic sphere India could contribute handsomely by harnessing its vast economic resources, both at the Government level and by incorporating India’s private sector, for the economic betterment og Bangladesh economy, by economic aid, joint ventures and infrastructure development projects. This could jumpstart Bangladesh’s economy, increase employment opportunities and thereby reduce political frustrations affecting Bangladesh stability. Imbalances in Bangladesh-India trade would need to be corrected.

In the economic sphere sizeable Indian financial investments in Bangladesh infrastructure, especially those contributing to Bangladesh east-west connectivity would greatly add to India’s image as it has happened in Afghanistan. The strategic dividends accruing to India by such a strategy would be significant.

India needs to enhance her defence and security cooperation with Bangladesh all across the board from capacity building of Bangladesh Armed Forces, to military aid and extending to joint training and joint exercises between the two Armed Forces. Intelligence sharing between the two countries needs to be more intensified in view of the unsettled conditions in Bangladesh with a focus on Eastern Bihar and North West Bengal via which external aid using Nepal as the staging point is likely to be pushed into Bangladesh. There may even be a case for making India’s border security management in these areas to plug routes of anti-Bangladesh infiltration into Bangladesh.

Fortunately for India, there appears to be a significant convergence of strategic interests of United States and India over Bangladesh’s strategic significance and its place in the overall strategic scheme of things of Asia Pacific security. The increasing strategic profile of the United States in Bangladesh security should provide adequate ballast against those likely to be hysterical about India’s comprehensive strategic investments in Bangladesh.

More often than not, the forging of strategic partnerships between nations is driven by personality-centric factors and the case of Bangladesh it is no exception. In Bangladesh today, at a time when Bangladesh is standing at critical crossroads in terms of national identity, India has a sincere friend in Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina, imbued with a great sense of establishing fruitful and cooperative relations with India with mutual benefits to both countries,

 Should India be found wanting at this juncture or should it not over-extend its strategic outreach to assist Bangladesh emerging as a stable moderate Islamic democratic nation on India’s eastern flank ?