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Indo-Bangladesh Relation in Post Trump Era

 Paper No. 6741                    Dated 25-Jan-2021

By Kazi Anwarul Masud                            

Now that Donald Trump has finally gone the damning of his administration by Francis Fukuyama (Rotten to the Core), Stephen Walt( Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elites), John Mearshiemer’s ( The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities) and many others have not only joined force for the deliberate slide of American international standing, but many like NYT’s Jennifer Rubin’s eulogy of January 21st 2021 (Joe Biden delivers one of the best inaugural addresses in memory) hopes for a better America more inclusive like a middle class foreign policy bringing anew democracies still reluctant to join forces with the US fearing that the country may not again elect an authoritarian President more at home with Capitol burning mob reminiscent of Hitler’s burning of Bundestag than democracies   more at home with peaceful transfer of power.  

Fukuyama exhorted the world to look at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights based on the principle of universal human dignity, “without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status”  as the lodestar.  Thomas Carothers and Andrew O!Donahue( of Carnegie Endowment of International Peace) have described political polarization in South and South East Asia as with entrenched political divides and limiting liberalization of taking faltering steps towards democracy.

 It is surprising that the largest democracy in the world—India—has been bracketed in the group of taking ‘faltering steps” if one were to, constitutional legality aside, India since liberation from British rule in 1947  has been practicing unbroken democratic rule. The recent constitutional changes regarding  status of Kashmir   and persecution of a minority have blighted the Image India had created for decades. This polarization based on religious differences, one hopes, would not only be confined within definable geographical area but also would be temporary in a country that houses people of different ethnic, religious, an identity thus avoiding polarization which India can ill afford. 

 Carothers and O!Donohue observed utilizing “ a common definition of severe polarization developed by Jennifer McCoy and Murat Somer. In their path-breaking recent work, these scholars define severe or “pernicious” polarization as “a process whereby the normal multiplicity of differences in the society increasingly align[s] along a single dimension, cross-cutting differences become reinforcing, and people increasingly perceive and describe politics and society in terms of ‘us’ versus ‘them”.  The authors added the comments by Niranjan Sahoo that  the divide between secular and Hindu nationalist visions of Indian identity forms the crux of polarization.

Although country’s political tensions have been simmering since the 1980s, the Hindu right’s landslide electoral victories in 2014 and 2019 brought polarization to a boil. In the current context of toxic partisanship, attacks on independent institutions have increased, violence against minority communities has flared up, and the electoral success of Hindu nationalist parties has rendered the opposition reluctant to defend pluralism and minority rights. In a panel discussion (Constitution, Democracy, and Citizenship - Circa 2020)  Niranjan Sahoo expressed his opinion for  a need to protect and safeguard the Constitution which remained the mother of not just Indian democracy but also seen as the bible to understand the working of democracy worldwide. He explained how CAA and NRC have become a serious threat to the citizen and the idea of citizenship. He argued, “The citizenship idea will not wither away or be deleted from Constitution but the very notion of its day to day affairs of the Republic is witnessing a sort of systematic erosion. And it is not largely through the constitutional changes but through the politics on street. Sahoo  appealed for the need for more collective action and mobilization as happened in the case of farmer’s agitation and anti-CAA protests.

These unprecedented ideological transformations and unprecedented mobilization can challenge the majoritarian state not just in terms of ideas but also in terms of politics on the streets.   As the Indians themselves are critical of the Central government’s policies so it is natural for the immediate neighbors to be alert as developments in India affect their internal and external policies. Some of Indian neighbors are more affected than others. Bangladesh is the most prominent among them. Muslim population is estimated to be 165 million with a density of 1265 per sq kilometer. Hindu population is estimated to be 13 million or about 9% of the total population. It used to be 30% in 1947. Partition of India and Pakistan was the major reason for the exodus of Hindus from then East Pakistan. It is surmised that the representation of Hindus in government service and in law enforcement agencies is more than in proportion to the Hindu population in Bangladesh.

Besides the imposition of Citizenship Amendment Act in Assam and cross border killing of Bangladeshi citizens by BSF is increasingly becoming an issue of concern to Bangladesh authorities. Yet relations between the two neighbors are and have to be as friendly as possible. India has promised to provide covid vaccine to Bangladesh at the same time as is provided to Indian nationals. The effect of temporary stoppage of the export of onions from India to Bangladesh is of recent memory. Inter-country relations are determined by several factors of which geographical proximity is an important factor.

India and Bangladesh share a common border of 4096 km running through five Indian states, West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram. India’s relations with Bangladesh are traditionally, cultural, social and economic. There is a much that brings them together-a shared history and common heritage linguistic and cultural ties, passion for music, literature and the arts. India shares not only a common history of struggle for freedom and liberation but also enduring feeling of both fraternal as well as familial ties (Javid Ahmad Mir, Research Scholar at School of Social Sciences, Devi Ahlya Viswavidalya , Indore, India). Many opine that Indian help to Bangladesh in 1971 was more dictated by her resolve to dismember Pakistan than to see an immediate neighbor in distress. Hosting about a million refugees from then East Pakistan had put immense pressure on India. If Bangabandhu   

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was the Father of Bangladesh in whose name millions of Bangladeshis fought and won the war of independence then the undeterred resolve and untiring efforts of then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi brought the war of independence to fruition. But for Henry Kissinger’s Machiavellian policy of creating a front with China Indian forces were within striking distance of  capturing  Lahore the second most important city of Pakistan. BBC termed a report by Anthony Mascarehas, then a  Pakistani journalist on genocide committed on unarmed Bengalis  as a first hand report exposing to the world yet unaware of the extent of brutality  committed in the “civilized” society of twentieth century. Similarly Christopher Hitchens in his book Trial of Henry Kissinger named Bangladesh as one of those countries  indicting Henry Kissinger for authorizing in  “Indochina, Bangladesh, Chile, Cyprus, East Timor, and in the plight of the Iraqi Kurds, "including conspiracy to commit murder, kidnap, and torture. "With the precision and tenacity of a prosecutor, Hitchens offers an unrepentant portrait of a felonious diplomat who "maintained that laws were like cobwebs," and implores governments around the world, including our own, to bring him swiftly to justice”. 

Many books and articles have been written on genocide in Bangladesh and should continue to be written so that the world jumping from crisis to crisis do not forget those who laid down their lives for freedom. No less important, perhaps more in many cases, is the economic relations between neighbors. Bangladesh’s dependence on India is considerable given the fact that bilateral trade between India and Bangladesh has grown steadily over the last decade. India’s exports to Bangladesh in FY 2018-19 stood at $9.21 billion and imports during the same period was at $1.04 billion. In comparison, Bangladesh’s trade deficit with China is hugely tilted in Beijing’s favour. Bangladesh being hemmed on three sides by India land related trade is logical option. Besides India’s economy being one of the largest in the world and growing fast ( less than that of China  due to its democratic way of decision making compared to Xi Jiping’s dictatorial way) the opportunity of discussion before decisions are taken is favorable to India’s neighbors used to the practice since the British left Indian subcontinent. In May last year Britain proposed formation of D10—that would include existing G 7 and include India, South Korea and Australia to create a wall of democracies against  external threats from China and other non-democracies admitting at the same time fractures within democracies caused mainly during the Trump years.

As Hal Brands (John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies) pointed out “Most important, Trump’s recognition that the great gamble of post–Cold War foreign policy—the effort to pacify China through integration and, eventually, liberalization—had failed, freed the Pentagon and other agencies to begin crafting a more competitive approach. It took an illiberal president to identify the distortions and illusions that had accumulated within the liberal order—Last Chance for American Internationalism).

Trump has already made history by becoming the first President of the US to be impeached twine for his foolhardy domestic and foreign policies. Whether Joe Biden’s Presidency would be able to fully weather the fallout of Trump’s legacy remains to be seen. For South Asia India’s domestic and foreign policies would remain to have immediate impact.  Bangladesh in particular as the only Muslim majority country in India’s vicinity would need to remain alert.

The writer is a former Secretary and Ambassador in the Foreign Service of Bangladesh.