The Costly Neighbor: From Delhi to Dhaka with Hope

Relations between the two neighbors, India and Bangladesh, began before Bangladeshi independence in 1971, and continued when it was a newly born republic under the leadership of the Awami League. Conflict followed the Bangladeshi declaration of independence, with Pakistan launching Operation Searchlight on March 26, 1971 in an effort to curb the nationalist movement in East Pakistan (which we today call Bangladesh). Pakistani forces also arrested Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the leader of the Awami League and the separatist movement. The operation concluded with reestablishment of Pakistani military rule over East Pakistan. However, local militias united and formed the Mukti Bahini, or Freedom Fighters, the men who would ultimately (with the aid of the Indian Armed forces) overthrow the Pakistani authorities.

To assess the situation to its east and India’s role in it, Indira Gandhi and her cabinet met in New Delhi. Tensions with Pakistan had begun as early as 1947. Partition split the country into two separate dominions, the Muslim-dominated regions of East and West Pakistan, and Hindu-majority India. Indira Gandhi was thoroughly familiar with the refugee situation, whose numbers had crossed 10 million, and decided it was time to act. Tajuddin Ahmad, the first Prime Minister of the Bangladesh Provisional Government in Exile, requested Indira Gandhi’s support and aid in the conflict. Gandhi responded by offering limited military assistance to the Bengali fighters. Thus, the diplomatic relationship between India and Bangladesh was born.

Many Awami League and Mukti Bahini officials contemplated Indian involvement in their struggle. Some leaders felt that it was necessary for a total victory over Pakistan; others felt that this would lead to a power struggle between India and Pakistan and the root cause of the conflict would be lost. Some saw this as an Indian attempt at occupying Bangladesh.

After much consideration, tactically and politically, Pakistan launched Operation Chengiz Khan, a series of pre-emptive airstrikes on eleven Indian airfields on December 3, 1971. However, the operation failed as the Indian Air Force had already relocated and secured their aircraft in bunkers. The same evening, Indira Gandhi addressed the nation and formally declared war on the neighbors to the west.

The India-Pakistan war of 1971 had begun. With India on its side, the Mukti Bahini was reinforced. India-Bangladesh relations became more influential and the basis for long diplomatic ties was set. After thirteen days of war, on December 16, 1971, Pakistani forces surrendered to the Indian-Bangladeshi force. 93,000 Pakistani POWs were captured and, at the same time, a new age of diplomatic relations was born. This relationship was soon to be engaged in controversy and speculation around borders, political corruption, and socioeconomic development.

 

Relations after the war

The war was followed by Indian occupation of many major cities of Bangladesh. Indira Gandhi wasted no time and immediately recognized the Bangladeshi government as did many other countries. Angered by the horrific defeat, Pakistan approached the United States and China and requested neither recognize the new government. Pakistan also requested the United Nations not to recognize the Bangladeshi government. China vetoed the resolution for Bangladesh’s UN membership.

With help from the Indian National Congress and the militaries of both countries, the Awami League was declared the political authority in the region. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman returned and was declared the President of Bangladesh. After taking power, the Awami League requested the Indian government withdraw all its forces from Bangladesh, which, they did. For the time being, Bangladesh was handled by the League well.

In 1972, however, the Awami League imprisoned newspaper editors and shut down all newspapers in the country except for four publications. In 1974, with deaths from the famine mounting, India continued to assist Bangladesh and provided all the possible help it could give.

After a series of leftist uprisings in the region, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, with support from India, established the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (BAKSAL). This national party abolished all other political parties in the country, making Mujibur Rahman the president for life. With this political leeway, Mujibur Rahman now had control over the country; however, he would be assassinated in August 1975.

After 1975, the diplomatic relationship between India and Bangladesh turned sour. The development of the Farakka Barrage, a dam built to divert water from the Ganges to the Hooghly River, was discussed. The dam would create a series of disagreements between the two countries. Disputes also emerged relating to free and fair elections, terrorism, human trafficking, illegal immigration, and maritime issues.

 

Scope for Cooperation

During Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Bangladesh, many unanswered issues resurfaced, including the question of counter-terror cooperation. The most important issues are only resolved when agreements are made that suit both sides. It is important to understand that the ball has left Modi’s court; it is now up to how quickly the Bangladeshi government agrees to work with India on issues such as terrorism and the Farakka Barrage.  Let us look at how crucial this cooperation is for both countries.

India and Bangladesh have taken a joint stand on the issue of terrorism. Both nations have expressed their will to unite and fight against terrorism, which has been a problem for both countries. Before leaving for Bangladesh, PM Modi invited Bangladesh to join hands with India to counter terrorism. During his trip, India and Bangladesh agreed on sharing classified information relating to any terrorist activities along their border and reaffirmed their “unequivocal and uncompromising position against extremism and terrorism in all forms and manifestations.”

Likewise, India and Bangladesh would benefit from cooperation on illegal immigration and human trafficking. Bangladeshi and Indian leaders routinely discuss the challenges of illegal migration. It is important to understand that while the border with West Bengal is heavily guarded, it remains porous. India’s election of a strong-willed Hindu nationalist also frightens many Bangladeshis with regard to religious and ethnic disputes. My assessment, after visiting a few of Modi’s campaign rallies, was that he was looking to keep ‘India for Indians.’ Both countries would benefit from productive cooperation in the area of illegal migration. India has on numerous occasions discussed the issue of human trafficking with Bangladesh.  I wonder what the mood in the room was when Modi, Mamta Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal, and Sheikh Hasina sat on the same table discussing.

The way I see it, Modi’s new foreign policy shall make an impact on Sheikh Hasina’s cabinet. Everything depends on how quickly and seriously she will take action.

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Image: Indian Ministry of External Affairs, Flickr

Posted in , Bangladesh, Cooperation, History, India, Politics

Anant Mishra

Anant Mishra

Anant Mishra is a former Youth Representative to the United Nations. He has served extensively in United Nations General Assembly, the Security Council along with the Economic and Social Council. He is also a visiting faculty for numerous universities and delivers lectures on political economics and foreign policies.

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2 thoughts on “The Costly Neighbor: From Delhi to Dhaka with Hope

  1. Awesome piece. I think the India-Bangladesh relationship is often overlooked (I personally don’t know anything about it), but super interesting.

    Are Indian domestic politics a factor in Indian policy toward Bangladesh? For example, has the Congress party been more hawkish on Bangladesh in the past or the BJP?

    Thanks.

  2. Anant – a really interesting and informative piece, particularity the historical background you offer. You argue that cooperation is crucial for both countries, and that the ball is effectively in Bangladesh’s court. How likely do you think the government is to make real process re: cooperation on counter-terrorism and humanitarian issues (trafficking, migration)? Also, what’s been holding them back in the more recent past?

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