Rohingya crisis reveals reality of India’s relations with Bangladesh

Rohingya crisis reveals reality of India’s relations with Bangladesh

Afsan Chowdhury,
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The Myanmar crisis exposed the long standing strains of Indo-Bangla relations that have been on and off the boil for long. While India is the closest country of Bangladesh, it’s also not a very comfortable holding one. India is not sure how to deal with a small neighbor next door as its focus is much more on being a regional superpower. This is India’s problem with all the South Asian countries though. It’s unfortunately too big to develop a sustainable policy of asymmetric give and take. Meanwhile, Bangladesh thinks India takes it for granted and the bigger player’s Myanmar crisis stance showed it doesn’t have to bother much about the smaller neighbor’s problems.

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The result is that the Myanmar/Rohingya issue has made everyone uncertain about a commonly steered future for both countries creating a gap that China might try to fill. India did invest in supporting Myanmar at the cost of Bangladesh’s interest in the hope of gaining bigger advantages than they have now. But that has not shown up yet including a possible new transit route. A passage to the troubled Indian northeast would free it from Dokhlam’s ‘chicken neck’ corridor anxiety shadowed by a hostile China.

The other transit route exists through Bangladesh but a ‘Sunni Muslim’ country is a part of India’s present Hindutva elite’s paranoia framework hence not fully dependable. On top of that, China has decided to be robust in its presence in Bangladesh, courtesy billions of dollars, several not too useful subs and arms supply in lieu of money. Myanmar has created a proxy contest of sorts between India and China in Bangladesh where after a long time India faces competition in managing its sphere of influence.

Also Read: China reinforces mediation call as Rohingya crisis spirals

The problem for India is that China is very popular in Bangladesh and that is not because noodles are firmly established in its rice eating culinary culture. It’s the same situation in every South Asian country and no matter what the reason India has failed to breed friends in the region. This situation perplexes India because it assumes a common regional future under its lead as given, but that position may be causing all the resentment. India hasn’t handled its unpopularity reduction project with its smaller neighbours too well. But China being a distant geographical neighbor really doesn’t have to do much. It just takes advantage of the anti-Indian feeling.

But India’s deliberate distancing from criticizing the Myanmar regime certainly helps its ambitions in Myanmar – though dividends not yet seen — but doesn’t help in Bangladesh. And China has taken full advantage of that as Bangladesh feels extremely vulnerable. Thus the decision to sign up for OBOR was not a big surprise.

India’s own insecurity in the region is fuelled by its rivalry with China in the region which can make it seem like a difficult-to-deal neighbor. When Bangladesh bought two submarines from China, Indian media reacted angrily and commentators were very hostile. But the relatively useless purchase made Sheikh Hasina, prime minister of Bangladesh, popular in Bangladesh as China was seen as an option other than India. Dependent on both rather than one big power is a prescription for quick popularity as most South Asian leaders by now know.

In case of Myanmar, India’s faux pass was obvious as it attempted to strike a ‘higher level’ of friendship with Myanmar rather than Bangladesh. It took almost a week to say a few words of “we will stand by you” variety, but by then the damage was done. Modi’s focus on terrorism and not on the Rohingya refugees who were pouring into Bangladesh was an error India can perhaps afford but it carries a price however small. Dhaka public opinion was livid and it was the personal intervention of the Indian envoy in Dhaka who brought some relief as well that prevented a total PR disaster for the Indian presence.

As Bangladesh slowly begins to accept the fact that the refugee issue is not going to be immediately settled, India’s lack of support will translate into less dependence on India. Sheikh Hasina may feel freer to make diplomatic decisions and given that elections are on in 2018, a China tilt will certainly be politically more judicious.

But India’s deliberate distancing from criticizing the Myanmar regime certainly helps its ambitions in Myanmar – though dividends not yet seen — but doesn’t help in Bangladesh. And China has taken full advantage of that as Bangladesh feels extremely vulnerable. Thus the decision to sign up for OBOR was not a big surprise.

Since Bangladesh has no military plans and is quite free from worrying about border protection and cross border insurgents, etc, China offers a better bet partly because no offer came from India. Sources say that China alone can push Myanmar on the Rohingya issue and the visit by the Myanmar minister to Dhaka was due to China’s interest. At least that’s what Dhaka believes which means to look upon China as the big ally now.

Also Read: Bangladesh asks Pakistan to join efforts to convince Myanmar to take back Rohingyas

As Bangladesh slowly begins to accept the fact that the refugee issue is not going to be immediately settled, India’s lack of support will translate into less dependence on India. Sheikh Hasina may feel freer to make diplomatic decisions and given that elections are on in 2018, a China tilt will certainly be politically more judicious.

Whether India could have managed its cross border relationship better is another matter but as it has not much influence on Myanmar, China will continue to loom large in Bangladesh. And in that equation, the northeast factor may become bigger part than before as one wonders if India can take Bangladesh’s support on it as a settled issue as Indo-China rivalry finds a new playground.

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