Dangers and dilemmas of Bangladesh-India defence deal

Dangers and dilemmas of Bangladesh-India defence deal

Adam Abdullah,

With a possible defense deal between Bangladesh and India in the pipeline, stakeholders on both sides of the border wait with bated breath to see what actually materializes. The forthcoming India visit of Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is generating more than the usual interest as, despite a multitude of agreements and treaties down the decades, defense has always remained a touchy topic between the two neighbors.

On the Bangladesh side, the trepidation is palpable. The Indian side, on the other hand, is all gung-ho about the deal and sees no reason for any debate or delay. The two sides to this particular coin are diametrically different.

Bangladesh-India relations are presently at an all time high. The Awami League government, in various terms, has always had excellent ties with India, from the time of the 1971 independence struggle and down till now.

A large section of the people on the Bangladesh side, however, feels that the relationship lacks balance. The give-and-take, in their opinion, is more of all give and no take, with India on the receiving side. Whether it is trade, communications, diplomacy, cultural exchange or any other field, India somehow seems to get the upper hand. This is seen as a Big Brother syndrome.

Having been granted almost all that it has wanted from Bangladesh, though rather reticent to reciprocate, now India feels that there is need for better coordination and cooperation among the armed forces of the two neighboring countries.

Says Indian researcher and analyst Joyeeta Bhattacharjee in a recent article, “Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will be visiting India between 7th and 10th of April and plethoras of agreements are likely to be signed then. Among the various agreements, the two countries will be signing the defense cooperation agreement which has been getting the most attention. The defense cooperation will further deepen the ties between the two countries growing steadily in past few years.”

However, the Bangladesh media is not quit so optimistic about the deal and nor are the political and military analysts. Defense is an extremely sensitive issue and so far Bangladesh has fiercely maintained its own control over this sector. The Indian media actually has a propensity to blame its counterpart in Bangladesh about the negative attitude towards the proposed defense deal. It says the much of the reservation in Bangladesh against the agreement is due to some media reports which claimed the agreement was proposed to balance Chinese influence in that country.

India seems to hint at some sort of paranoia on the part of Bangladesh. But are there no facts to substantiate the reservations on the Bangladesh side? Is it paranoia, or it is pragmatism? It hardly was a secret that India was none too pleased at Bangladesh’s purchase of two submarines from China recently. The arrival of the submarines was followed rapidly by a visit from the Indian defense secretary.


Sources involved in talks at the time state that questions were raised as to why such a purchase was made and against whom would such military strength was aimed?

Interestingly, in army training there are certain exercises involving war games. There has to have a perceived enemy. In Bangladesh’s ‘war games’, the perceived enemy was always ‘Wolf Land’. ‘Wolf Land’ referred to India. The ‘Wolf Land’ referral was only changed some time back. But the question is, has there been inwardly changes of mindset within the army along with this outwardly change?

Coming back to the proposed defense deal, initially it was heard that Bangladesh and India would be signing a defense pact during Sheikh Hasina’s Indian trip. This was met with a volley of protests from the civil society, the media, and other quarters within Bangladesh. A pact was perceived as too binding and restrictive. How the proposal was taken within the military establishment itself is not ascertained, but assumptions are that it would be adverse.

The Bangladesh government itself perhaps was in a dilemma. With elections on the horizon, it could hardly afford an Indo-phile image. Sheikh Hasina is well aware that its pro-Indian leaning did not go down well with the general public, that is, the voters. That is why, after all these years, she came up with the issue of ‘RAW’s interference in Bangladesh election in 2001, which brought BNP to power. Deep down Hasina, a seasoned leader, knows very well that Bangladeshis at the core are basically not in favour of India’s interferences in Bangladesh. She made this remark to keep her home constituency happy. A pragmatic politician, she also decided to look East. The visit of Chinese president Xi Jin Ping, the signing of deals with China worth over US$24 billion, Chinese involvement in Bangladesh’s infrastructural development, Chinese goods flooding the Bangladesh market and replacing the made-in-India products, all are ample evidence of growing strong ties with China.

To all appearances, this has not gone down well with India and the purchase of the submarines was apparently the last straw. After all, India contends to be a regional super power while China’s powers have gone way beyond the region and is now one of the global superpowers. They have always had, and still maintain, sharp regional rivalry and India could hardly stomach its faithful ally going over that camp.

Prime Minister Hasina may have displayed astute diplomacy in warming up to China to maintain a balanced foreign policy, but will she be able to do so? It seems as if she has received a symbolic rap on the knuckles and thus will be signing the defense deal to get back into the neighbor’s good books.

Details of the agreement have been kept under the wraps. While in Bangladesh, the media and the public are being reassured that this will not be a binding deal, but merely a memorandum of understanding (MOU), the reports are not all that convincing. Sources in India say there are impressions from the reports in the media that the agreement will be for 25 years, despite Bangladesh’s claim of a non-binding MOU.

Why is India so insistent on such a binding long-term agreement from a friendly nation? The answer perhaps lies in the contention of analyst Joyeeta Bhattacharjee, a researcher with Observer Research Foundation, an Indian think tank who writes: “A formal mechanism becomes crucial because of the nature of the bilateral relations that fluctuate with the change of regime in Bangladesh. India and Bangladesh relations are dependent of the mindset of the political party in power in Bangladesh.”

Bhattacharjee’s statement is significant. It indicates that while this government may be conducive to such deals, another government might not. But the fact remains that Bangladesh is a democracy and it is the people’s opinions that count. How can a government go ahead and sign a pact which may go contrary to the will of the people? The insistence on such a long-term agreement only goes to show that this may not be what the people want and can probably be overturned with the entrance of the next regime. Only  legally binding deal can do the trick.

The Indian side, through various media outlets, tries to put up a convincing argument that Bangladesh will benefit immensely from India’s arms market. They say that India is the largest buyer of arms globally and soon will be a major arms supplier. Multinational companies are opening production and assembly lines in India. “Bangladesh should take his opportunity as it can get state-of-the-art technology closer to home,” say Indian observers. So is India looking for a market to sell its arms? Bangladesh seems an easy customer.

They say that with the offer of technology transfer, this is an opportunity for Bangladesh to also progress towards manufacturing of arms and thus improving Brand Bangladesh, producer of high-end technology.

Bangladesh experts have outright said that a defence deal with India has no relevance. It is apparent that the main thrust of the perceived agreement will be technology transfer, joint arms production and arms trade. This will close all windows of buying arms from third country.

At a recent seminar in Dhaka organized by a leading Bangladesh daily, security expert and president of Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies president, retired Major General ANM Muniruzzaman said about the proposed deal, “It is not clear why there is a need for military cooperation or why India is so insistent about this proposal. The Indian media is speaking about joint manufacture. That means certain restrictions will be placed on our procurement. As it is, small states always have certain limitations. We must take this into consideration and keep national interests in mind when we take any steps.”

Muniruzzaman went on to say, “In Nepal’s defence pact with India, purchase of arms from a third country would require discussions at first. India blocked Nepal from purchasing air defence missiles from China.” He said it was important to see if there would be any such restrictions if Bangladesh enters into any such deal.

Former ambassador retired Major General  Jamil D Ahsan has asked, “Why has there suddenly been a need for a defence deal? If we are close friendly nations, we can adopt friendly means to address border management, growing threats of militancy and other security risks.  We have always been giving India more. We openly took a stand against their northeast insurgents and handed them over to India. There needs to be extensive discussions at a technical level before any final decision on such technical matters.”

Former foreign secretary Mohammed Touhid Hossain bluntly said there is no need for any deal regarding defence. He said, “If India gets into a war with any of its neighboring states, will it need Bangladesh’s help? I see no reason for this deal.”