MNA Editorial Desk: India, one of the uprising superpowers of the world, is the greatest economy and entity of South Asia. It has immense influence over almost all of its South Asian neighbours. But visibly it has strong issues with powerhouses like China with decade long tensions with neighbouring country Pakistan. During the recent conflicts, it was observed that China is trying to develop better relationships with the neighbours of India and it is nothing surprising as any country with such an enormous economy will try to spread its influence. Both the countries have engaged in numerous small to medium scale conflicts during the recent months. But to save the supremacy in the region, India should take steps to improve and stabilize its relation with its neighbours especially Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan.
Coming to power in 2014, the BJP-led coalition under the leadership of Narendra Modi considered fostering ties with neighbouring countries, a key foreign policy priority. It was in this context that the heads of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) states were invited for the swearing in ceremony of the Modi government. It was a highly appreciated Indian foreign policy initiative toward cultivating cross border relations. Subsequently, Modi decided to make his first foreign trip as prime minister to Bhutan, a move that surprised many strategic and foreign policy experts in Delhi. While Modi’s visit sent a clear signal about how important neighbours are for India, the country is unfortunately facing severe trust issues from the neighbours during the last decade.
The ongoing China-India conflict could reverberate in the geopolitical dimensions of South Asia, leading to new relations in the region. Contrary to beliefs that rivalry between China and India makes the relations with other neighbours vulnerable, Bangladesh emerges as a curious case. India shares the longest part of their border with Bangladesh. It has long been important for India to maintain a positive working relationship with Bangladesh to strengthen security and border management. It has also been pertinent for China as well to maintain a welcoming relationship with Bangladesh.
The India-Bangladesh relationship goes back to the birth of Bangladesh. India was one of the first countries to recognize the sovereignty of Bangladesh and establish diplomatic ties in 1971. Beijing began its diplomatic relations with Dhaka in 1976. China-Bangladesh relations began as a process of comprehensive cooperation for trade, economic cooperation, and technology exchange.
Historically, India and Bangladesh have maintained close relations. In 2014, when Modi was elected in India, a diplomatic fall-out was assumed. However, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina continued to sustain close ties with India and both the heads of government worked toward strengthening their mutual agreements and diplomatic ties.
On the other hand, China was extending relations with South Asian countries to form and maintain its domination in South Asia. That interconnected well with Bangladesh’s “Look East” policy, which is essentially designed to open up new avenues of cooperation with China and Southeast Asia. China replaced India as the top trade partner in Bangladesh in 2015. As a member of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Bangladesh has received Beijing’s support in its economical development.
Meanwhile, India’s solid relationship with Bangladesh turned bitter after August 2019, when Indian government completed the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the northeastern state of Assam. NRC is meant to verify citizenship and rule out illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Over 1.9 million people were left out of the Assam NRC, creating concern for Bangladesh over the possibility of a sudden influx of people forced out of the Indian state while it was already in huge trouble with around a million Rohingya refugees. When the Indian home minister mentioned a plan for an all-India NRC in the Indian parliament, it caused unease for Bangladesh.
In December, a new citizenship law, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019 followed the India-wide NRC announcement. This act, in brief, provided Indian citizenship to persecuted religious minorities from Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Pakistan who had entered India by December 31, 2014. This brought a new concern for Bangladesh, as India indirectly implied the poor treatment of religious minorities in Bangladesh and brought negative publicity for Dhaka. A feeling of detachment formed between India and Bangladesh.
The much-protested new citizenship law in India also saw protests in Dhaka ahead of Modi’s scheduled visit in March 2020 which was eventually scrapped due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This was the first time that people of Bangladesh protested against the Indian prime minister. The rising tensions over the new citizenship law pushed the public consensus of Bangladesh toward China. While China is building up strong affiliation with Bangladesh by being its greatest development partner, India is also in process of ramping up its relations with Bangladesh.
India should address and solute the long-term issues like; Teesta Barrage conflict, border killings, water sharing agreement implementation, trade deficit reduction, visa free transit, connecting roads including Nepal and Bhutan etc. Moreover, they should extend full support towards Bangladesh in Rohingya repatriation.
Among all South Asian countries, India has the most influence on its land-locked neighbour Nepal. But its relationship with Nepal is also under test. On May 8, India’s defence minister virtually inaugurated a new 80 km-long road in the Himalayas, connecting to the border with China, at the Lipulekh pass. The Nepali government protested immediately, contending that the road crosses territory that it claims and accusing India of changing the status quo without diplomatic consultations. The issue had come up in November last year, when India announced its new political map, after the revocation of Article 370, as for many decades before, the Indian map continued to include territories claimed by Nepal, but this time the government in Kathmandu took it up officially and publically. The bilateral crisis seems to now be stuck in a stalemate, a worrisome trend in otherwise friendly India-Nepal relations.
Nepal is a country with huge young population and these youngsters are not fond of Indian dominance over their economy as the country was heavily dependent on India in economic activities. When this border conflict got added with that along with increasing Chinese influence, the anti-Indian sentiments went sky-high and India was into visible conflicts with another neighbour.
For another South Asian neighbour of India, Bhutan, economic dependency on India, the huge trade deficit and hydropower have generated serious concerns in Bhutan about India’s real intentions. In fact, there are sections of experts and others who feel that India’s sole aim is to exploit Bhutan’s market and its natural resources for its benefits. Sadly, India has not yet taken concrete efforts to address this range of concerns in Bhutan. Though India has extended serious economic benefits to Bhutan, one of its tested partners, there still remain several concerns in the heart of the Bhutanese people.
Along with these, India has serious border conflicts with Pakistan, which may remain an eternal issue. China is also taking aggressive military policies against India. Moreover, extreme spread of COVID-19 has become a grave concern for the country. Considering all these facts, India is going through a critical phase which will decide on its status as a global superpower.
Bangladesh has been a great friend of India. The history of Bangladesh’s independence is full of India’s contribution in all aspects. The similarities between the cultures of the two countries are remarkable and the people of the both countries share a strong bond. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the architect of the fast development of Bangladesh during the last decade, also showed immense respect to the friendship of the two nations. Bangladeshi people will always appreciate India’s supremacy over the world economy.
To attain that, we hope India will take some drastic steps to solute the long term issues with its loyal neighbors like; Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. Moreover, they must do everything to make the neighbors comfortable and secured. If India can stabilize its position among its tested allies in the current context, then there is no doubt that, they will uphold their economic supremacy as well as will contribute in restoring regional peace. We hope India reshapes its regional policies and helps make this region an economic example to the world.
The writer is Chief Editor at Mohammadi News Agency (MNA), Editor at Kishore Bangla and Vice-Chairman, Democracy Research Centre (DRC)