The recent exodus of hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas from neighboring Myanmar to escape UN described “ethnic cleansing” has revealed the sorry weakness of foreign policy of Bangladesh in a rather sordid manner. With an aggressive Hindutva regime in Delhi, who often steps up anti-Muslim hostility whenever an opening is offered, Dhaka is facing one of the most difficult situations in its history in terms of national security.
Since coming to power through an election in 2008, Bangladesh Awami League has pursued a pro-Delhi foreign policy, and most of the key decisions regarding foreign affairs have borne hallmark of New Delhi’s South Block. Yet, the inept diplomacy has brought very little for Dhaka and isolated it from key Muslim majority countries. Beijing, a key development partner of Dhaka and a rival of Delhi in South Asian affairs, is often annoyed by Dhaka’s over-reliance on Delhi. And Dhaka’s effort of playing both New Delhi and Beijing at the same time flopped spectacularly with the onset of the Rohingya crisis.
New Delhi’s “staying with Myanmar” posture and Beijing’s “Noninterference” gesture has pushed Dhaka into a spot of tight bother. Beijing was surely annoyed when Dhaka did not proceed with Chinese offer of mediation on a dispute over the Rohingyas with Myanmar. But the emptiness of Dhaka’s foreign policy was revealed spectacularly when Narendra Modi during his visit to Myanmar pledged his government’s support for Myanmar administration over the Rohingya crisis.
Failure to rope in New Delhi on Rohingya crisis is only an addition to the long list of “undelivered issues”. Bangladesh is already grappled by water crises in upstream during the dry season, thanks to unilateral water drawing by India from common rivers. Apart from pending Teesta issue, India has already moved forward in building another dam over Barak River. New Delhi unilaterally enjoys transit through the territory of Bangladesh, depriving Dhaka with trades with Bhutan and Nepal. And the never-ending killing Bangladeshis in the border by trigger-happy border force BSF has already made Bangladesh-BSF affair a hate story. All these things got to happen thanks to Dhaka’s “foreign policy”.
The leniency in Dhaka’s foreign affairs led to open Indian interference in Bangladeshi politics by the then Indian foreign secretary Sujata Singh prior to the controversial 2014 national election in Bangladesh. This insulting episode penned by a civil servant of India to weigh in for a political party of Bangladesh clearly demonstrates the hollowness of the foreign policy of Dhaka, which will not be forgotten anytime soon. Failure to secure due rights on water from the common river has frustrated the Bangladeshis, yet Bangladeshi administration is not ready to acknowledge this as the failure!
Over the last 10 years, Bangladesh rapidly delivered many things to India, for instance, smashing up separatists bases inside Bangladeshi territories, transit and transshipment, clearance to joint venture power project inside an ecologically critical area in Sundarbans without assessing environmental aspects properly, opting out from Chinese proposal of building port, zero harassment of large number of undocumented Indians doing job inside Bangladesh. On the other side, India resolved just one major issue on land boundary agreement that too came after 40 odd years of wrangling.
While Dhaka increasingly became inclined to New Delhi, it started to get distanced away from Middle Eastern countries, which are house to a large number of Bangladeshi workers. Since losing touch with those countries, Bangladesh slowly started to lose migrant workers market to other countries. Dhaka sometimes even failed to address issues of Bangladeshi migrant workers when they faced troubles abroad when its “ally” India becomes very active when these issues surface out for its nationals. Dhaka even failed to secure fair treatment from the European Union when it asked to take back illegal migrants that came in with Syrian refugees, it simply did not pay attention to it literally.
The lack of coordination in dealing with the Rohingya crisis drew criticism from the general public. First, without analyzing the situation, Bangladesh proposed joint military drive with Myanmar and pushing back the Rohingyas who were fleeing genocide. Amid harsh criticism and fear of harsh international backlash, the government allowed taking in Rohingya refugees. Yet foreign office in Dhaka did nothing significant to address the issue with Myanmar, rather it took an apologetic tone for Myanmar. While media outlets of Myanmar regularly publishing news about not taking back the refugees again, Dhaka, on the other hand, publicized Myanmar’s efforts of taking them back.
When it came to dealing with serious and aggressive diplomatic maneuvers in forcing the Myanmarese administration to stop the crisis, Dhaka lacked the tone to set the things straight. It failed to cash in concerns raised by other notable Muslim countries on Rohingya crisis, just not knowing what to do as New Delhi had other ideas. Taking a cue from it, Dhaka failed to develop the fruitful relationship with these countries which it could not do before.
Dhaka should have engaged with other notable SAARC countries for piling up pressure on India for not taking up the Rohingya issue with Myanmar. Dhaka had the golden chance of taking the leading role in diplomatic maneuvers for addressing Rohingya crisis, but simply could not avail, simply because of the lack of farsightedness and too much affection for New Delhi.
Dhaka must have to realize that, present BJP government in New Delhi emerged on the back of a communal, hardliner, anti-Muslim agenda, which dreams of an expanded Indian dominion in the name of “Akhand Bharat”. Such expansionist ideology projects threat on Dhaka’s sovereignty and seriously puts it for the quest of a soul search of diplomatic and strategic shift of paradigm.
With the exodus from Myanmar still continuing, the Indian government is taking steps to oust around 3 million Assamese Muslims in to Bangladesh, not to mention its decision to expel forty thousand Rohingyas, that mean’s Bangladesh is on the cusp of a tremendous crisis since its independence, and the communal bandwagon of India is making India in to a Fascist heartland. Knowing all of these, knowing the history of Indian egoistic postures in terms of giving and take, Dhaka has to come up with a robust, dynamic and far-sighted policy, looking beyond Delhi.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy and position of Regional Rapport.