Indo-Bangla relations and the “termite” problem
0 comments | by Afsan Chowdhury
Indian’s ruling party BJP leader Amit Shah has called ‘illegal Bangladeshis’ as “termites” which will be cleaned out from the woodwork of Assam in particular. Its not just the unseemly language coming from a major political leader of the most powerful state around that is disturbing. Its also an indicator of the heightened tension in the region. Politicians are sending out signals that different types of ethnic cleansing will now be part of the future in the region. The fact that Rohingyas are already in Bangladesh here is an example that shows more are coming. It also reinforces the complex international political equations, both internal and external. The time for less peace and lesser tolerance will now be part of the regional dynamics. It’s the bigger powers which shall call the shots only and the smaller countries will have less space and participation.
There are several brews simmering in the region which was once exclusively dominated by India and now challenged by China with both strategic and commercial objectives. That rivalry which was once limited to border skirmishes between China and India now affects every state in the region. Today, South Asian countries are part of this complex rivalry that is both internal and cross border. China has been pushing in into one SA country after another diluting India’s exclusive domination. Nepal and Sri Lanka are considered to be closer to China while Pakistan is of course its ally against India. Three countries were considered a mixed bag. They were Bangladesh, Bhutan and Maldives. However, in Maldives the situation has changed dramatically with Beijing’s ally routed by the pro-Indian party by a popular vote. This example has altered the equation a bit showing power based external rivalry needs balancing with internal political dynamics. Bhutan the quiet country is actually a smart player which has managed to retain a semblance of autonomy given its historic connections with India and proximity to China. But the reality of Doklam nearby at which point, India and China stare angrily at each other and occasionally skirmish is a reminder of the fragility of regional peace.
Which leaves good old Bangladesh …
Bangladesh has been with India for long. It was friend number 1 in 1971 but relations cooled rapidly and after 1975 it almost froze. During the BNP era, Bangladesh helped out the North East militants as a counter ploy to Indian pressure and hyped anti-Indian sentiments to gain leverage. India was however much weaker two-three decades back and not the current regional behemoth it is now. India is Bangladesh’s biggest fact of life in every possible way and a love-hate-need relationship exists. Awami League has managed to convince India of its usefulness by denying sanctuary and support to NE rebels and granting transit rights. In other words, Bangladesh too is part of India’s security and strategic calculations. Meanwhile, China has entered the scene with a loud display of its dollar power. It was once an enemy in 1971, became friendly after 1975 and continues as its economic clout grows. Its investments have allowed China to become muscular and that was also welcomed as a counter balance to Indian muscle in Bangladesh. However, its backing of Myanmar who drove out the Rohingyas has weakened its strategic influence, making it a more economic than a political presence. Its popularity has dipped which again shows the fragility of any permanent status in regional politics. Suddenly, all this maths is threatening to become complex with the Assam termite issue.
The Assam termite factor
If India does undertake termite control measures, Bangladeshis will fall into even deeper waters. Already reeling from the Rohingya pressure, it may force Sheikh Hasina to consider more options beyond India which means greater reliance on China. Public pressure in Bangladesh will be high to stop holding Indian hands as often as it’s done now. If public resentment turns into active hostility, the potential for instability may rise equally. Call to use the North East card will begin and may translate into a political demand, however far fetched the strategy is. The pressure of being seen as less India friendly may become politically advantageous. How AL handles that will have to be seen. Given India’s economic preponderance including the very large number of its citizens working in Bangladesh, there is stake for India too. These expat workers are already resented and how they will be welcomed in post termite cleansing operations even though they provide skills and services will be interesting to see. At this point, no one can say what will happen but if India is serious the bad news for Bangladesh can be even worse news for the incumbent government having to face two massive refugee influx and a possible rise in internal reaction, much of it unpredictable.