India-Bangladesh Relations: Torn between religious extremism?

18 July 2014; by Siegfried O. Wolf
Source: SADF Bulletin Think South Asia, No. 14, South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF), Brussels; Belgium, pp. 11-13.

Aside significant changes in the foreign policies of Bangladesh and India since gaining independence in 1971, two major keystones can be identified: First, Dhaka’s concerns regarding India’s intention to establish itself as a regional hegemon. Second, New Delhi’s worry that Bangladesh is in the midst of turning into a hub for militancy, supporting separatism in India as well as serving as a sanctuary for Islamic fundamentalism which could destabilize the whole region. As such, the bilateral relations between these two South Asian countries have always been strained. Despite the fact that India supported Bangladesh’s liberation war, an ‘inbuilt distrust’ can clearly be identified in their bilateral relations. What follows is a summary of some of the core domestic and systemic hurdles hampering more fruitful cooperation, before focusing on the topic of religious extremism.

First, as already indicated, there is a perceived threat among Dhaka’s security circles that New Delhi possesses hegemonic ambitions to turn Bangladesh into a client state. The specific geopolitical location of Bangladesh – being almost completely surrounded by India- is one of the main drivers of this enhancing threat perception.

Second, India and Bangladesh share more than 4,000 km long common border. The fact that the porous frontier is not fully demarcated, and cross-border movement has always been difficult to monitor, is a source for conflict; illegal migration (including refugees), and smuggling are taking place persistently. In addition, water-sharing disputes are another longstanding source of tension between the two countries.

Third, New Delhi is not only worried about security challenges caused by water and territorial disputes or illegal (im)migration, but also the steadily emerging ties between Dhaka and Beijing. Especially China’s growing ‘economic development’ projects are viewed as a severe security threat, for example the build-up of the Chittagong port which could be used as an important naval base to improve Chinese maritime operational capabilities in the Indian Ocean region. Nevertheless, India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s (BJP) worry regarding Chinese presence in South Asia will more likely work as a catalyst for bilateral cooperation than a source for conflict. However, in order to be seen as the aforementioned catalyst for cooperation India has to improve its standing in the region and needs to rid itself from the image of a regional bully and develop a coherent and non-ambiguous foreign policy.

Fourth, a specific matter of concern has been the reported increase in activities of Islamic fundamentalist forces within Bangladesh. Besides the fact that post-independence Bangladesh declared quite from the beginning its commitment to secularity and subsequently banned all religious party, today Islamic fundamentalism poses a major threat towards friendly relations with its neighbours. A major reason for the endemic growth of religious extremism in the country is that most of the main actors (military as well as civilians) in Bangladesh not only used Islam to increase their political legitimacy but also instrumentalised Islamist forces in their struggle for political power and other partisan purposes. As a result, religion was established as a crucial and powerful force in Bangladesh’s political arena. It is extremely worrying that today it is rather extremist forces and not moderate voices that shape the contours of the country’s political discourses. This has dramatic consequences. Today, one can find religious extremist elements in all sections of state and society including the country’s leading political-administrative institutions and authorities. This deep entrenchment of Islamic fundamentalist forces granted Bangladesh the unfortunate reputation that its territory not only serves as a training and recruitment hub but also as a launching platform for international jihadist activities. Taking the extraordinary anti-Indian sentiments among the Islamists as well as the porous Bangladesh-India border into account, New Delhi is deeply affected. The persistent danger of internationally active Islamic groups carrying out terrorist activities on India’s soil or destabilizing sensitive areas looms largely in New Delhi’s policy circles. It seems increasingly obvious that there is an unholy ‘marriage of convenience’ between Bangladesh Islamists and Indian insurgent groups in the North East and other volatile regions like Jammu and Kashmir. However, in recent years, certain positive trends have found traction: Foremost the establishment of cooperation with India in order to deal with counter-terrorism and cross-border militancy. Several terrorist groups operating in India that are based in Bangladesh (for example the United Liberation Front of Assam or the National Democratic Front of Bodoland) have been weakened by coordinated Indian and Bangladeshi actions. Nevertheless, the enduring growth of Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh remains a major regional and international concern.

To sum up, besides all disputes and conflicts it seems that points of cooperation and sustainable frameworks have emerged which could work towards an improvement of Indo-Bangladesh relations. In the past, many diplomatic initiatives have been outmaneuvered by opposition members or members of the own (fragmented) coalition. Furthermore, due to the fact that national governments in the recent past were not stable, regional players had much space to undermine the country’s foreign policy. Today the rules of the game are in the midst of being redefined. New Delhi is witnessing a remarkably strong and most likely very stable government after a landslide victory of the National Democratic Alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2014 parliamentary elections. This not only grants the central government more autonomy more autonomy in foreign policy decision-making but also the opportunity for its implementation, understood as passing an ‘agenda’ through the parliament. As such, initiatives like the Land Boundary or Teesta Water-Sharing Agreements, which were permanently paralyzed in the past, could be reanimated if New Delhi and Dhaka possess the necessary political will. Nevertheless, one should not underestimate the veto power of oppositional or anti-systemic forces like the Sangh Parivar in India or the Islamic fundamentalists in Bangladesh. Therefore, in order to achieve sustainable, constructive India-Bangladesh relations it will be essential to have a firm stance against religious extremism and keep them out of the public-societal and political arena. Therefore, one must observe how far Prime Minister Modi is following his BJP predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee in trying to establish friendly relations with neighbouring countries and keep the hardliners within the rank and files of the Hindu-nationalist movement in check. Here, it is most likely that the radical pole of the Sangh Parivar (network of Hindu-nationalist movement organizations) will understand – like during the Vajpayee government – the ‘power of the purse’ which can be only ensured through constructive approaches between South Asian states.