Foreign interference is a troublesome part of Bangladesh’s history. The country’s top political parties are known for their selective foreign affiliations. While the Awami League has a well-documented history of leaning towards India, the BNP and its allies are highly criticized for their connection with the USA and the Islamic world. Unfortunately, Bangladesh’s political, economic, and social activities are largely influenced by India, USA, China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the rest of the Islamic world. According to experts, India’s influence in Bangladesh’s politics is at an all-time high right now.
Alongside, China in business and trade, USA in the oil-gas-mineral resources economy, and Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Islamic issues, are all visibly affecting Bangladesh.
History of political interference Historically, Bangladesh has been subject to foreign influence and its aftermath far too many times. Since ancient times, foreigners have shown interest in this part of the world, and some powerful rulers even succeeded in invading Bengal multiple times. In the Pal, Maurya, Sultanate, and Mughal eras, Bengal was ruled by many foreign leaders, and its capital city was shifted multiple times. In 1757, Bengal, along with the rest of Greater India, came under British rule that lasted for almost 250 years. With the fall of the British Empire in India, and partition in 1947, present day Bangladesh became the eastern wing of erstwhile Pakistan. Bangladesh earned its independence through the glorious Liberation War in 1971. The birth of this nation did not come easily; a lot of sacrifices had to be made for it. Since the very inception of liberated Bangladesh, foreign influence started to intensify again. As a result, the 1974 famine, followed by the 1975 assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman took place. While India and Pakistan were the two prime players in terms of foreign influence in Bangladesh politics, world powers like the USA, Russia, and China also had invisible hands influencing the politics of this country.
Abul Hasan Chowdhury Former state minister for foreign affairs
The current political crisis is not the result of stubbornness of the BNP and Awami League chiefs. The main crisis is the question of whether our nationalism and progressive outlook will survive or not. Only the people of this country can answer that question, not the political leaders. Change in leadership is not the main factor; important is to prevent foreign interference in our internal matters. Staying independent is the main goal we should try to achieve. The current political crisis is the result of years of foreign intrusion. The people of Bangladesh have stood up against foreign power-driven political parties many times, and almost wiped them out through elections. However, foreign influence still exists, and it is still very relevant in our politics. Foreign powers cook up various schemes to bring their domesticated parties to power. When the ruling government decided to bring the war criminals to justice, various international vested interest groups and powerful countries tried to stop it. As a part of that process, the World Bank and its partner banks suspended their funding and loans to Bangladesh for the construction of the Padma Bridge. There have been attempts to topple the government as well, which the government has successfully foiled.
India has enjoyed substantial regional influence across South Asia due to its size, comparative economic might, and historical and cultural relevance to the region. India’s influence in Bangladesh’s politics began even before the birth of the nation and has changed its course over the years.
The influence of India goes way beyond politics. Economically and culturally, the two countries are almost intertwined together. Historically, Awami League has always maintained a closer tie to India than its counterpart BNP, and has been criticized by many for being too submissive to India’s demands. The last couple of deals between the two countries, especially the Rampal power plant project, have received massive criticism from political analysts and the general public alike, because Bangladesh seems to be giving in to India’s demands rather than protecting its own national interests. BNP has always been very vocal against Awami League’s India connection, and the recent deals have only given them more material to attack the government. However, the situation took an interesting turn recently when prime minister Sheikh Hasina accused BNP of having ties with the Indian intelligence agency, RAW. At the 2nd National Council of Jubo Mohila League at the Krishibid Institution auditorium in Dhaka on March 11, 2017, the prime minister claimed that BNP won the 2001 elections by giving India an undertaking to sell gas to them.
She also said that Awami League lost the 2001 elections because it refused to allow the extraction of Bangladesh’s gas by a US company for sale to India, and hinted at the USA’s involvement in the entire issue. BNP has vehemently denied the accusation and demanded proof from Hasina to support her claims. BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir in an official reaction said, “Her comment tells the people that foreign powers are at work in Bangladesh and are involved in regime change and interference.” He then asked whether Awami League had made such promises to foreign powers to win the 2014 elections. “People know that the Indian foreign secretary came to Bangladesh during the 2014 elections and went to many places. He even convinced Ershad to join in the polls,” he said.
Sheikh Hasina’s claim about BNP’s connection with India came just before her India tour on April 7. Although Hasina has spoken before about conspiracies surrounding the 2001 elections, this was the first time she named the Indian intelligence agency. India had shown interest in signing a defense treaty with Bangladesh during this tour, according to the news media of both countries. However, the countries have different opinions regarding this deal. On March 5, Indian daily Hindustan Times published an article titled “New Delhi eyes big defense pact with Bangladesh during PM Hasina’s April visit”. The report stated that India is eying a 25-year-long defense deal that encompasses training, the sale of military hardware, and military- to-military cooperation. India is also willing to commit up to USD500 million in a line of credit for military cooperation with Dhaka. However,with the Teesta water-sharing pact off the radar for signing, coupled with the major anti-India sentiment of the masses, the Bangladesh government reluctantly sealed this deal.
After postponing the tour a couple of times, the Bangladesh premier finally visited India on April 7, and India did its best to convince her to sign the deal. Now that 22 agreements have been signed with India, it also comes with India’s highest ever credit line for defense cooperation. The Hindustan Times report also said that India was not pleased with Bangladesh’s purchase of two submarines from China. China is Bangladesh’s biggest supplier of military hardware. During Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit to Dhaka last year, the two countries signed pacts amounting to USD25 billion in investments in Bangladesh. India thinks that China’s regional influence is increasing day by day, and the deals with Bangladesh further fueled that concern.
The report said, “for Bangladesh prime minister Hasina, going for another major pact is not an easy proposition. The pro-India leader fights criticism that she is giving too much to India and getting too little in return. Over the years, Hasina walked the extra mile in addressing India’s concerns over insurgency and connectivity. However, New Delhi is unable to sign the much-awaited Teesta water-sharing pact.”
As per an agreement in 2011, the two sides had agreed to share the Teesta River’s water 50:50, the same as the 1996 Ganges watersharing pact between the neighbors. However, the agreement was not signed after the West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee refused to give her nod. The Bangladeshi news media have not covered the issue of this defense pact properly. However, this issue received attention from Hong Kong-based newspaper South China Morning Post. On March 1, the paper published a report written by Indian journalist Subir Bhaumik titled “Keener on arms from China, Bangladesh dithers on defense pact with India”. The report stated: “After several postponements, the prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina Wazed, has finally agreed to visit India in April but her government is reluctant to sign an agreement on defense that India is pushing for.”
The report also said Bangladesh military officials are not keen on purchasing defense hardware from India, believing that India’s own reliance on military imports suggests it has few quality products of its own to offer. They point to the poor quality of equipment India supplied to Nepal and Myanmar while admiring Chinese equipment for being cheap and easy to use.India has offered a USD500 million line of credit to Bangladesh for the purchase of military hardware only from India. Bangladesh has shown some interest in accepting the offer and could use the funds for purchasing fast patrol craft for its coastguards and radar for its air defense. However, Sheikh Hasina is not willing to push the military in this regard, and would like to go by the military’s advice,” said one of Hasina’s top advisers who did not want to be named, according to the report. The report also said that the Bangladesh prime minister is keen to strike a balance between her country’s relations with China and India. While China has emerged as a key source of development funds and defense hardware, India has been a traditional ally for the Awami League government for years.
By analyzing the reports of the Hindustan Times and the South China Morning Post, it is quite clear that one of the main agendas behind India’s eagerness for a defense pact with Bangladesh is to gain an upper hand over the budding relationship between Bangladesh and China.
On March 13, the two submarines bought from China -- BN Nobojatra and BN Joyjatra – were commissioned by Sheikh Hasina at a special ceremony in the area adjacent to the Chittagong naval jetty. In the inauguration ceremony, she said, “If attacked, Bangladesh will be wellprepared to fight back with all its force. We do not want to start a war with anyone, but we should have the preparation to fight back if others attack us.”
Goyeshwar Chandra Roy BNP standing committee member
National unity is a must to preserve our sovereignty and propel our country towards progress. The leaders of the two leading political parties blame each other as agents of India and Pakistan. Recently, the prime minister hinted about the Indian-US involvement in the 2001 elections. However, Awami League’s ties to India are crystal clear and well-established. Everyone knows the shameful roles former Indian foreign secretary Sujata Singh played prior to the 2014 elections. Awami League came to power through a voterless, sham election, with the blessings and intervention of India. The people of this country are well-aware of this situation. They do not want either the BNP or the Awami League to serve the interest of any foreign country – be it India, Pakistan, China, or USA. They want political parties to respect public opinion, and rule the country of their own accord. They want to see a powerful country that can maintain its sovereignty in land, water, and air.
Mujahidul Islam Selim President of Communist Party of Bangladesh
We all know that many foreign factors are involved in our politics. However, there are not many realistic discussions about the conflict and cooperation between foreign super powers and their impact on Bangladesh’s current political context. The question of foreign interference in our internal matters is more ethical than political. We are living under global capitalism that ties us to transactional relationships worldwide. It is an optionless reality, which means we have accepted it even without any political interference. We cannot deny this reality. We cannot go back to the pre-capitalistic world or avoid foreign interference altogether. No country of the world can exist like an isolated island in this era of globalization. The world is no longer divided between capitalist and socialist camps. It is the world of capitalism, and we have to keep that in mind while formulating policies and strategies regarding our national interests. We have to accept the reality of maintaining a good relationship with world powers, but not at the cost of our national interests. Our only destination is to find a political system that protects our local interests as much as possible.
The influence of foreign superpowers in Bangladesh politics is evident, and more or less everyone knows who the biggest players are. The relationship between the three superpowers- USA, India, and China- is something Bangladesh should closely observe. In the very recent past, the relationship between these three countries has massively impacted our political and economic situation. So, we need to be aware of their roles in our politics more clearly.
The ruling Awami League government is criticized for its strict measures against the opposition parties. Not only that, extra-judicial killings, murder, political abduction, etc., have reached an alarming height during this government’s tenure. They have been accused of practising fascism for amending the constitution to serve their agenda, the politicization of law enforcement agencies, and interfering with the civil rights of the people. These activities have largely generated very negative publicity and drawn adverse reactions from the common people. Despite being so unpopular, the Awami League government is still in power, and the ruling BJP government of India is a strong ally of the party. This alliance is the Awami League’s strength, considering India’s regional influence and good relationship with the ultimate superpower, the USA.
When the Awami League government came to power in 2009, the USA had full support for India’s policy regarding Bangladesh as it was complementary to US interests. The process began two years ahead of the elections in 2007-2008, as the foreign powers already agreed upon what kind of a government Bangladesh should have. However, the situation changed drastically in the next three years, and the USA ended up having completely different policies for Bangladesh and India. It is believed that the US attitude towards Bangladesh has changed, and many conflicts have arisen between the interests of the two countries. During the 2007-2008 period, USA and India were on the same boat when it came to Bangladesh policy. The main reason for this situation was that the USA was about to make two major changes in its foreign policy. The first term of the Barack Obama presidency began in January 2009. The failure of former US president George W Bush Jr.’s “War on Terror” policy was an eyesore for a section of US policymakers. Even public opinion was in favor of a new foreign policy.
It was before the formation of Hilary Clinton’s “Smart Power Approach”. The planning of instigating anti-government sentiments among the people in the autocratic nations of the Middle East was also in its infancy. The planning later resulted in “the Arab Spring”, and its aftermath. During this interim period at the end of the Bush presidency term, strengthening ties with India was the best option for the USA to protect its interests in South Asia. China’s rise became a concern for both countries, and many defense deals were signed between Delhi and Washington to challenge this rise. As a result, India became the USA’s natural ally. We have to look at Bangladesh's relations with the two countries on the basis of their relationship with each other during this period.
Along with the change in foreign policy, another reason propelled the USA to strengthen its relations with India. In 2008, a survey report, conducted by the American government, was published. The report titled “2025 Global Trends: A Transforming World” found that while the USA would remain the single most powerful country, it would be less dominant. Globally, power would split into at least five divisions, with China and India being the two dominant forces in the Asian region. At the same time, international capital flow in global economics is shifting from the West to the East. The flow is not likely to turn around in the near future. As a result, Asia is becoming the permanent center of international economic and political activities. Previously, Western economies were known as developed and the others as developing or underdeveloped. However, the report introduced a new indicator, “rising economy”, and the five new emerging world powers were classified under it Incidentally, two of the five countries with a rising economy are in Asia: China and India, the rest being Brazil, Russia and South Africa. The findings of this report brought a massive change in the USA’s foreign policy. Washington decided to strengthen its alliance with India, one of the rising economies in Asia, in order the counter the growth of the other Asian power, China.
In the highly unstable capitalistic world system, one of the main conditions to become a global superpower is to become a superpower economically. China’s steady rise in global business has made a massive change in the global power balance. As a result, the new foreign policy of the USA is focused on strengthening friendship with India in order to counter the threat of China’s monopoly dominance in Asia. The effect of this friendship was eminent in the politics of Bangladesh as well. During 1/11, Bangladesh was heading straight towards the implementation of the “Minus Two” formula by removing the two top leaders of the two most dominant political parties in the country. However, the situation changed quickly in Sheikh Hasina’s favor, allegedly with the full blessings of India and USA. While the alliance between India and USA was based on the mutual interest of countering China, it was not free of clashes. The alliance began when the USA was getting out of Bush’s “War on Terror” policy, before the formation of “the Arab Spring” policy. The war on terror policy was completely anti-Islam; it was against any form of political alliance with any Islamic country. In contrast, the Arab Spring promoted an alliance with a specific form of Islam, discarding others. It is not that the USA refrained from war in Muslim countries, and kept conducting activities that harmed a number of Muslim countries, but the activities became more low-profile. However, India preferred the USA with its war on terror mode. So, when the USA tried to refrain from war against every form of Islam, it did not sit well with India.
Meanwhile, the budding relationship between China and Bangladesh became a major concern for both India and the USA. India has been enjoying getting the best bargains in most deals with Bangladesh for years. However, during the Chinese president’s Bangladesh tour last year, the two countries signed a number of development and commercial deals, which will benefit both countries. For India, it is double trouble because not only can Bangladesh potentially shift to China for development purposes, but China also can expand its market in Bangladesh. The USA is also concerned about this situation, considering the possibility of more economic progress for China. Even though Bangladesh is a small country, it has become an area of interest for all three super powers. Economic decisions may lead to some major changes in the political sphere in the future, which will be interesting to watch.
Dr. Akbar Ali Khan Former adviser to caretaker government
Political interests have to be separated from economic and military interests. There is no doubt about the importance of political interests. The first and primary thing to consider in this regard is Bangladesh’s survival as a political entity in world politics. Extremist politics have largely divided the people of this country, while the state is being used against the people in a criminal manner. Strong resistance against these practices is a demand of the times. To do so, nationalistic, religious, or partisan politics have to be replaced by a politics that unifies people. Public consciousness and awar eness have to be strengthened with politics. Regardless of political affiliation, differences in opinion, religious views, and ideology, protecting the civic and human rights of the people should be the main focus of politics. Unfortunately, we are far too open to embracing the politics of destruction rather than the politics of creation.