On June 10, 2022, Ex-NSG chief of India Jayantho Narayan Chowdhury said that Bangladesh plays a major role in Northeast India’s stability. Jayantho Chowdhury also expressed that Northeast’s stability has been manageable with the help of Bangladesh. As a neighboring country, Bangladesh has been contributing to various Indian interests including stabilizing Northeastern border, upholding various mutual interests through inking agreements, and striking balance between regional and global powers. However, the views about Bangladesh in Indian foreign relations and media seem to not acknowledge such and have a quite opposite view.
Even though the discourse about Bangladesh in India’s foreign relations has an inappropriate and cynical view, it seems Bangladesh has been contributing to India’s stability in many aspects. Considering the warm ties between the countries and Bangladesh’s ‘low-key’ role in maintaining stability, the question arises: Does the discourse about Bangladesh in Indian foreign relations and media need reconstruction?
Bangladesh’s contribution to Indian interests has many reasons behind it. Because of the warm and historic bilateral relations, Dhaka never misses to display a token of gratitude for the Indian contribution in its Liberation war. Again, through securing Northeastern border, it also serves Dhaka’s purpose of a stable border region. And last but not least, through securing a stabilizing India, Dhaka wants to avoid spill-over effects of insurgency.
However, this is not the only aspect where Bangladesh contributes to India’s national security. Since 1971, both countries have found each other by their side in their time of need. Even amid superpower rivalry, Bangladesh has maintained Indian interests most of the time. For example, Bangladesh considered the Doklam crisis an internal issue of India-China relations while remaining neutral about the Kashmir conflicts. Even when the BJP government initiated NRC and CAA, Bangladesh considered the matter as India’s internal and discussed it with their counterpart to protect their interest. However, the discourse about Bangladesh in India’s foreign relations seems inappropriate and cynical, especially in the media.
Quite often, Bangladesh is portrayed inferiorly by the Indian media. Indian media also tends to present Bangladesh from an Indian societal perspective, referring to the ‘mythical’ Hindu persecution in Bangladesh. It also tends to undermine the sovereignty of Bangladesh. Many political leaders also have the same mindset. They also forget the core aspect of the Westphalian order and give provocative remarks in recurring events. For instance, BJP MP Subramanian Swamy last year opined on a communal violence issue in Bangladesh: “If Bangladesh does not stop torturing the Hindus, I would recommend that our government invades Bangladesh and takes it over.” At the same event, the Indian Herald Op-Ed raised skepticism about a backslide whether Bangladesh is becoming East Pakistan or not! It seems the media is quick to react. In 2020, when Imran Khan called Sheikh Hasina and discussed many things, including Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir. India quickly responded even though Dhaka only gave PM Khan an ear as a diplomatic formality. India’s prominent journalist and analyst Subir Bhaumik even warned Dhaka not to cross the ‘Lakshmana Rekha.’
Lakshmana Rekha is a line drawn by Lakshmana around the dwelling he shares with his brother Rama and Rama’s wife Sita at Panchavati in the forest of Dandakaranya. The line is meant to protect Sita while he is away searching for Rama. The modern-day use is the rules or lines that should not be broken or crossed. Bhaumik used the term to express that Kashmir is the Rekha for Dhaka as it is a crucial security concern for India. However, considering Bangladesh’s effort to maintain stability in Northeast India, it seems Bangladesh is the mantra protecting the Lakshmana Rekha there.
Historically, Northeast India is an insurgency-prone region. Insurgents used cross-border trips to find shelter in Bangladesh’s border regions and smuggled their arms and finances through the same border region. The infamous 10-truck arms haul in Bangladesh bears the testimony. But for the last ten years, Bangladesh has been on a hardline about these insurgents and maintaining strict border control. As a result, the insurgents are finding it hard to take shelter. Bangladesh has also arrested and handed many insurgents to the Indian authority in the last decade. As a result of Bangladesh’s cooperative stance, Indian authorities could reinforce law and order in this region.
In this context, Janaytho Chowdhury acknowledged Bangladesh’s contribution to the Northeast’s peace. He says no one has done as much for the Northeast as Bangladesh. He also acknowledged Bangladesh’s elite law enforcement agency, Rapid Action Battalion’s (RAB) informal effort in Northeast’s peace. Defense Minister Rajnath Singh also admitted the same as Chowdhury’s. He claimed that the country’s eastern boundary is experiencing more peace and stability compared to the western frontier, with Bangladesh being a friendly neighbor.
So, it seems that the discourse is putting Bangladesh in an inferior position from a watchdog mentality. In reality, Bangladesh is not about crossing the Lakshmana Rekha; instead, it is the mantra protecting it for India, especially on the Northeastern border and in times of need like the current one. But in return, the discourse fails to accommodate such efforts, and the media is quick to react. As a result, the ‘Anti-India’ sentiment is growing drastically among ordinary people in Bangladesh, which may pose a severe threat for India in the future. Therefore, India should focus on reconstructing the discourse about Bangladesh.
[Photo by Prime Minister’s Office, India]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Shoumik Malhotra is a Research Associate at the Center for Border Studies, O.P Jindal Global University. He has completed his BA in Political Science and MA in South Asian Studies. He has also completed his 2nd MA in Sociology from Bielefeld University.