India’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs Harsh V. Shringla’s first visit out of India since COVID lockdown began August 18, 2020
by Ahmad U Shihab 28 August 2020
“No man in his senses can hesitate in choosing to be free, rather than a slave” —Alexander Hamilton
Harsh Vardhan Shringla, Indian Secretary of the External Affairs Ministry, made an impromptu 2-day visit to Dhaka on August 17-18, 2020. The secrecy surrounding the sudden jet-dash made it ominous and talk of the town. Like most other matters with India, Bangladeshis learned of the visit from Indian sources, which revealed it only after Shringla landed in Dhaka. In an hour-long night meeting, the Indian Foreign Secretary said to have delivered a letter from his Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Sheikh Hasina, Modi’s (official) Bangladeshi counterpart. Dhaka said little. That made the political pundits speculating and theorizing
Not long ago, Shringla was his country’s top diplomat in Bangladesh. Wikipedia says, Ambassador Shringla “served with distinction” as Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh from 2016 to 2019. Modi credited him to herald a “Sonali Adhyay,” a Golden Era, in the Indo-Bangla ties. Shringla’s unrestricted access to the corridors of power in Dhaka was not unknown. Indeed, he wielded considerable authority in Bangladesh.
The Indian powerplay originated from the One-Eleven (1/11, 2007) conspiratorial putsch staged by then army chief General Moeen U Ahmed. The neutral Caretaker Government (CTG) was to hold the parliamentary elections on January 22, 2007. BNP and its partners, under Begum Khaleda Zia, were destined to score a successive victory. That made Sheikh Hasina of Awami League crazy and her sponsor India worried and thinking. The ambitious army chief was willing to betray his benefactor Begum Zia, who had earlier appointed him superseding a few seniors. As per the game-plan, Moeen stepped in on the pretext of the ongoing political disturbance, instigated by the India-Hasina clique. He ousted the CTG and crafted a fresh one aimed at returning Sheikh Hasina to power with a view to serving the Indian agenda, much against the national aspirations and interests. Sheikh Hasina was installed as Prime Minister in January 2009. She held on to it by staging subsequent fraudulent elections, backed by India. A master-servant relationship continued to date. Bangladesh lost its sovereignty.
The master extracted everything it needed through more than 50 one-sided agreements and protocols. The lesser partner got little or nothing. Sheikh Hasina publicly admitted her generosity to India, ostensibly in exchange of staying in power. India’s biggest gain was its much-needed corridor through Bangladesh–at great risk to the latter’s security concerns and infrastructural constraints– to reach its inaccessible and far-fetched Seven Sisters that grouped Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Tripura. Bangladeshi ports, roads, and connected facilities are made open to Indian use, almost free. An extensive RAW–India’s external intelligence agency–network in the country ensures that the “colony” follows its dictates. In July, a onetime powerful General, Chowdhury Hassan Sarwardy, disclosed that Bangladesh’s top military and bureaucratic appointments were made in New Delhi.
The China Issue
The master-servant relationship (Bangladesh Foreign Minister termed it as husband-wife and of blood connection), got a jolt when two relatively small Chinese refurbished submarines arrived for the Bangladesh Navy in 2016. A few months earlier, Chinese President Xi Jinping came with a gift of $24 billion (loan write-off) in exchange for the South Asian country’s participation in his mega project of Belt and Road Initiative, a new Silk Route. In addition to China’s involvement in Hasina’s pet project of the Padma Bridge, $40 billion worth of projects were agreed during Xi’s visit. They included Deep Seaports, Underwater tunnel, Airport Developments, Water Management in Teesta and Padma, Digital Silk Road, Power Grids, and Railroad Projects. India could do little because the Chinese offers were extremely lucrative and it had no counteroffer to make to Dhaka. Thus, China made its inroads into Bangladesh, and the latter got enmeshed in the Dragon’s Web, almost unobtrusively.
It was not so much for the Subs that New Delhi’s think tanks worried. It was the Chinese presence in the Bay of Bengal, India’s backwater, and hitherto thought to be its exclusive domain. Jumpy Indian leaders and generals tried to put pressure on their Bangladeshi counterparts to stay away from China. Earlier, New Delhi tried to bring Bangladesh military under its control, but Bangladeshi generals preferred collaboration with China instead. Bangladesh’s military cooperation with China dates back to the time when it was East Pakistan and its soldiers are used to the improved Chinese equipment. Lately, Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan made a few overtures for a closer relationship with their former half, sending a chilling effect to New Delhi. India and Pakistan, the two nuclear-armed neighbors, were at each other’s throat since their inception in 1947.
Alarmed that the satellite is tending centrifugal in the orbit, New Delhi jetted its top diplomat to Dhaka carrying Prime Minister’s message. Contents of the letter were not revealed but side issues were released for public consumption. They included long-term cooperation, Bangladesh’s internal security, Pakistani interference among Rohingyas, the offer of Indian Corona Vaccine. But the political pundits were not impressed. Shringla didn’t rush in to talk Rohingya or sell medicine, they thought. He brought Indian concerns, if not warnings, for Hasina, they added.
India Needs Bangladesh, But Free
That India badly needs Bangladesh is as old an idea as the partition of 1947. Its deep involvement in East Pakistan’s separation and ultimate independence in 1971 was prompted from that doctrine. It played as the liberator of Bangladesh, happily entertained by its surrogate, the Awami League. Blood and sacrifice of the millions of freedom fighters and common people, as well as the lost honor of the thousands of women during the war, had no meaning to them. Bangladesh freedom fighter R Chowdhury recalled in 2011, “After the fall of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on August 15, 1975, the Indian colonization program came to a halt. President Ziaur Rahman-initiated South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) presented a blockade. According to the “Amar Phansi Cha” of Motiur Rahman Rentu, an onetime aide of Sheikh Hasina, India had a hand in Zia’s assassination on May 30, 1981.”
The 1/11 and later the December 2008 election brought India in full control of its eastern neighbor. Within the country, only the Hasina administration is a party to this unequal relationship with India. The vast majority, almost 90%, are against such bondage with a hegemon neighbor. They want a friendly India on sovereign equality and on a win-win basis. In another article “The Billion Dollar Bait Bangladesh Swallowed”, Chowdhury exposed Indian game and said, “Apart from selling Indian goods, promoting Indian business and arranging jobs for Indian consultants in Bangladesh, the (Billion Dollar) projects are designed to set up the Connectivity through Bangladesh–and at Bangladesh’s cost–between mainland India and it’s far-flung, loosely connected Seven Sisters.”
India had all along played dirty with Bangladesh, taking it as an enslaved nation, or at best a colony. It was possible only by a subservient Hasina regime and its sellout policy. (Please also read http://southasiajournal.net/bangladesh-an-enslaved-nation-part-i/ and
Modi’s Sonali Adhyay meant getting all benefits from Bangladesh with little or no cost. Most analysts point to this hypothesis, while speculating on the sudden New Delhi VIP landing in Dhaka, that the “Sonali Adhyay” must continue if Hasina wishes to stay in power. Whatever little show of crack, they believe, is eyewash. It is meant for the consumption of the largely hostile and anti-Indian public in Bangladesh. As such, people should not be fooled. India will not abandon Hasina, because no other administration will give it what it wants at no cost. Nor will Hasina try to distance from New Delhi because she owes her throne to it. Shringla-Hasina perhaps re-assured each other on this point.
China in South Asia
Following the June 2020 border clash between India and China, there appeared a flurry of speculations in the media to suggest that China had been making an increasing presence in South Asia, which India thought its own sphere of influence under its Akhond Bharat scheme. The US gave its nod to an Indian dominance in the region as a counterbalance to China’s growing expansion to the South. The Indo-US strategic partnership does not seem to be working, however. China, with its Panda style “slow and steady” move, made its noticeable presence in countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Bangladesh. Pakistan has already been in the Chinese belt for long. What makes China unstoppable, compared to Indian hegemony, is that its offers are too lucrative for the needy countries to refuse. It never puts any political pressure on a host country. Nor has it been seen to interfere in the domestic politics of another country. Even in India, its presence is considerable. With almost a $100 billion annual trade between them, Beijing accumulated a $55 billion trade surplus. Most analysts, including Indians, think their dadagiri, bossing, is to blame for the country’s loss of influence with its neighbors.
Some analysts advance the theory that China helped Bangladesh in the December 2018 elections because India declined to do so. I fail to understand this logic. How did China help the Hasina administration in the elections? Was there any “Xi-Singh” (of Sujatha Singh fame) dash to Dhaka to manage the election? Did China make any specific election-related commitment to Bangladesh? Any offer of an election fund? Any statement of support for a Hasina victory? Not that I know. I only read a statement expressing Beijing’s continuation of business relationships with the government. It would do the same with any government in power. On the other hand, the Chinese Embassy in Dhaka offered greetings with gifts to Begum Khaleda Zia, Hasina’s archenemy, on her birthday on August 15 this year, sending an ominous message to the Prime Minister. I am not aware of any other government or embassy did so. Hasina administration sternly criticizes those who greet Khaleda on August 15, which falls on their Mourning Day for Mujib. Even, the BNP refrained from celebrating the occasion this year, citing Corona and other reasons.
Talking about the 2018 election, did Hasina need any external help to win it? I don’t think so. It had in place all its fascist apparatus that included a loyal local administration, a compliant Election Commission, and the party thugs or paid agents to do the needful. According to most observers, the AL would have won the election anyway, because there was no organized opposition. The BNP and the so-called United Front were in a sorry state to combat the government fascists. A fair estimate was that the AL and its Jote partners would get about 200 seats while the rest (100) would go to the opposition. But Sheikh Hasina did not want to take chance. She had a great stake in this election. Her enthusiastic sycophants went on to make a 98% conquest, at places balloting the boxes the previous night. After the victory, China, India, and most other foreign nations–big or small– routinely greeted Hasina, even knowing that it was a stolen victory, some say, Midnight Victory. I thought they accepted the result because the Opposition failed. I didn’t find any special enthusiasm in the Chinese offer of congratulations to Sheikh Hasina.
All for Mujib
For Sheikh Hasina, nothing is more important than her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. She could not reconcile the way Mujib had to leave the scene: — not a token protest was made against her father’s fall; no tear was shed and he failed to receive proper final rites. Hasina ignored the fact that in August 1975, Mujib couldn’t expect anything better. Mujib was the most loved person on January 10, 1972. In three years, he became the most hated and “Bongo Satru” (enemy of Bengal), said Khuswant Singh of the Illustrated Weekly of India. Also, it was the Awami League and Mujib’s close companions who formed the post-Mujib administration, while his dead body was still lying on the stairs of his house. The change of government was widely hailed locally and internationally.
After remaining in the wilderness for more than two decades, daughter Sheikh Hasina wanted to make it up. The AL was awakened from its deep hibernation. Soon, Hasina orchestrated a largely political and partisan trial, hanged most of the accused in the “Mujib Murder” and rehabilitated the one-time leader far beyond what he deserved. All these were done at the cost of millions, if not billions of dollars, to the national exchequer, and the cost is still mounting. In Hasina’s Bangladesh, Mujib is more than a human being. None can be compared with him, none can criticize him, none can speak ill of him–all these are punishable offences. I am not aware of any other country has such constitutional provisions for a person.
Mujib Borso Extravaganza
The year-long (3/20–3/21) “Mujib Borso”—variously estimated to cost $75-100 million–is the latest of celebrations to elevate Mujib to the status of a god. The plan was in the heart of Sheikh Hasina since she returned to authority in January 2009. As such, she could not afford to lose any election until Mujib Borso was completed and Mujib’s position was sealed. So, we now know why the election of 2018, and the earlier one in 2014, were so important to Sheikh Hasina. She had to win them at any cost. We also know why she had to discard the neutral Caretaker Government (CTG), which was meant to oversee fair elections, after availing its full benefits. Earlier in 1993-96, it was Sheikh Hasina who moved heaven and earth, at a colossal cost to man and material, demanding the CTG. In all these activities, India had its stakes and backed Hasina.
Strange but true, Mujib’s trial was Hasina’s personal vendetta. Mujib’s rehabilitation is her family matter. Mujib’s Awami League and his faithful followers went along, despite all the blunders and mischiefs the leader committed. The vast majority of the country is not involved in this one-man-worship business; nor is it to their interest. But they are forced to participate in the Mujibnama, Mujib praise. Especially, the younger generation is brainwashed with wrong information and distorted history of the country. For instance, “Bangabandhu Manei Swadhinota (Mujib Means Independence)”, a book made part of the syllabus in schools. On the contrary, Mujib never wanted the independence of Bangladesh; all his life, he fought for maximum autonomy for the province within a United Pakistan. (Read: http://southasiajournal.net/bangladesh-sheikh-mujibs-stance-on-independent-bangladesh-sensational-revelation/, and http://southasiajournal.net/bangladesh-the-road-to-march-1971-birth-pangs-of-a-nation/)
Mujib’s controversial role during the last days of March 1971, his life in Pakistan during the liberation war are not told. His dictatorial rule and failed administration in 1972-75 are kept hidden from the students and newer generations.
But history is not blind. It has its own way of telling the truth at the right time. Once the truth is known, the perpetrators of falsehood will be condemned to the gutters of history. Recalling Alexander Hamilton, a founding father of the United States of America, I say, no man in his senses can hesitate in choosing to be free, rather than a slave. The people of Bangladesh will soon come out of the bondage of slavery imposed upon them by the regime.
Ahmad U Shihab was involved in the liberation of Bangladesh and writes on the country’s contemporary issues.