by Taj Hashmi 18 June 2020
We know things are not going well in regards to India’s relationship with China. On 5th/6th May, China captured around sixty square kilometre of Indian territory in the Galwan Valley in Ladakh, which is strategically important to all the three countries in the region, China, India, and Pakistan. On 14th/15th June, around twenty Indian soldiers, including a colonel, were literally beaten to death by their Chinese counterparts, and China also lost five of their men at the Line of Actual Control. “They are the first casualties to be suffered by either Asian superpower along their 3,488km border since 1975”, reports The Telegraph of Britain on 16th June.
We also know that India is the only country in the world having bad to not-so-good relationship with all its immediate neighbours. Of late, even land-locked tiny Nepal (hitherto cowed into submission by India) has boldly challenged India’s hegemonic design. So far as the Bangladeshis – not their government – are concerned, the bulk of them have been intensely anti-Indian too, since weeks after the liberation of their country with direct Indian help and intervention in 1971.
Now, we have reasons to believe that India is not only losing ground to China (literally), but it is also losing its hegemony in Bangladesh. Interestingly, the country which till 2018 was virtually an Indian client state – which India had been bullying with impunity by virtually running its domestic and foreign policies – thanks to Chinese counter-offensive in the arena of diplomacy, it has virtually neutralised India’s growing influence in Bangladesh. So much so that, after China had played an important – if not the decisive role – in the unprecedented electoral victory of Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League in the December Elections (albeit much more farcical, and grossly rigged than the ones held in January 2014, under Indian supervision), India is forced to play the second fiddle to China in Bangladesh affairs.
Seemingly, gone are the days when the newly installed Modi Government could arm-twist the Hasina government to abandon certain mega projects, which China was supposed to undertake in Bangladesh, including the building of a deep-sea port at Sonadia. It is least likely that an Indian Prime Minister, External Affairs Minister, let alone a Secretary of External affairs à la Sujata Singh (who on the eve of the parliamentary elections in Bangladesh forced the political weather-cock Ershad to contest the polls to legitimize the fraudulently designed electoral process in 2014). Why should one assume soon the days of Indian hegemony in Bangladesh will be over? The answer lies in certain forays the Indian government has been indulging in the realm of propaganda warfare. Journalistic pieces – news or fake news reports, and articles by known or unknown writers, in known or even non-existing media outlets – are parts of the propaganda warfare between intra- and inter-state rivals. Thanks to the internet, there has been an exponential growth in fake or real news reports and propaganda literature in recent years.
Renowned BBC journalist and author Subir Bhaumik – the Editorial Director at Eastern Link in India – has been one of the most active warriors of the Indian government (widely believed in Bangladesh to be an employee of the RAW) in the realm of propaganda warfare, against Bangladesh. He is a hyperbolic, sensationalist writer, whose writings on Bangladesh is full of inaccuracies and blatant lies, which often demonise the country as one on the verge of becoming a dysfunctional state, and tarnish the image of the BNP as the promoter of Islamist militancy along with the Jamaat-e-Islami. Quite frequently, he loves to invent the bogey of Islamist terrorism in Bangladesh. Last but not least, his liking for the Awami League is obvious; and his portrayal of the party, its leaders, and even generals toeing the Awami line as “secular” and “pro-Liberation” tell us a thousand tales about his real intent, and who he has been working for during the last three decades or so! Recently, he has come up with a couple of stories about some impending troubles in Bangladesh, pinpointing the BNP, Jamaat-e-Islami, and Tareque Zia as the most disruptive and destabilizing factors in Bangladesh, including a military takeover against the Hasina Regime and a recrudescence of Islamist terrorism in the country.
Bhaumik wrote an article around the 2014 Bangladesh national elections about the theory of the “string of pearls” to expose the strategy behind China’s endeavour to build deep seaports in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. At that time, China had built the Gwadar deep seaport in Baluchistan and the Hambantota deep seaport in Sri Lanka and was very deeply interested in building the proposed Sonadia deep seaport in Bangladesh. He wrote the piece when New Delhi was worried that a change of government in Bangladesh would give China the advantage to complete the missing string in its “string of pearl” strategy. That did not happen because the pro-Indian Awami League government returned to power, helped by the Manmohan Singh Government [“While India plays politics, Beijing woos Dhaka” [https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/while-india-plays-politics-beijing-woos-dhaka/articleshow/37123187.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst].
Interestingly, the Indian elections in May 2014 gave China the opportunity that it was looking for. The defeat of the Congress Party in the Indian elections made Sheikh Hasina nervous about the BJP government, apprehending Modi would not legitimise her government through the farcical polls in January 2014. And that Hasina would seek Chinese support to keep her regime afloat, as she did not want to go through the process of holding fresh election in Bangladesh, for the obvious reason!
Subir Bhumik was concerned with the Chinese initiatives that he felt was a Chinese plan to choke India like a necklace around its neck. In his 2018 piece (on 26th November) he also apprehended that China would win the hearts and minds of Bangladeshis by promising a mega $30 billion investment in the country, while India spent $7 billion on infrastructure projects in Bangladesh “much of it to facilitate connectivity to India’s own remote northeast”.
[https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/2174772/bangladesh-election-will-sheikh-hasinas-china-india-balancing-act]. So far, so good! However, as it appears from Bhaumik’s writings, India’s main concern has been growing Chinese influence in Bangladesh. Ironically, this is what is likely to happen in Bangladesh. India is going to lose out to China. India is not only losing ground in Ladakh, but is most likely to lose Bangladesh as its backyard to play badminton in accordance with the rules set by itself, only to its benefit.
While China has been flexing its muscle to contain India so that it does not pose any threat to China’s economic and strategic interests in Pakistan by breathing too close for comfort for China and Pakistan through Ladakh, this Spring, seemingly, India has ratchetted up its propaganda warfare against Bangladesh. First comes up an article, “Bangladesh army is becoming captive to one alma-mater again” on April 17, 2020 by one Nirmala Saha, who according to Subir Bhaumik does not exist, and the piece came out “in a strange website (www.worldnews.net)”. However, the article reveals that alumni of the Jhenaidah Cadet College in Bangladesh Army under the leadership of Lt Gen Mahfuzur Rahman, the Principal Staff Officer, are planning a military takeover against Hasina and her pro-Indian Army Chief General Aziz Ahmed. As Bhaumik has rightly pointed out what Nirmala Saha has suggested about General Rahman being close to both the CIA and Chinese intelligence, MSS as an absurd proposition. Nevertheless, what Bhaumik has written in two of his articles in quick succession on 10th and 14th June 2020 have broadly argued that anti-Awami League (one may read ‘anti-Indian”) elements in the Bangladesh Army have factionalised it. So much so that Aziz’s edging out his protégé Lt Gen Mahfuzur Rahman to become the next army chief has polarized the army, and that “Aziz has now seemingly fallen out with Defence Advisor Siddiqui (the brother-in-law of Hasina Wajed’s sister, Rehana)”. Bhaumik also tells us that “even the pro-Aziz faction is now divided” after Aziz has forced a Hasina loyalist Lt Gen Nazimuddin to go on leave prior to retirement (LPR). Bhaumik has also reproduced a letter by Nazimuddin to Hasina where he pleads his loyalty to the Awami League and seeks his reinstatement by the Prime Minister.
It is noteworthy that in his 14th June article Bhaumik mentions an unsigned note in circulation in social media, which defends Aziz as “a born and congenital believer of the ideology of our father of the nation [Mujib]”[ https://theeasternlink.com/why-bangladesh-army-chief-is-dragged-into-controversy/]. Last but not least, Bhaumik gives an unsolicited advice to Hasina, which smacks of his (and RAW’s not-so-hidden agenda to keep pro-Indian elements in important positions in Bangladesh, especially the armed forces). He writes:
Wajed [Hasina] needs to take firm control of the situation before the army rocks her boat…. At a time when the country is witnessing a silent Islamist revival evident in the emergence of the Jamaat-e-Islami breakaway, Amar Bangladesh Party, and its growing links with other pro-Pakistan Opposition leaders like the Bangladesh National Party’s Tareque Zia, professional stability in the army holds the key to future peace in Bangladesh. For India, a friendly but a professional army in Bangladesh committed to counter-terrorism and anti-radicalization is an imperative in maintaining the tranquillity in its own eastern and northeastern states … [https://www.telegraphindia.com/opinion/a-crack-in-the-hornets-nest-bangladesh-military-tussle/cid/1779697]
As one retired Bangladeshi diplomat has written this to the writer in a private communication,
Bhaumik’s article is another serious message from New Delhi to Sheikh Hasina to draw her back to its side; by telling her that there are serious rumblings in the armed forces where conspiracies are afloat aimed at disestablishing her government with the possibility of an armed coup. He has written about groups and given names that should not be available to a columnist/strategic affairs writer but only to someone with deep links to intelligence sources or fed by such sources. The underlying message in the article is not difficult to discern. It has been written to warn Sheikh Hasina that the army is in the conspiring mode in the same way it was before and after the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Subhir Bhaumik has also flagged for Sheikh Hasina, no doubt on New Delhi’s behest, that it is time for her to beware of these rumblings and conspiracies that involve some very close to her like her Defence Adviser and take matters in her own hands. Subhir Bhaumik’s article has been written to remind her without spelling it for her that her father and her family were the victims of such rumblings and conspiracies in the armed forces so that she returns to India as her best friend to show her the way out.
In the above backdrop, it is evident that India is genuinely suffering from an acute Sinophobia, especially because the Trump Administration has more or less virtually withdrawn from the path of taking direct military action in regions, which it rightly or wrongly does not consider strategically that important for the United States. And, what was possibly unthinkable that China would be the first super power to legitimise the controversial 2014 elections in Bangladesh. And, Hasina in return, gave China whatever it wanted from Bangladesh, including the multi-billion-dollar contract to build a deep seaport at Sonadia. However, to the dismay of China, as pressured by Modi, Hasina scrapped the Sonadia project in 2015. China did not like why Bangladesh reneged on this promised project. And, at the end of the day, China succeeded in pulling Bangladesh out of the Indian orbit.
Modi’s failure to ensure Hasina another cakewalk in the 2018 elections – in November 2017, he rather asked her to hold free and fair elections in the country – made Hasina lean further toward Beijing. Hasina turned to China out of sheer desperation as she was not only apprehensive of losing the polls badly at the hands of the BNP, but she also feared that thousands of Awami League workers and leaders would fall victims to revenge killings by the opposition. China was too eager to embrace Hasina with all possible help. As heard through the grapevine in Dhaka, China also generously financed the ruling Awami League to win the polls with the help of the police, RAB, and the Election Commission. As one watched on the BBC TV, General Aziz’s troops just played sitting ducks to allow Awami hooligans to intimidate, physically assault, and bar BNP voters from voting on 30th December 2018. And, those who know, know it quite well that at most polling stations across the country the voting was virtually over on the night before the scheduled election day. Thus, the December elections are also popularly known as the “Midnight Elections”. What is noteworthy here, besides the grossly rigged elections, is that almost surreptitiously, Beijing replaced New Delhi in Dhaka, the way New Delhi had been once in Bangladesh’s politics between 2009 and 2018.
Since the December 2018 election, there were very little visible exchanges between Bangladesh and India. Going by the past, New Delhi had never failed to be excited whenever the Awami League won an election in Bangladesh. After its 2018 victory, except for a message from Narendra Modi, there was not even lukewarm enthusiasm in New Delhi that the Awami League had won such a “spectacular” victory. And China, as if by the back door, entered everywhere in Bangladesh.
Strangely, strategic and foreign policy experts in Bangladesh failed to see the way India left and China entered Bangladesh in matters of politics of the country. They continued to believe that India was too deeply embedded in Bangladesh with RAW having penetrated almost everywhere, as many would say, even in the office of the powerful DGFI where they were rumoured to have a whole floor to themselves. With such beliefs about Indian presence in Bangladesh, they ignored that there were few mega projects in Bangladesh in which the Chinese were not involved even when it was known unofficially by them that Chinese had loaned and invested over US$ 24 billion in Bangladesh.
It was also strange that there was no apparent immediate concern in New Delhi as there was in 2014 to bring Bangladesh back from from China. Perhaps New Delhi was confident that it could use the stranglehold that its intelligence had established in the power corridors of Bangladesh to encourage and if necessary warn Shaikh Hasina to return to its fold. The way the Chatra League, Jubo League and many in the inner circles of the Awami League were publicly exposed last year could not have been the initiative of Sheikh Hasina because it is not the AL style to do such things against its own. There is every reason to believe that these leaders of the Chhatra League/Jubo League who were key factors in Awami League’s election “victory” in 2018 were exposed, embarrassed, humiliated, some expelled and jailed because of behind the scenes initiatives of RAW as warnings to Sheikh Hasina not to enter too deep into the Chinese sphere of influence.
New Delhi’s views have changed from concerns to alarms during the ongoing Covid-19 Pandemic when China has started making huge overtures in Ladakh, crossing into India with 12,000 troops last month acquiring eventually 60 km of Indian territory. Nepal’s audacious challenge to India over territory and banning all Indian currencies over Rs 100 occurred as South Asia and the world saw China had completed a railway tunnel through the Himalayas to Nepal, a strategically earth-shattering development. With Pakistan on China’s side for decades and Sri Lanka allowing China strategic presence in its territory with the lease over the Hambantota deep seaport that it had built, China is strategically placed in South Asia as it has never been.
These developments in South Asia have no doubt shaken New Delhi. That has placed Bangladesh in renewed focus in New Delhi and has made it extremely important to New Delhi that Dhaka should be on its right side and not leaning as far towards China as it is now. New Delhi has watched with growing alarm Dhaka-Beijing relations deepen in recent months and weeks with Sheikh Hasina in denial of the signals India gave her government by exposing corruption around her administration. Most recently, President Xi Jinping called her, sent a planeload of assistance including doctors to help her fight the Pandemic and Dhaka-Beijing has entered into sister city agreement.
In sum, as this paper demonstrates, India’s hyped up propaganda warfare against Bangladesh is actually an attempt to distance the ruling Awami League’s psyche from Beijing to New Delhi. One, however, believes, India has yet “lost” another country, Bangladesh, in South Asia, which has decided to go the Sri Lanka and Nepal way of doing business with their mighty neighbours. Seemingly, China is winning and India is losing out, fast! It is imperative for the Bangladeshis who believe in liberal democracy and freedom to keep both New Delhi and Beijing at a safe distance, and play the game of preserving the national identity and sovereignty of their country with utmost skill and dexterity. China is definitely a much better option for Bangladesh than India, as unlike the latter, the former is not known for playing the big brother vis-à-vis its smaller neighbours.
*The writer is a retired professor of security studies at the APCSS, Honolulu, Hawaii. His major publications include Global Jihad and America: The Hundred-Year War Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan (SAGE 2014). He holds a PhD in modern South Asian History, and is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society.