Bangladesh: Where is it headed? 

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Bangladesh after the War of Liberation in 1971

by Sabria Chowdhury Balland    10 Appril 2023

On the surface, Bangladesh appears to be a small South Asian economic powerhouse. Bangladeshi women are at the core of its economic growth in the garments industry, it has averted the traps of religious fundamentalism and stands as a secular, developing nation. Its trade and diplomatic relations with the international community are tension- free and the development of the nation seems to know no bounds.

That is the fairy tale version of the story of Bangladesh seen through the lens of Western or Indian propaganda. The real answer to the question of who controls the fate of Bangladesh and its 172 million people, according to the United Nations data, is more complex.

After its liberation in 1971, and after a series of successive changes of governments and a military dictatorship, Bangladesh has, since 2009, been under the continuous rule of Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League Party. Hasina’s allegiance to India is no secret and it is widely known that her ascension to power in 2009, 2014 and 2018 were due to the machinations of India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the foreign intelligence agency and the United States.

A great deal of India’s “influences” (for the lack of a better word) on Bangladesh, and its grossly disproportionate trade imbalance with India is due to the policies of the United States in the South Asian region.

The shift in the U.S.’s position on Bangladesh  

For decades, due the successive wars in the Middle East, the U.S. entrusted the Asia Pacific region to India, thinking erroneously that it could function successfully as a compelling counterbalance to China’s ever-growing influence in the region.

This entire strategy of the United States changed after the election of Joe Biden as the U.S President, shifting with regards to the Asia Pacific in general and to Bangladesh in particular.

Ever since 2021, the United States State Department has been stating candidly that the U.S. no longer views Bangladesh through the lens of India and a phenomenal shift has been occurring. It is without a doubt the first time that so much of the focus of the U.S. has been on Bangladesh.

There are 3 principal reasons for this:

  1. The Biden administration has realized that it cannot depend on India to be the counterbalance to China as was believed by previous administrations. The Biden team believes, that if the U.S. is to be able to “contain China”, it needs to depend on itself rather than to appoint makeshift counterbalances.
  1. India’s clear stance to not vote to sanction Russia in the United Nations after the Ukraine crisis began sent distinct signals to the U.S. that India was not the undeniable ally that it was thought to be.
  1. President Biden, right after taking office, declared that his administration would prioritize democracy, good governance, human rights, and anti-corruption. That may seem like an ambitious task but as far as Bangladesh is concerned, the categories could not be more fitting.

Under the Sheikh Hasina regime, Bangladesh has undergone successive rigged elections, the complete dissipation of opposition parties (with members and supporters of the opposition imprisoned, disappeared and or killed) and the people of the country have faced atrocious human rights violations.

The engineering of the master plan of Sheikh Hasina’s authoritarianism is no doubt the work of RAW, because it is only under her that India can manipulate the situation to its favor and utterly reduce Bangladesh, a sovereign nation, to a vassal state. Only Sheikh Hasina would allow this.

If the United States, along with its human rights and democracy agenda and its countering China stance also considers the imminent dangers of India’s nefarious “Akhand Bharat” scheme (in which Bangladesh, along with other neighboring countries are to be grouped as one nation, i.e. India), then the U.S. is doing an excellent thing.

Who is in charge?  

The answer to this is not just a double-edged sword. It is a multi-faceted one

On superficial levels, it would seem that Sheikh Hasina, being an authoritarian with no regard for the laws of international human rights, freedom of speech or freedom of the press, rules Bangladesh with the help of her party, the politicized miliary, law enforcement and judiciary with an iron hand.

However, upon scratching the surface, it becomes evident that India pulls the strings in every aspect of governance because Sheikh Hasina would have it no other way. Her clutch on to power depends on it.

However, as the United States has become a major stakeholder of interests in Bangladesh, the power play between India and the United States may seem like a battle ground of equal parties. However, it is not.

The U.S. is the country which provides the most aid to Bangladesh, it is the largest importer of Bangladeshi garments, it was the largest provider of vaccines during the Covid-19 crisis, it is one of the favorite destinations for higher studies for Bangladeshi students and houses a very significant Bangladeshi-American population in the U.S.

In the spirit of containing China and keeping a firm position in the Asia-Pacific region along with ensuring that the governing structure in Bangladesh is favorable to the United States (which Sheikh Hasina and her Party are for the most part not), we have witnessed in the last couple of years a substantial number of officials from the United States State Department visiting Bangladesh. They have reminded the regime that the upcoming Parliamentary elections in less than one year must be free and fair and that there must be an eradication of human rights violations.

It is noteworthy that trade, a significant military presence in the Asia Pacific region and aid are not the only reasons why the U.S. has a very substantial role in answering the question “Who is in charge in Bangladesh?” Whereas the most obvious response for most would be India, it can only go so far in its reach. The RAW-instigated religious instability in Bangladesh is a very common Indian form of control over the country along with many other factors.

However, we must not ignore the existence of U.S. sanctions. In December of 2021, the U.S. government sanctioned the elite military force in Bangladesh known as the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) for its gross human rights violations. But the sanctions did not end there Top officials of RAB and the military were also sanctioned and their assets in the United States frozen. It must be noted that RAB and the individuals received targeted sanctions. Wide blanket sanctions on several Bangladeshi institutions or on the country itself would be crippling, to say the least. It is for this reason that the United States does have significant latitude and an upper hand in navigating Bangladesh in the way it sees most suitable.

Of course, we must wait and see what the rest of this year and the upcoming elections bring. In any case, it seems clear that Sheikh Hasina and her Party would be better off not expecting that they will win in the same illicit manner they have won previous elections.