Why the Bangladesh-India friendship is under pressure | Asia | An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 05.02.2021

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Asia

Why the Bangladesh-India friendship is under pressure

Bangladesh and India share close bilateral ties, but a raft of issues from water disputes to religious tension have sowed mistrust and hurt the relationship.

A flag bearer from 335 Infantry of the Indian Army watches the Indian and Bangladesh flags being raised during a medal ceremony

A flag bearer from 335 Infantry of the Indian Army watches the Indian and Bangladesh flags being raised during a ceremony

India's prime minister, Narendra Modi, will visit Dhaka in March to join the celebrations marking 50 years of Bangladesh's independence and the establishment of diplomatic ties between both countries.  

The trip is likely to symbolize the decades-old friendship between the two neighboring South Asian nations, but all is not well in the bilateral partnership

At the beginning of 2021, a controversy erupted over the delivery of the vaccine developed by Oxford University, and AstraZeneca, which has a partnership with the Pune-based Serum Institute of India (SII) to manufacture the vaccine.

SII CEO Adar Poonawalla said that India had barred Serum from selling doses on the private market until everyone in India had received the vaccine.

The statement caused a flutter in Bangladesh, which had inked a deal with India last year to receive 30 million doses of the vaccine. Many Bangladeshis felt that India was backsliding on its obligations as part of the agreement. Some took to social media labeling India as an untrustworthy neighbor.

Poonawalla later issued a statement clarifying that exports of the vaccines were permitted to all countries, and Bangladesh's Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen confirmed that his country was on track to receive the vaccine.

Still, the experience left a bad taste in Bangladeshis' mouths.

"The statement by Poonawalla on the coronavirus vaccine created ripples in Bangladesh because it made no sense to deny us the vaccine after we inked a deal," Lailufar Yasmin, associate professor at the University of Dhaka in Bangladesh, told DW.

Indian PM Narendra Modi in Patna

Narendra Modi will visit Dhaka in March to join the celebrations marking 50 years of Bangladesh's independence

Unkept promises cause mistrust

Yasmin pointed out several instances when Dhaka felt that India didn't live up to its promises.

In September 2020, Bangladesh asked India to resume onion exports to the country, after New Delhi abruptly slapped a ban on exports.

India is the biggest supplier of onions to Bangladesh, which buys a yearly average of more than 350,000 tons. Following the export ban, onion prices in Bangladesh jumped by more than 50%, prompting the government to procure supplies from elsewhere and provide onions at subsidized rates.

"India has historically had a good relationship with Bangladesh but has missed many opportunities to cement the relationship," Yasmin said.

Water woes

In December 2020, both countries held a virtual summit where they discussed topics like boosting trade, investment and transportation links, but avoided the thorny issue of sharing the water of the Teesta river, which flows into Bangladesh from the Indian states of Sikkim and West Bengal.

Bangladesh, being the downstream country, wants India to share more water from the Teesta, but New Delhi has so far been unable to strike a deal on the matter, likely due to strong opposition from West Bengal state.

The Teesta river flows into Bangladesh from the Indian states of Sikkim and West Bengal

The Teesta river flows into Bangladesh from the Indian states of Sikkim and West Bengal

Two politicians from the Trinamool Congress (TMC), the ruling party in West Bengal, said a solution may not be in sight for the foreseeable future as the glaciers feeding water into the Teesta increasingly melt and heighten the risk of drought in several parts of the state if the river water were shared with Bangladesh. 

"For India to share water, possibilities have to be explored on how the people of northern West Bengal can be compensated in the lean season. Otherwise, the Teesta river is liable to dry up like the Ganga did when we inked the Ganga water sharing deal in 1996," said Sukhendu Sekhar Roy, a member of the upper house of India's Parliament from the TMC party.

"Kolkata port has now become dead because of the diversion of water to Bangladesh. In addition, arsenic is being found in several areas as the ground water level has gone so low, endangering millions of lives. That experience has made Bengalis bitter, so they are apprehensive about sharing the waters of the Teesta," he added.

India's federal government in New Delhi is serious about resolving this river water issue with Bangladesh, said Joyeeta Bhattacharjee, a senior fellow with the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), a New Delhi-based think tank.

"But we need to understand that West Bengal is a major stakeholder in the resolution of the Teesta matter. If West Bengal doesn't change its stance, then it's difficult to ink a deal," the expert told DW. 

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China vies for Bangladesh's attention

While India strives to resolve the Teesta issue with Bangladesh, China stepped in and offered $1 billion (€830 million) to Bangladesh for an irrigation project on the river. Some experts believe Bangladesh simply wants to benefit economically from its partnership with Beijing.

"Bangladesh, like most nations, will sign up for something for its economic benefit. The country has disagreements with China on several issues, so it's wrong to assume that economic deals with China will make Bangladesh move away from India," Bhattacharjee underlined.

"As India hasn't resolved the Teesta matter, Bangladesh was forced to look toward China for assistance. India still has time to take action so that we don't have to seek help from China," said Imran Saleh Prince, the organizing secretary of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP).

Subir Bhaumik, editorial director of The Eastern Link news site, believes that India's poor relations with its neighbors may have pushed Dhaka towards Beijing.

"India's relations with its neighbors have suffered under PM Modi. Sheikh Hasina, India's most trusted ally in South Asia, has every reason to be upset because the Teesta water sharing treaty has not happened. Her government and people worry over New Delhi's controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the border killings and worse, the utter humiliation of being called 'termites' by (India's Home Minister) Amit Shah."

Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina meets Chinese President Xi Jinping

Some experts believe Bangladesh simply wants to benefit economically from its partnership with Beijing

Pakistan joins the fray

Pakistan, China's closest ally in the region, has also been trying to mend ties with Bangladesh, even though some observers say that any substantial rapprochement between Islamabad and Dhaka depends on Pakistan's willingness to acknowledge the atrocities it conducted in former East Pakistan, today's Bangladesh, during the 1971 war of independence.

The Bangladesh government says Pakistani forces killed 3 million people during the war.

There's a long way to go before we can start talking about a normalization in Pakistan-Bangladesh ties, experts agree.

Nevertheless, Salman F. Rahman, a Cabinet minister and co-founder of the Beximco Group, a Bangladeshi conglomerate, has been working "behind the scenes" to mend relations with Pakistan, according to a source that wished to remain anonymous.

Beximco is the company responsible for distributing 3 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine in Bangladesh, reflecting the power concentrated in the hands of Rahman.

Despite the efforts, experts stressed that it is too early to predict a permanent shift in Bangladesh's foreign policy in siding with China and Pakistan over India, and that Dhaka should be careful regarding its foreign policy and strategic choices.

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