India’s bilateral relations with two of its important neighbours in the east, Bangladesh and Myanmar, have been visibly on the upswing. These mark a departure from the usual indifference India had shown towards them, or the adversarial stances both these countries had often adopted vis-à-vis India. What then are the fundamentals of this shift in foreign policy? And what are the implications of the gains that have been achieved so far by pursuing it?
Emerging signs of a sensible foreign policy paradigm
India’s policy towards Bangladesh and Myanmar at present appears to have emerged out of three of its major strategic concerns in the east.
First, is the growing inroads China has been making into Bangladesh and Myanmar and the progressively increasing influence it seems to be wielding on these two neighbours. China will seek to retain its edge in its rivalry with India by trying to gain ground in geo-strategic areas which India has traditionally considered to be within its exclusive sphere of influence. It is in this context one should read the implications of China’s growing ties with all of India’s South Asian neighbours rather than as a military encirclement. India’s overtures to Bangladesh and Myanmar are efforts at gradually weaning away both these neighbours from China’s embrace and putting a check to its growing influence.
Second is the continued vulnerability of India’s North East region to the myriad ethnic insurgencies with secessionist tendencies. It is almost impossible to even attempt to neutralise them as long as they continue to receive shelter and assistance in both Bangladesh and Myanmar. India’s North East region has remained a serious challenge to nation-building throughout the entire period of the country’s post-colonial existence.The inability of the Indian Union to successfully resolve, politically, the dissent and apprehensions among a number of ethnic groups and adequately accommodate their aspirations resulted in a series of uprisings one after the other, a trend which still continues.
Among the factors, which have made these insurgencies intractable are overt assistance to them by hostile neighbours or tacit acquiescence to their presence in their soil by regimes adversarial to India. China, through the ethnic rebel armies in Myanmar, provided them with arms, training and funds initially which contributed greatly to their military strength. Similarly, Pakistan, with active facilitation from Bangladeshi intelligence agencies, had extended considerable covert assistance with war material and training to the insurgent groups, and diplomatic cover to their leadership to reside and travel outside India.
Direct assistance from China has now ceased and the present political dispensation in Bangladesh is far from tolerant to ISI’s mischief in its soil, but it is a fact that many powerful insurgent groups continue to operate camps in both Bangladesh and Myanmar. It is an imperative that India engages with both these neighbours to deny shelter to these groups. That would be among the logical first steps if India is to relieve itself of the perennial burden that North East’s vulnerability exerts on its security architecture. The UPA government has responded to the challenges here and consolidated the opportunities with agility and cohesion. Engagement with Bangladesh and Myanmar, therefore, is also a visible manifestation of attempts to insulate India’s North East from cross-border interferences.
Third, among these concerns, and an equally important one, is the thirst of India’s rapidly growing economy for hydrocarbon energy, fuelling India’s need as a net energy importer to have a stake in the exploration, production of natural gas which both Bangladesh and Myanmar have substantial proven reserves of. Like in the other regions where India has managed to have a foothold in hydrocarbon exploration and production, China is a tenacious competitor here too. It requires both dexterous diplomacy and deep pockets to stay in the game.
In addition to these main factors, a whole range of other important factors too have added texture, nuance and substance to the growing cordiality.
Bangladesh: catching the winds of change
After the initial Mujib years, India’s relationship with Bangladesh had largely remained adversarial, notwithstanding the stellar role India played in the liberation war of 1971. On its part, Bangladesh frequently accused India of being either indifferent or highhanded, remaining insensitive to a number of Bangladesh’s critical concerns, not the least being the one of river water sharing. Bangladesh itself remained inimical to India, providing sanctuary to numerous insurgent groups from India’s North East, acting as a conduit to ISI’s activities, abetting the flow of illegal small arms and refusing to even acknowledge large scale illegal immigration of impoverished Bangladeshi peasants into Indian states, causing demographic changes and triggering political unrest. Moreover, China had developed close relations with Bangladesh’s armed forces and intelligence apparatus through military assistance first and then widened it to include infrastructure development in strategic areas.
The only departure from this familiar narrative was between 1996 and 2001 during the tenure of the first Awami League government in Bangladesh under Sheikh Hasina. At that time, India’s adoption of the Gujaral Doctrine led to the signing of the Indo-Bangladesh Treaty for Sharing of Ganga River Waters and the repatriation of Chakma refugees from India. But her tenure ended before this growing cordiality could be taken further. The years following her departure witnessed not only deterioration in India-Bangladesh relations but also that of the political situation within Bangladesh which New Delhi had serious reasons to worry about, not least being the sharp rise in Islamist extremism.
With the return to power of Awami League and Sheikh Hasina in 2009, the window of opportunity re-appeared for India to consolidate the cordiality that existed during her earlier tenure into more substantive gains. She did not disappoint. Within months, Bangladesh cracked down on the North East rebels and had almost the entire top leadership of ULFA arrested and handed over to Indian authorities at the border. This policy was formalised with the signing of the pact for mutual legal assistance on criminal matters, exchange and deportation of prisoners who have served their sentences.
India has responded in kind by extending transit facilities for Bangladeshi goods, selling 100 MW of power and extending $1 billion line of credit to Dhaka. Such substantive mutual co-operation has now paved the way for India’s possible involvement in major infrastructure development projects within Bangladesh, exploring means of developing transit facilities through each others territories, bringing about railway, highways and navigational connectivity. Selling of natural gas to India still remains a politically sensitive issue in Bangladesh but pragmatic economic policies point to the benefits it will bring the country by helping to eliminate its trade deficit.
That said, India and Bangladesh still have a long way to go before becoming actual dependable allies in pursuit of strategic objectives, and there is much that can derail the process yet. For now the direction and the pace appears reassuring.
Myanmar: on a path of calibrated engagement
Bilateral relations with Myanmar began to deteriorate with its slipping into military dictatorship in 1962 and worsened with atrocities against Indian immigrants by a ‘nationalistic’ junta. Myanmar itself was in a state of civil war with a multitude of ethnic insurgent armies and communist rebels fighting a secessionist war. Mao Zedong extended direct assistance to the Communist Party of Myanmar and a host of these rebel groups, damaging Sino-Myanmarese relations. This however changed towards the end of the seventies when China dramatically re-calibrated its policy, ended overt support to the rebels and began providing substantive support to the ruling junta. For a regime facing increasing isolation and sanctions from the international community, this support transformed into dependence.
Many of the rebel armies fighting the regime in Yangon also trained, nurtured and assisted Indian rebels who found refuge in the border areas beyond the effective control of the Myanmarese army. India remained indifferent or ambivalent to both these concerns. New Delhi looked on at a deepening of Chinese penetration of Myanmar and continued to support the democracy movement to the consternation of Yangon.
A measure of realism was infused into India’s policy in the 1990s and overtures were made towards the junta in Yangon. This has gradually led to a deepening of the ties and opening up of Myanmar for India to participate in an increasing number of projects ranging from infrastructure development in critical areas to explorations and production of natural gas. The recent visit of Than Shwe, the head of the junta, to New Delhi and signing of a slew of agreements indicates that trade and economic ties are likely grow in scale.
Even though a pact for mutual legal assistance on criminal matters too has been signed between India and Myanmar, this is unlikely to readily translate into crackdown on insurgents fighting in India’s North East. Most of these insurgent groups maintain camps in areas controlled by several ethnic rebel groups of Myanmar with which the junta in Yangon had been on a tenuous ceasefire since 1988. Any rash action risks jeopardising this ceasefire, leaving little room for manoeuvre. However this should not stand in the way of deepening of bilateral relations with Myanmar as Naypyidaw will seek to reduce its dependence on China, while still maintaining close ties with it.
Those critical of India’s engagement, on account of the junta’s resistance to democracy and terrible human rights record must realise that India’s disengagement automatically doesn’t pave the way for democracy. Nor does moral opprobrium alone provide New Delhi any leverage to address the critical challenges Myanmar poses to its vital interests.
The Road Ahead
The volatility in domestic politics of Bangladesh inevitably influences its bilateral relations with India. If the Awami League-led coalition government in Bangladesh looks towards India as a dependable ally, the principal opposition, Bangladesh Nationalist Party is visibly hostile. Therefore, even though the present coalition enjoys a more than two-thirds majority and looks set to complete its tenure, it is uncertain how domestic politics in Bangladesh — and hence relations with India — will play out thereafter.
The very fact that the Myanmar junta acquiesced for an election and then left no stones unturned to keep any real challengers out of the fray, is indicative of a growing anxiety within the junta.
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