Bangladesh’s Breakout Plan
Please read Part I before this article
Bangladesh can break out of India’s hegemonic grasp if its leadership recognizes the true nature of its geostrategic relationship with New Delhi and proactively takes steps to promote its own national interests as a result.
Part I of the research advanced the argument that Bangladesh is India’s most important neighbor by virtue of its inclusion in each of the four regional integration projects that New Delhi is involved in. Additionally, the last of the four which was mentioned, BIMSTEC, is the only one which is still relevant and also the initiative which holds the most promise for India’s future geostrategic plans, but it’s ironically the most vulnerable to destabilization due to the “Conflict Corridor”. It’s here where India’s relationship with Bangladesh again comes into play, as it’s imperative from the standpoint of New Delhi’s present leadership that Bangladesh remains under India’s boot as a vassal state.
The Modi-Doval Hindutva “deep state” believes that the second-class status of Dhaka in the bilateral relationship is necessary in order to secure India’s reliable access to its troubled Northeast, which thereby guarantees a dependable land route to ASEAN. This isn’t only important for commercial-integrational reasons either, because if Bangladesh ever agrees to allow Indian troops overland transit rights from West Bengal to the Northeast, then it would considerably improve New Delhi’s ability to respond to the “Conflict Corridor” challenges within its borders. Relatedly, if India can maintain a superior position over Bangladesh (whether directly or via its Awami League political proxy), then New Delhi can see to it that Dhaka refrains from giving support or sanctuary to any of these forces.
India’s grand strategy is to exploit Bangladesh as an economic and military bridge to its underdeveloped and rebellion-prone Northeastern States, which would thereby enhance the viability of New Delhi’s “Act East” policy of ASEAN engagement and consequently allow India to more confidently confront China in Southeast Asia. Bangladesh is therefore the lynchpin of this strategy for geostrategic reasons, since India’s plans hinge on the country being a loyal quisling state and never recognizing the real power that it holds over New Delhi. That being said, if Bangladesh fully understood exactly how important it is to India, then it might be able to reverse the bilateral dynamic in their relations and come out as the more powerful of the two as a result.
Turning The Tables
The first thing to understand is that sometimes the transit state can be more important than either of the two or more parties which it connects, and this holds true regardless of whether it’s energy (like Ukraine vis-à-vis Russia and the EU) or trade routes (such as Bangladesh in India’s “Act East” vision) that are being described. There are structural limitations to what the said transit state can do to augment its importance in the larger set of relationships that it’s a part of, and it’s difficult to draw comparisons between any two of these countries no matter how similarly they fit into the connectivity jigsaw (like comparing Ukraine and Bangladesh, for instance), so the reader should be cognizant of the restraints that exist in this model. Having said that, though, the Bangladeshi case study provides a wealth of examples in how this particular transit state can take advantage of its geostrategic location in turning the tables on its much larger neighbor.
It was earlier described how Bangladesh occupies the most important position when it comes to India’s 21st-century international security. India is actively seeking to integrate with ASEAN, but it can’t reach its full potential in doing this without first integrating with (or overpowering) Bangladesh. The ruling Awami League is stridently pro-Indian, but it’s facing ever-increasingly more serious threats from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) opposition, including, as the government has alleged, militant attacks (which fits into the “Bangla-Daesh” narrative linked to in Part I of the text). It’s not the author’s intent to pontificate on which of these parties are “right” or “wrong”, but to draw attention to the fact that the political instability in the country could jeopardize the “Act East” integrational plans both for India and Bangladesh itself. Any such consequence would be unintentional, however, since it’s not in either New Delhi nor Dhaka’s interests to see this happen, but the reader should still be warned that the situation is dynamic and unpredictable, and has been worsening over the past couple of years already.
Provided that Bangladesh can retain its internal stability regardless of which party is in power (though most realistically in the case if the BNP could peacefully obtain control of the government), then the country would do well leverage its economic and security significance to India through a brand-new strategy of neighborly engagement. Instead of being the doormat that India wants to turn it into on the road to ASEAN, Dhaka needs to be comfortable enough with its geostrategic position to flex its muscles and play “hard ball” with New Delhi so as to assume its rightful place in the Multipolar Century by becoming an independent and influential power in its own right. It can do this through an ambitious set of policies which take advantage of India’s fears, but fall well below the threshold of exacerbating any perceived security dilemma and thereby unintentionally destabilizing the Bay of Bengal region through interstate tensions.
Dhaka’s Three-Step Strategy
The Bangladeshi government is advised to prioritize a phased three-step strategy towards India:
1. Mitigate Destabilization Risks In the “Conflict Corridor” But Don’t Surrender National Interests:
The present government has done a lot to improve India’s security standing in the Northeast, but it’s objectively surrendered much of its national interests in doing so. Dhaka no longer allows Assamese or other separatist groups to take refuge on its territory, but this has greatly diminished the bargaining leverage that Bangladesh has towards India. The author isn’t necessarily calling for the government to backtrack on this policy, though it would be wise for Dhaka to reconsider its utility. While it’s true that this decision enormously contributed to India’s willingness to finally settle the decades-long border dispute between the two countries in 2015, it’s now time for Bangladesh to revert to the coy tactic of plausible deniability and ambiguousness towards certain Indian-based groups now that Dhaka has already received what it most desired from New Delhi.
* Ethnic Bengalis
For instance, Bangladesh could begin by sending signals that it’s interested in the general wellbeing and safety of its ethno-linguistic compatriots, whether they reside in West Bengal or the Northeast States. The former will come into play during the third step of the described strategy, so for now it’s important to pay attention to the latter. There are very serious concerns that the large-scale influx of Bengali refugees/immigrants into the Northeast can lead to the destabilization of these Indian states, particularly as it relates to reactive nationalism from the Assamese. Some Indian politicians are pondering whether to strictly enforce migration and citizenship laws and resultantly expel countless Bengalis back to their neighboring nation-state, which could lead to problems inside of Bangladesh if this process becomes uncontrollable. Therefore, it’s in Dhaka’s best interests to intercede on its ethno-linguistic compatriots’ behalf in finding a solution to this long-running problem, which could conceivably take the form of hosting ethnic Bengali and Assamese leaders for talks on this contentious issue.
Building off of what was just mentioned above, Bangladesh should find a way to guarantee the rights and dignity of its people in India, regardless of their legal status in the neighboring country, and ensure that even if they’re expelled, that this is done in accordance with respect to their human rights and international law. The reactive nationalism of the Assamese is triggered by the large-scale influx of Bengalis into what they consider to be their traditional homeland, and while this process has its roots in the aftermath of the 1971 Indian-Pakistani War (and before that, in the arbitrary UK-drawn colonial boundaries), this lingering humanitarian problem is on the brink of becoming a contemporary security crisis. Bangladesh can’t turn a blind eye towards the treatment of its compatriots in India, but it also shouldn’t sacrifice the chance to regain and promote its historic strategic relationship with some Assamese circles. It doesn’t need to tacitly support separatism like it used to because hosting civil society groups for talks on the discussed issue would be a positive first step and succeed in sending a strong (but non-threatening) signal towards India.
Bangladesh’s efforts to avoid any potential “Clash of Civilizations” in Northeastern India between the native Hindu Assamese and Muslim Bengali newcomers would be greatly complemented by coordinated efforts in neighboring Myanmar as it relates to the Muslim Bengali “Rohingya” (both newcomers and legacy descendants) and the native Buddhist Rakhine. Neither Naypyidaw nor Dhaka are neutral in this simmering dispute since both have deep-seated sympathies for their respective identity groups which thus prevents their impartiality in mediating this problem, but the best thing that Bangladesh can do to bolster its regional standing through the “Rohingya” issue is to internationalize it by encouraging its Indian and Chinese partners to broker neutral talks between the two intra-Myanmarese sides as an alternative to the “international community” (West) building up more pressure on the Southeast Asian state.
Both New Delhi and Beijing have premier connectivity projects running through the country, the Trilateral Highway and Kyaukphu Pipeline/(potential) Corridor respectively, so they have a vested interest in the stability of their mutual neighbor. If Bangladesh was responsible for bringing both rivals together to cooperate in Myanmar, then Dhaka’s geostrategic importance to both of them would rise as a result.
2. Make Bangladesh’s “Act East” Participation Conditional On Indian-Funded Development:
Bangladesh can gain a lot from partnering with India on New Delhi’s “Act East” initiative of ASEAN engagement, but Dhaka needs to make sure that it’s respected as an equal partner and not just treated like a doormat. In exchange for functioning as an economic (and perhaps, though hopefully not for the sake of its sovereign interests, a military) transit state for India to reach its Northeastern regions and beyond, Bangladesh should demand that “Rising India” fund a bevy of infrastructural and other development projects in the country. After all, if India is sincere in its rhetoric that it truly respects Bangladesh and has its national interests as heart, then it should commit to making the country the central overland node for New Delhi’s ASEAN connectivity plans through BIMSTEC. This could take the form of roads, bridges, power plants, trade corridors, and other such investments, but the point behind them is to ensure that the Bangladeshi standard of living rises in accordance with the expected Indian one.
Granted, India might be reluctant to commit billions of dollars in building up a vassal state which it only cares to trade across (and not necessarily with), so Bangladesh should wisely rely on the aforementioned first step of low-level but diplomatically significant engagement vis-à-vis the “Conflict Corridor” in order to compel New Delhi into concessions. The author isn’t implying that Bangladesh should threaten its neighbor with support of ethno-separatist insurgencies if it doesn’t get what it wants, but just that it should remind India that Dhaka’s rising profile among some of the groups in India’s internal periphery could be applied to more strongly ensure New Delhi’s security. If India doesn’t identify the blatantly obvious self-interest that it would have in building up Bangladesh’s infrastructure in exchange for guaranteeing stability along its own frontier (essentially “paying off” its neighbor), then Dhaka could play the “China card” in courting Beijing to do so instead, which might compel the hyper-nationalistic Modi-Doval Hindutva “deep state” to finally fulfill its responsible role as Bangladesh’s “equal” partner.
3. Pursue Socio-Economic Integration With West Bengal To Help Both Sides Reach A Better Bargain:
* Background Concepts
The natural outcome of Bangladesh applying its influence over India’s internal periphery in order to reap infrastructural investments from New Delhi is that the Two Bengals (Bangladesh and West Bengal) will become more closely integrated as a result, which would be a major unintended consequence from India’s perspective. New Delhi is essentially caught in a Catch-22 – on the one hand, it doesn’t want to build up Bangladesh to the point of allowing this to happen, but on the other, Dhaka might be skillful enough with its diplomacy per the aforementioned suggestions to make this inevitable, and India does in fact have a powerful commercial-strategic interest in developing reliable overland connectivity with ASEAN via Bangladesh.
West Bengal has become very wary of New Delhi ever since Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee came to office in 2011, though the state has always had an historical tendency to assert its sovereignty. This doesn’t mean that Kolkata’s leadership is separatist, but just that it aspires to achieve the maximum amount of political freedom as allowed under the Indian Constitution. There’s nothing inherently wrong or threatening with this, though the centralizing Modi-Doval Hindutva “deep state” certainly sees it otherwise. From New Delhi’s viewpoint, Kolkata has the potential to become a serious problem for the central government throughout the course of the national authorities’ to assert their primacy over the periphery, which is why the eastern state is the inevitable target of heavy centralizing pressure.
“West Bengal Is The Bottleneck Of India’s ‘Act East’ Strategy”, and “[It] Would Immensely Benefit From Eurasian Connectivity”, as the author earlier wrote in two related pieces on the subject, which explains the geostrategic reasons behind India’s quest to fully control it. West Bengal and Bangladesh are in the same position vis-à-vis India in this hegemonic context, so it’s only reasonable that they’d team up with one another. Their envisioned cooperation isn’t just driven by the described structural pressures, but is also largely attributable to the deep historic and ethno-linguistic ties binding both Bengali populations and their respective sub-state and state governments. If India can be convinced to build more connectivity infrastructure between these neighboring entities, then it’s only a matter of time before they can recreate an integrated socio-cultural (but not political) space.
* Challenges And Opportunities
Despite their shared ethno-linguistic characteristics, there are several challenges which complicate the prospects for smooth cooperation between the Bengalis in West Bengal and Bangladesh. The first obviously has to do with their differing sovereignties, as Kolkata’s ties with Dhaka must go through New Delhi (at least for the time being, pending any possible “Identity Federalism”), and India would probably impede any movement in this direction. Next, there’s also point that Bangladesh is a majority-Muslim country with Islamifying tendencies while West Bengal is majority-Hindu with strict secularist traditions. These religious and cultural differences don’t have to be an obstacle to further cooperation between the two, but they definitely prevent any sort of future political integration and could be manipulated by third-party actors (e.g. New Delhi) in order to offset both sides’ strategic convergences. Finally, the last and most dangerous hindrance is that a perceived or engineered “Clash of Civilizations” between Hindutvas and Wahhabis across the middle zone of the “Conflict Corridor” in West Bengal, Bangladesh, and the Northeast States could sow the seeds for insurmountable distrust and sabotage any tangible cooperative ventures between them.
Nevertheless, there’s an historic chance for both Bengals to overcome their differences and successfully integrate into a shared socio-economic space. Both sides need to apply the “Silk Road Strategy” of emphasizing apolitical and non-religious people-to-people exchanges (trade, social, academic, leadership, etc.) in order to build a sense of ethno-linguistic patriotism in the cross-border Bengali community. This could effectively serve to counteract any divisive “Clash of Civilizations” scheme which strategic adversaries might be cooking. Additionally, West Bengal should follow in its nation-state’s suggested footsteps by actively cultivating pragmatic relations with the only “Conflict Corridor” party which Bangladesh itself is unable to reach, the Naxalites. The strong communist traditions in West Bengal could be an attractive soft power pull for peaceful (non-militant) Naxalites, who might then be encouraged to set up political bases (“safe havens”) there. If properly handled, then West Bengal and Bangladesh could jointly prove themselves as indispensable players in managing India’s strategic-security risks in the “Conflict Corridor”, which could then put them in the position to push forth the “Bengal Platform”.
The “Bengal Platform”/Concluding Thoughts
This initiative refers to the coordinated bargaining that West Bengal and Bangladesh could pursue with India in order to receive New Delhi-financed transnational infrastructure investments in exchange for their active cooperation in India’s “Act East” strategy. As part of the deal, the Two Bengals would also use their influence over some of the parties in the “Conflict Corridor” to secure New Delhi’s envisioned East-West (and possibly one day, even North-South) connectivity routes. All in all, the “Bengal Platform” presents an equitable and respectful win-win solution to India’s grand integrational strategy without sacrificing on the sovereignty of either Bengali population.
It’s admittedly a long-term vision to achieve, but both Bengali entities need to begin prioritizing it now if they ever want to see it succeed. It requires trust, coordination, and a dash of political risk in order to pull off, but there’s nothing objectively standing in the way of this plan except for the self-restraint of each respective actor, in this case the governments in Dhaka and Kolkata. If implemented, the “Bengal Platform” would allow Big (“Greater”) Bangladesh to become a powerful multipolar force in the tri-regional space between India, China, and ASEAN. This alone should be enough to motivate anyone within this ethno-linguistic and historical zone to seriously contemplate whether it’s the policy that’s needed to give the Bengali population their long-awaited chance at strategically breaking out of New Delhi’s hegemonic grasp.
By Andrew Korybko
Source: Regional Rapport