India’s ‘Neighbour First’ Policy and Bangladesh

Jayanta Ghosal

7 September, 2020 12:00 AM printer

Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has recently written a book on his country’s foreign policy. The virtual unveiling of the book was held in New Delhi at a function organised by the Observer Research Foundation on Thursday. Actually, Jaishankar wrote the book after his resignation from the post of secretary. At that time, he was not aware that he would be made the Minister of Foreign Affairs. However, the prime minister has given permission for the publication of the book. It can be said that he had consciously avoided the issues that are not permissible as a minister.

Indian media has mentioned that in the book he could not frankly write many things about China, the way former foreign secretaries and ambassadors could tell openly. Although the book is devoid of Chinese reality, he mentioned about the friendly ties of India with Bangladesh and the urgency of strengthening bondage with this sovereign country.

On Friday, Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla at a discussion titled “Broad Canvas of Indian Diplomacy during the Pandemic” organised by the Indian Council of World Affairs unequivocally declared that our foreign policy is the ‘Neighbour First.’ What he did not say is that the China-Pakistan axis is preparing for an attack on the Indo-China frontier as is stated by Indian intelligence personnel. Bipin Rawat too roared to tell Indian preparation to repulse Chinese attack. Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has talked to Chinese representatives in Moscow. India also wants to know the mind of Moscow. In this situation, India needs Bangladesh most instead of China, Sri Lanka and Myanmar.

Meanwhile, vested quarters in collaboration with media of both the countries have launched a propaganda campaign telling that China has proposed Bangladesh for trial of coronavirus vaccine that has already been okayed. India being a friend of Bangladesh is doing nothing in this regard. Propaganda is underway in India that Bangladesh has silently signed an agreement with China to this effect. Bangladeshi newspapers have posed a question asking about Indian promise while China has extended its hands of cooperation towards Bangladesh.

Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardan Shringla’s recent Bangladesh tour should be understood from this standpoint. On conclusion of his visit and return home, Modi government in a cabinet meeting on Thursday pledged to give Dhaka first the vaccine of coronavirus. The cabinet also approved an agreement between the two governments where it has been mentioned the moment coronavirus vaccine arrives, India will handover it to Bangladesh. If Oxford or any other institution or state gives India the vaccine, then the Indian Serum Institute, being its counterpart, will send it to the neighbouring countries of South Asia. These will be distributed through different non-government organisations, of course, under the government supervision.

As a reason of giving Covid-19 vaccine to Bangladesh on a priority basis, India has termed Bangladesh as a ‘strategic partner.’ In the diplomatic world, the word ‘strategic’ is very important. Beximco Pharmaceutical of Bangladesh has signed an accord with the Indian Serum Institute while Dhaka is yet to sign any deal with Beijing. It has just given a permission of trial. About the vaccine, no Bangladeshi firm has signed any agreement.

As per directives from Modi and Jaysankar, Shringla went to Dhaka amid coronavirus pandemic. In a meeting with Sheikh Hasina, an elaborate discussion was held over Covid-19 vaccine. The meeting finalised the draft of a bilateral agreement. The friendly journey of the two countries started through emergence of Bangladesh as a sovereign and independent state in 1971.

The Indian foreign secretary will shortly pay a visit to Myanmar. In Dhaka, he assured the Bangladesh premier that India would pay due importance to this strategic relationship while resolving the Rohingya issue. This time, India will play a pro-active role for resolving the issue. It will intervene following informal procedure with Myanmar government. Later, India will raise the issue at the United Nations (UN) during the UN General Assembly Session that is scheduled to be held in the current month of September. Although coronavirus has posed as an obstruction, still there is urgency of holding the UN session. Shringla went to Dhaka soon after becoming the foreign secretary. At that time he mentioned about a special route for facilitating Rohingya repatriation to Myanmar and necessity of an agreement. India is especially active as regards the issue.

However, India will never do anything that harms friendly relationship with Myanmar. It is the desire of Bangladesh that the Indian foreign secretary refrains from issuing any statement that might affect the sovereign interest of Bangladesh. Now, preparations are afoot in New Delhi for Shringla’s Myanmar visit. China is helping Myanmar financially in structural development of the latter’s frontier. This is a long term activity of China. Myanmar will go to polls in November. Friendship with Myanmar is essential for India.

However, Shringla’s Myanmar tour is being delayed for some time. Bangladesh observes closely how Sri Lanka got entangled in Chinese loan trap. In 2017, Sri Lanka entered a 99-year lease agreement with Merchant Port Holdings Limited and took an amount of 1.12 billion dollars. But the terms and conditions of Exim Bank of China have put Sri Lanka in a complex situation. In a bid to come out of the trap of previous loan, Sri Lanka had to take loans again. In that country, the condition of balance of payment is very bad. As to why, Bangladesh keeps itself away from the Chinese loan trap.

Rumour is harmful for both India and Bangladesh. Past history is its witness. We want a long life of democracy in both the countries. Covid-19 has already devastated the country’s economy. India is pledge-bound to Bangladesh government. As part of British India, the economic ties of the two countries are age-old. After independence of Bangladesh, a new tradition of economic assistance has been added. The agreement over coronavirus is a continuation of the historic tradition.

In this era of globalisation, no state can take the policy of ‘go alone.’ A country is dependent on other countries for political, economic, environmental, geographical reasons and in many other ways. About 78.86 per cent border of Bangladesh lies with India. This border is of paramount importance. So, terming Bangladesh as a ‘strategic partner’, India wants to bring an end to all misunderstandings. As to why, Shringla has announced Delhi’s readiness to settle all unresolved issues with Dhaka.


The writer is a senior journalist of India.

Translated by Z A M Khairuzzaman.