The Indo-Bangladesh Relationship: Can David Re-envision Goliath?

Ali Riaz*

Illinois, April 2, 2014 (Alochonaa) : The Indo-Bangladesh relationship remains an issue of great interest and a matter of contention in Bangladeshi domestic politics. This has been the case since the Bangladesh’s inception, particularly due to the role India played in the war of independence. The simple facts of geography underscore additional reasons for the country’s dependence on India.

Bangladesh is surrounded by India- Google Image

Bangladesh is surrounded by India- Google Image

Bangladesh is surrounded by and shares 54 rivers with the Indian subcontinent. Because Bangladesh is located downstream from these essential watercourses Indian plans such as building new dams, projects to divert water from rivers, and non-compliance with existing water sharing agreements, are matters of public concern to Bangladeshis. There remain many other unresolved issues; the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) is a case in point. The two countries are not comparable in terms of size, strength and influence – economic or otherwise. At every crucial turn of domestic politics the ‘India factor’ looms large in Bangladesh. This is truer now than ever before.

The Context

The Indian government’s decision to stand by the ruling Awami League during the past election, despite the hollowness of the electoral exercise, has made India an inescapable issue in Bangladeshi domestic politics. It has already created a ripple effect at some levels of international politics too. As we all are aware, despite international calls for an inclusive election, the Indian government saw no problem in accepting a one-sided election for the sake of ‘constitutional continuity.’ India sent its foreign secretary to convince a political party to join the election.

Indian Foreign Secretary Sujata Singh visited Bangladesh before 2014 election (Google Image)

Indian Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh visited Bangladesh before 2014 election (Google Image)

The question as to why India was so forthright in its involvement in Bangladeshi domestic politics, and in the run up to the election virtually became the spokesperson for the Bangladeshi government in the international arena, has been raised by many analysts and observers. Those Bangladeshis who supported the Indian role were happy to see India step up; others were baffled by the development. A small number of Bangladeshis highlighted their earlier predictions that India was to play this role. All were in agreement that India has a custom-tailored policy for Bangladesh because all were viewing events from the Bangladeshi perspective instead of locating the Bangladesh policy within the larger framework of Indian foreign policy and strategic interests. Simply stated, all these commentators see Delhi from Dhaka, not the other way around. This ‘Banglo-centric’ position is unhelpful in unpacking Indian policy and predicting future trajectories.


The Point of Departure

Then how should one approach India’s Bangladesh policy? The point of departure should be the recognition that India is rising as, or at least aspires to be, a ‘pole power’, a global power in the making. One can argue whether India’s economy has reached the level of a global power, whether it has the necessary influence to be considered as a global actor, or whether the country has the capabilities to address the challenges it will face in the coming years. But one cannot ignore the aspiration and consequent behavior of the country. This aspiration is not something that India has attempted to conceal; on the contrary it has been articulated in very clear terms. For example, in the context of India’s maritime ambition, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee, long before assuming the Presidency, said:

after nearly a millennia of inward and landward focus, we are once again turning our gaze outwards and seawards, which is the natural direction of view for a nation seeking to reestablish itself, not simply as a continental power, but even more so as a maritime power, and consequently as one that is of significance on the world stage’ (Admiral A K Mujharjee Memorial Lecture, Kolktata, 30 June 2007)

India’s heightened effort to expand its naval capabilities in recent decades, expanding its influence in the Indian Ocean area through security cooperation with littoral states, and its growing assertiveness in the Indian Ocean are indications that it is now more confident in regard to its capabilities to counter any land based threat to its national security.

India’s ‘Concentric Circles’ Approach

India’s confidence and perception that it is now capable of dealing with the challenges emanating from its land based neighbors is a result of foreign and strategic policies it has pursued for a long time. The policy approach is best described as a ‘concentric circles’ approach. Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee stated in 2002 that:

‘just as Kautilya talked of the circles of states, a useful conceptual framework for the consideration of India’s foreign policy would be to view it as concentrations of three concentric circles around a central axis – the first of our immediate region, the second of the larger world and third of overarching global issues.’

This was echoed in the 2007 statement of the Congress Party led administration, ‘from a broader perspective, we regard our security as lying in a neighborhood of widening of concentric circles.’ While this approach reveals Indian policymakers’ strategic thinking, it can be argued that it is not unique to India. But we must also take into consideration Kautilya’s suggestion that immediate neighbors should be suspect at all times (that is neighboring states are to be looked at as potential enemies, even if friendly relations prevail in the immediate present).

India’s Monroe Doctrine

Although Indian foreign policy has been articulated in the three concentric circles frame only recently, its regional security policy has long reflected this mindset. The essence of India’s regional policy has been akin to a Doctrine enunciated by US President James Monroe in 1823 and since then known as the Monroe Doctrine. The essential element of the Doctrine was that the US would not allow European powers to meddle in what was considered to be its backyard – Central and South America. In similar vein, Indian regional security doctrine has been, “that India strongly opposes outside intervention in the domestic affairs of other South Asian nations, especially by external powers whose goals are perceived to be inimical to Indian interests” wrote Devin T. Hagerty in 1991.


The essence of India’s regional policy is influenced by a Doctrine enunciated by the 5th US President James Monroe. (Photo- Whitehouse)

India’s Monroe Doctrine has manifested itself in a number of areas. India was involved in Sri Lanka’s civil war between 1983 and 1990, sustaining a military presence in the country; military intervention was used in the Maldives in 1988 to foil a coup; Nepal was blockaded in 1989-90 during the Monarchy’s flirtation with China. This is not to say that India has been successful in implementing the Doctrine, as C. Raja Mohan commented, “This Indian variation of the Monroe Doctrine, involving spheres of influence, has not been entirely successful in the past, but it has been an article of faith for many in the Indian strategic community.”


A Diversion

During the time of I.K Gujral, there was a short-lived change in Indian Foreign Policy (Google Image)

During the time of I.K Gujral, there was a short-lived change in Indian Foreign Policy (Google Image)

The only time India diverted from its own version of the Monroe Doctrine was when I. K. Gujral was in power and a short-lived ‘Gujral Doctrine’ was proposed. The doctrine was about reaching out asymmetrically to neighbors. The first of the five points of the doctrine was with neighbors like Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka; India does not ask for reciprocity, but gives and accommodates what it can in good faith and trust. Another aspect was that no country should interfere in the internal affairs of another but the doctrine did not go very far. The Sri Lanka experience, particularly the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the Tamil militants in 1991, was instrumental to the emergence of the Gujral Doctrine. “A true security doctrine outlasts its originators, thrives under different leadership, and survives shifting political tides,” Hagerty reminded us; we now know however that the Gujral Doctrine did not survive shifting political tides. India’s Monroe Doctrine returned, especially after 9/11.


South Asia: As Viewed from Delhi

Misplaced US foreign policy initiatives and a growing security threat from within after 9/11

President Bush supported India's aspiration for a global power (Google Image)

President Bush supported India’s aspiration for a global power (Google Image)

bolstered India’s perception that it is located in a perilous neighborhood; in the words of an Indian analyst the Indian perception was – and still is – that it is “being surrounded on all sides by unstable democracies, conflict-ridden countries, militant activity, authoritarian leaders or weak government.” This assessment was furthered by the Bush administration’s active support for the Indian aspiration to become a global power, especially a maritime power as a counterweight to the Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean. Comments made by the State department’s spokesperson on 25 March 2005 are worth recalling here: “[We would] help India become a major world power in the 21st century”, “We understand fully the implications, including the military implications of that statement.” Coupled with its long-standing strategic doctrine, these developments led to securitization of India’s relationship with all other South Asian countries. It was within this framework that India began to locate its assessment of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh after 2001

Political and security situations within Bangladesh after 2001, particularly between 2005 and 2006, shaped its policy towards its neighbor. The initial reluctance of Khaleda Zia’s government (which had Islamists as partners) to address the militancy issue, the presence of some regional militant groups, and the use of Bangladesh as a sanctuary by Indian insurgents were all viewed by New Delhi through a security-centric prism. Indian policy-makers were convinced that the worst-case scenario – Bangladesh becoming a hotbed of terrorism – was in the making. The Khaleda regime also failed to engage India in a constructive manner.

The 2001-2006 Government of Khaleda Zia (left) failed to address India's security concern in a constructive manner ( Google Image)

The 2001-2006 Government of Khaleda Zia (left) failed to address India’s security concern in a constructive manner ( Google Image)

The assumption of power by the caretaker government in 2007-2008 was a welcome relief for India as much as it was for the Bangladeshi citizens. Unfortunately, successful efforts of the military-backed caretaker government to stem the tide of militancy didn’t change the black and white perception of Bangladesh in New Delhi. India remained suspicious of any future developments that posed a challenge to its regional hegemonic posture.


Unchanged Indian Approach, post-2008

Such was the preoccupation with security on the part of the Indian policy-makers that they failed to appreciate that the Awami League’s victory in 2008 provided them with an excellent opportunity to view Bangladesh differently and engage at a multilateral level. There was a sea change in the public perception of India and a relationship of reciprocity could have been built with long-lasting impact. It was time to repair the relationship. There is no doubt that smaller countries feel resentment against big neighbors and that makes it imperative that the bigger country remains vigilant about treading on the feet of smaller ones.

Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh and the head of ruling Awami League (left) and Sonia Gandhi, head of India's ruling Congress Party (Goggle Image)

Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh and the head of ruling Awami League (left) and Sonia Gandhi, head of India’s ruling Congress Party (Google Image)

A closer look at the relationship between the Sheikh Hasina-led government and India reveals that Indian thinking was dominated by the security-centric approach instead of seeking to build a long-term state-to-state relationship. Reluctance to address issues such the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA), sharing of waters of common rivers (including the Teesta River) and unabated killings on the border by Indian border guards, to name a few issues, showed that India did not view Bangladesh as an equal partner.

There is no denying that Indian help during the war of independence in 1971 neither can nor should be forgotten by Bangladesh, but whether Indian policymakers expect that their historical role in 1971 should be the only criterion by which to judge the Indo-Bangladesh relationship is something one must consider. A US-based researcher Aparna Pande wrote in July 2011, “It is said that ‘gratitude’ is often the worst cross to bear. With Bangladesh, maybe that is what India needs to keep in mind. 1971 has passed and maybe that is the way Indian policy makers should look at it and not hope that after thirty-six years they will still be treated as ‘heroes’ or ‘deliverers.’”

Looking at the 2009-2014 Indo-Bangladesh relationship it is safe to say that traditional security doctrines trumped the reality on the ground in the sense that India remained suspicious about Bangladesh. But had Indian policy-makers looked around the region, it would have seen that India has few friends on its borders; Bangladesh was the exception. It was time to ask whether its troubled relationship with the neighbors was a result of its own hegemonic posture rather than the neighbors’ behavior. Enormous economic development can be achieved in both countries through respectful cooperation if the will to subscribe fully to this aim is there.

As the Bangladesh election approached in 2014 and the international community began to call for an inclusive election, India viewed it as international meddling in its backyard. This occurred against the backdrop of growing strain with the United States in recent years, arising from the United States’ policy of the ‘Pivot to Asia’, and China’s interests in South Asia beyond Pakistan. The perceived security threat emanating from the possible victory of the Bangladeshi opposition clouded Indian judgment. At that point, Indian policy discourses on Bangladesh were no longer about a friend with historical ties but a country situated within the larger regional and global framework. From that point of view, its decision was predetermined.


The Trajectory

In January 2010, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that ‘India seeks to build a new future with Bangladesh. The time has come to chart a new path. We are ready to pursue a bold vision for our relations, based on mutual respect and benefit.’ More than three years have passed, and India hasn’t made good on the PM’s statement. Instead, its policies have been dominated by its preoccupation with security and shaped by its flawed security doctrine. India’s decision to overtly support the ruling Awami League endangered the transformation of the Indo-Bangladesh relationship into an equal state-to-state relationship. This decision might have benefited India in the short-term but is likely to have engendered more skepticism about Indian intent and fomented more anti-Indian feeling among Bangladeshi citizens in the long-run. Indian policy-makers should delay no longer in re-envisioning its neighbors, particularly Bangladesh. The forthcoming election will preclude the present government from making any major shift in its policy, but the new government will have the opportunity to chart a different course. Bangladeshi political leaders, both in power and opposition, should consider their options carefully. History cannot be obliterated; neither can we live in the past. Geography is a hard reality that one cannot be oblivious to. When it comes to states, you cannot choose your neighbors but whether you will make them allies or adversaries is a decision you can take. The present political calm in Bangladesh and the election in India should allow both sides an opportunity to rethink and re-envision the relationship.

*Ali Riaz, PhD is a Professor and the Chair, Department of Politics and Government, Illinois State University, USA. In 2013 he served as a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars at Washington, D.C. He testified at the US Congress on Bangladesh in 2013 and at the US Commission on International Religious Freedom in 2008. Alongside with his recent book “Islam and Identity Politics among British Bangladeshis: A Leap of Faith” (Manchester University Press), he has authored at least four books and appeared on CNN and Al Jazeera English TV channels. Dr. Riaz is one of the the world’s leading experts of South Asian politics. His recent essay “A Crisis of Democracy in Bangladesh” is published in Current History (, a prestigious US-based journal to which people like George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, Condoleezza Rice and Francis Fukuyama contributed in the past.

** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at

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