April 23, 2024

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The Driving Force of Anti-India Sentiment in Bangladesh.

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Agartala, 3rd April, 2024 : The ‘Boycott India’ or ‘India Out’ campaign, a movement led by opposition political parties in Bangladesh, is gaining momentum. It is primarily driven by those who hold anti-government sentiments, both within and outside Bangladesh. The campaign, sparked by India’s alleged interference in Bangladesh’s 12th general elections held on January 7, has seen widespread participation. Though the main opposition, BNP, has not officially endorsed the campaign, many believe it is playing a significant role.

While the economic outcome of the ‘Boycott India’ campaign remains uncertain, the political and symbolic impact is palpable. The campaign has sparked a flurry of activity on social media, with many using the hashtags #IndiaOut and # BoycottIndia to express their support or dissent. India’s decision not to interfere in the elections to maintain its positive relations with Hasina’s government spurred anger among the people. While India maintained the status quo since the beginning of the election process, the US and its Western allies expressed their concerns about holding free and fair elections. The US’ reluctance and silence after the election forced them to believe India’s interference in the elections. Many people are of the opinion that Indian pressure was instrumental in the United States’ decision to lift visa restrictions following the ‘one-sided’ elections.

Although the alleged election interference played a crucial role in launching the anti-India campaign, it is essential to note that people have long-standing resentment against India. India’s close ties with the Awami League and preference for Sheikh Hasina have always made her opposition uncomfortable. Moreover, during the last 15 years of Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League’s rule, bilateral relations between Bangladesh and India reached new heights. While the two countries signed many significant agreements, including the exchange of Chitmahals, transit-transshipment agreements, and the reduction of border killings, the Teesta issue remains a matter of discontent between the neighbors. The deadlock of the Teesta Treaty has fueled the accumulated anger of the people against India.

The Teesta Water Sharing issue, a bone of contention between Bangladesh and India for the past five decades, is a prime example of the grievances fueling the ‘Boycott India’ campaign. India’s withdrawal of water through the Gazaldoba barrage during the dry season has led to water scarcity in the river. This, in turn, has hampered the Teesta Barrage Irrigation Project (TBIP), which was designed to irrigate the vast agricultural land of North Bengal. India’s ambitious irrigation and hydropower projects in the river’s upper basin have also caused problems. During the dry season, people struggle to meet their agricultural water demands, while in the summer and monsoon seasons, they face the threat of flooding from water originating in the upper stream of Teesta.

The 102 kilometers out of the 115 kilometers of the Teesta river flowing inside Bangladesh have become entirely dried up. Thus, over one lakh people living in the Teesta River basin, utterly dependent on its water for agriculture and fishing, have been struggling for their livelihoods. As the Teesta Irrigation Project failed to supply water to the agricultural lands, it hampered the development of agriculture-dependent North Bengal.

In 2011, the Teesta agreement was set to be signed during IndianPrime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Bangladesh. However, the agreement was not signed due to strong opposition from West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Since then, there has been a change in power, and the BJP has sat in the central government. However, the Teesta issue remains unresolved due to India’s reluctance, despite numerous discussions held between the two countries.

Due to the status quo of water sharing, Bangladesh has been exploring alternative solutions. With the help of Chinese funding, Dhaka proposed a Teesta River Comprehensive Management Project to effectively manage the river’s water resources. The project aims to guarantee year-round navigation through dredging and building dams and reservoirs. However, China has shown keen interest in supporting and implementing these projects, and the project’s implementation has been hindered by India’s opposition. India has expressed significant concerns regarding the Teesta project due to the close proximity of China’s strong presence, which is within 100 km of India’s border. Though no official statement has been made in this regard, analysts and news outlets have said that Bangladesh has considered India’s concerns, which caused the delay in the project’s implementation.

There are reasons to believe that killing Bangladeshi people at the border is another reason behind people’s protest against India.Since 2020, at least 120 Bangladeshis have been killed along the border until 2024. Despite lofty commitments since the past decade and their reiterations to bring down the number of border killings “to zero,” killings along the border have surged significantly. After a recent visit to India, Foreign Minister Hasan Mahmud on February 12 told journalists that Dhaka and Delhi agreed on the use of non-lethal weapons to stop border killings. Incidents of killing occurred even after the FM’s visit. The inconsiderate killings by the BSF spurred anti-India sentiments among the people for years.

As a vital geopolitical ally and a time-tested, trustworthy friend of India, Bangladesh has always sought India’s goodwill to resolve all tensions in the warm relationship. It contributed to the development of northeastern states by giving access to its land and major seaports in the Bay of Bengal. It also played a key role in retaining the stability of the northeast by destroying the shelter of the separatists. As Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina stated, the relationship between Bangladesh and India goes far beyond strategic partnership; India’s role as a friend rather than a “big brother” has always been appreciated by the people of Bangladesh. Thus, India should pay more attention to the people’s concerns to strengthen cooperation with its closest ally.

Author : Dr. Shahriar M. Shams, Ph.D. is a columnist and political analyst, a MEXT Scholar, and currently serving at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University, Bangladesh.

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