The India-Bangladesh Relationships – Lookback and Reality Check


Differences of opinion between the Congress leaders Nehru and Patel with the Muslim League leaders Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan led to the division of British India. The 1947 partition of British India along communal lines drawn by Cyril Radcliffe created India and Pakistan. The division done in a hurry under Viceroy Lord Louis Mountbatten brought great human misery. Because of the partition in Punjab half a million people died and over ten million people migrated across the Punjab frontiers and a million more crossed the borders in Bengal. The eastern wing of Pakistan, then known as East Bengal became East Pakistan separated by hundreds of miles across India. The East Pakistanis were politically and economically discriminated against by West Pakistanis who dominated the central government and the armed forces. In 1952, when Urdu was declared as the only State language of Pakistan, the Bengalis of East Pakistan opposed the imposition of Urdu. What started as the language movement of 1952 culminated into the 1971 liberation movement of Bangladesh.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman emerged as the leader of Awami League founded by his mentor Suhrawardy. In 1966, Mujib placed the six point demand to frame a constitution for regional autonomy to East Pakistan. In 1968, the Pakistani Govt. arrested Mujib in the Agartala Conspiracy Case and charged him and thirty four others with conspiracy for secession of East Pakistan. After months of popular protests, Mujib was released and the conspiracy case was withdrawn. In the 1970 elections, the Awami League secured simple majority in the National Assembly and absolute majority in the Provincial Assembly but power was not handed over to them. In the midnight of 25th March 1971 following a military crackdown, Mujib’s declaration of independence for Bangladesh was announced leading to his arrest. The Awami League was banned and Mujib was flown to West Pakistan. The Pakistani junta accused him of treason, kept in solitary confinement and a secret trial sentenced him to death. However, the death sentence was not carried out by then President Bhutto who replaced Yahya Khan.

The Pakistani Army unleashed a reign of terror against the Bengalis in which three million people died and ten million people migrated to India at the end of the nine months Bangladesh Liberation War. The Indian Government provided shelter to the Bangladesh government in exile. The Mukti Bahini, which fought a guerrilla war against the Pakistani Army, was armed and trained by the Indian military officers in military camps situated along the Indo-East Pakistan borders. The Indian army started shelling East Pakistani positions at the end of November followed by airstrikes by the Pakistani Air force from 3rd December which led to the 3rd Indo-Pak War.  On 6th December, Delhi officially recognized Bangladesh as a sovereign nation. The final phase of the Bangladesh Liberation War was completed in 12 days operation by the Indian Army. The Pakistani Army surrendered on 16th December and Bangladesh was born.

Soon after his release on 7th Jan’1972, Mujib took over as the Prime Minister of Bangladesh and signed two treaties with Indira Gandhi, the 25 years 1972 Indo-Bangladesh Treaty of friendship, co-operation and peace and the 1974 Indo- Bangladesh Treaty for demarcation of boundaries and for exchange of 161 adversely held enclaves. The treaties became subject of resentment, generated bitterness in Bangladesh because the treaties were seen as unequal and an imposition of Indian hegemony. Chaos, disillusionment and economic crises gripped the war ravaged country. There was a revival of communal politics and a demand for a Muslim Bangla.

On 25th Jan’1975, Mujib amended the Constitution changing the parliamentary democracy to a one party Presidential system and became the President. On15th Aug, in a coup, Mujib, the father of the Nation was gunned down along with 14 of his family members by a handful of military officers. In 1977, Lt General Ziaur Rahman seized power, assumed presidency and established military regime in Bangladesh. He transformed Bangladesh into an Islamic country, distanced the country from India and established relations with Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and China. He founded the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). In 1982 Lt General Ershad organized a bloodless coup, became the President and amended the Constitution replacing secularism by Islam as the State religion. India started arming and sheltering the Shanti Bahini, a tribal outfit fighting for autonomy for the Chittagong Hill Tracks. In 1997 the Shanti Bahini signed a peace accord with the Hasina government.

 In 1991 democracy was restored and election was held. Khaleda Zia, the widow of Ziaur Rahman and leader of the BNP won the election and became the Prime Minister. The Khaleda Zia BNP Govt which was close to Pakistan rendered sympathy to ULFA and other Northeast insurgents groups. Delhi, alarmed with the development, started supporting the pro-Indian Awami League party. In the 1998 election, with India’s help Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Mujibur Rahman and leader of the Awami League became the Prime Minister. Anup Chetia, the general secretary of ULFA was arrested in 1997 and was sentenced  to 7 years in prison.  But Hasina abstained from a crackdown on ULFA. In 2002 election, the BNP- Jamaat alliance came to power with Khaleda Zia as the Prime Minister. ULFA had a free run and there was rise of Islamic fundamentalist groups during the Khaleda Zia tenure .In 2008, again with Delhi’s support, the Awami League won the election. This time Sheikh Hasina had gone for a crackdown on ULFA. Four ULFA leaders including its chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa were arrested and handed over to India in 2009-2010. The elusive commander in-chief of ULFA Paresh Baruah slipped away from Bangladesh. Anup Chetia is still languishing in a Bangladesh prison for the last 16 years. Immediately after the crackdown on ULFA and other Northeast insurgents groups, Delhi announced $ one billion loan to Bangladesh. In 2011 the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sheikh Hasina had signed the Indo- Bangla land transfer treaty to solve the long standing border dispute regarding adversely held enclaves along the international border.

The January 5, 2014 election in Bangladesh was boycotted by the 18 member opposition alliance led by BNP. The opposition alliance demanded that the election should be held under a neutral caretaker government. Sheikh Hasina went ahead with the election. Khaleda Zia was kept under virtual house arrest and Jamaat was banned. Because of the boycott 154 seats remained uncontested out of 300 seats and about 22% people voted in the election. Awami League won the election and Sheikh Hasina became the Prime Minister. The election without the participation of the Opposition parties lack legitimacy and it was a setback for democracy in Bangladesh. India’s open support to Hasina has created anti–Indian feeling within Bangladesh. It was a foreign policy blunder by taking a partisan role in favouring the Awami League over the Opposition parties. The USA, UK, Australia and the European Union slammed the election and called for fresh polls. Bangladesh is heading towards a political crisis. The ratification of the Indo-Bangla land transfer treaty and the Teesta water settlement are still pending. Anup Chetia and the vexed Assam’s foreigners issue remain unsolved.

Though India was successful in dividing its arch rival Pakistan in the 1971 war over Bangladesh, it has failed to protect the Indo-Bangla borders from the onslaught of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The continuous flow of millions of Bangladeshi immigrants has pushed the entire Northeast to permanent instability and unrest. Whether it is a pro or anti government in Dhaka, Bangladesh has always remained a problem. What really should matter to Delhi is saving its own citizens of the Northeast from being swept away by the Bangladeshi immigrants. The Indo-Bangla border has to be sealed with shoot at sight order like the Pakistan borders. The influx is so alarming that in 2005, the Supreme Court of India while nullifying the IMDT Act, 1983 as unconstitutional termed the Bangladeshi infiltrators as external aggression. Delhi should overhaul the Indo-Bangla diplomatic relations keeping the foreigners issue in mind apart from its security, trade and connectivity concerns.

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The India-Bangladesh Relationships – Lookback and Reality Check

By: Hiranya Saikia Read time: 22 min