Foreign Secretary Harsh V Shringla's Bangladesh visit represents a friend's assurance to Dhaka on host of bilateral matters
On 2 and 3 March, India's newly-appointed foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla visited Dhaka to prepare the grounds for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's now-cancelled visit to Dhaka on 17 March
Internationally, several countries have raised concerns and criticised the CAA, as well as the Indian government's plan to follow it up with updating the NRC
Amongst these countries, Bangladesh's concerns have been the loudest
Dhaka, which was also apparently upset following the rollout of the NRC in Assam, is further concerned with the combination of the CAA and NRC across India
On 2 and 3 March, India's newly-appointed foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla visited Dhaka to prepare the grounds for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's now-cancelled visit to Dhaka on 17 March to attend the centenary celebrations of Bangladesh founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman at the invitation of Bangladeshi prime minister Sheikh Hasina. Shringla's visit came amidst rising concerns in Bangladesh over India's controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
Since the passing of the CAA by the Indian Parliament in December last year, India has witnessed several large-scale protests and incidents of mass violence. Internationally, several countries have raised concerns and criticised the Act, as well as the Indian government's plan to follow it up with updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Amongst these countries, Bangladesh's concerns have been the loudest.
Dhaka, which was also apparently upset following the rollout of the NRC in Assam, is further concerned with the combination of the CAA and NRC across India. Bangladesh fears an influx of refugees from India at a time when it is already hosting nearly a million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. In this context, Shringla's visit should be viewed as an act of damage control by a friend of Dhaka given his past laurels as Joint Secretary (Director General) responsible for Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Maldives, and as India's High Commissioner to Bangladesh (2016-2019).
They discussed visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to attend #MujibBorsho &reaffirmed importance both sides attach to relationship & discussed ways of further consolidating partnership pic.twitter.com/N5n3gYid4z
— India in Bangladesh (@ihcdhaka) March 3, 2020
Bangladesh has demonstrated its displeasure over the CAA to India through several non-verbal gestures. Just a day before Shringla's scheduled visit to Dhaka, the Jatiya Sangsad (National Parliament) Speaker Dr Shirin Sharmin Chaudhary cancelled her visit to India. Chaudhary was scheduled to visit India on 2 March along with a delegation that included the chief whip, the Secretary of Parliament Secretariat and other top officials of their government. The reason stated for this cancellation was that the parliament was planning a special session later in March and the delegation would visit after its completion.
This follows the template of cancellation of other high-profile visits in the last four months, the first of which came just a day after the passing of the CAA when Bangladesh foreign minister AK Abdul Momen pulled out of his planned three-day visit on 12 December. In January, his deputy, Shahriar Alam, cancelled a scheduled visit to New Delhi to attend the Ministry of External Affairs' annual Raisina Dialogue Conference.
The most prominent verbal criticism from Dhaka came from Hasina who called the Act "an internal matter of India", but "unnecessary".
Dhaka's importance to New Delhi in the shifting regional dynamics of South Asia — with the augmentation of BIMSTEC and in furtherance of India's Neighbourhood First Policy (NFP) — makes the latter wary of having a tense relationship with the former. In this context, Shringla's visit to Dhaka and his speech at the Bangladesh Institute for International Strategic Studies (BIISS) comes at an important juncture.
In his speech at BIISS, Shringla went out of his way to soothe and please Bangladesh. Starting by emphasising Dhaka's importance to India's NFP, he recalled the words of the former Indian external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj, when she said that India's NFP is actually "Bangladesh first". He then went on to highlight several examples of the two countries' partnerships that had overcome several obstacles such as the immigration and customs arrangements, constantly developing railway linkages, simplification and expansion of trade among others. On the contentious issue of sharing of river waters, the foreign secretary stated that "we could and should do much more" in their management. The most important highlight of the speech was Shringla's acknowledgement of Bangladesh "leading Asia's development race", a title long-held by India.
It is evident that New Delhi is attempting to mend its ties with Dhaka. In this regard, the government would not have found a better person than Shringla to lead this swathing. A friendly face for Bangladeshi authorities, he has been credited with finalising the contours of the Land Boundary Agreement Protocol with Bangladesh as the Joint Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs.
During his three-year tenure as the high commissioner, the India-Bangladesh relationship is said to have achieved new heights with a focus on all-round bilateral development. Further, this visit also answers why Shringla was chosen as the foreign secretary over other senior diplomats. As the Narendra Modi government takes its NFP into its second tenure, it faces major hurdles in an increasingly irrelevant SAARC, an under-confident BIMSTEC and growingly-defiant neighbours. Thus, Shringla's expertise with the neighbourhood makes him the Modi government's point person for Neighbourhood 2.0 and his Dhaka visit should be viewed in that context.
If there is a chance that the Bangladeshi side views Modi's assurances with any mistrust, an assurance from a friend who serves a non-political office is a good tactic.
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