In Bangladesh, Indian Army Chief's Statement Triggers Concern, Bafflement

General Bipin Rawat had said a "planned" influx of people from Bangladesh into the northeast was taking place as part of proxy warfare by Pakistan, aided by China.

Dhaka: More than two weeks have passed and Bangladesh is yet to officially respond to Indian army chief General Bipin Rawat’s statement that a “planned” influx of people from Bangladesh into India’s northeast was taking place as part of proxy warfare by the country’s two arch rivals, Pakistan and China.

While political observers in Dhaka say there is nothing wrong with a little bump and grind in cross-border political rhetoric, there is serious cause for concern when a sitting army chief of a country makes a remark accusing three countries of being a security threat, one of which he portrayed as a facilitator for the other two.

Ironically, Bangladesh – the ‘facilitating’ country in General Rawat’s scheme of things – was not so long ago described as India’s “most important neighbour” by its national security advisor Ajit Kumar Doval. “India is proud to have a neighbour who is fully responsive to its security sensitivities,” he had added.

Security and international experts in Bangladesh are, therefore, wondering what prompted General Rawat to make his observation, especially considering that New Delhi’s concerns about Indian insurgent groups using Bangladesh territory as a base have largely evaporated thanks to stern action taken by the Awami League (AL)-led government against those groups during its two consecutive terms starting in 2009.

General Rawat on February 21 said in a programme that Bangladesh was “indirectly” involved with two of India’s main foes in sending Muslim immigrants to Assam as part of a ‘proxy war’ conspiracy. He, however, did not name Pakistan or China, instead using the terms  “western neighbour” and “northern neighbour” to refer to them.


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Reactions in Bangladesh

The Indian army chief’s penchant for media appearances or making statements is a matter of his own country’s people, but if he involves or accuses other countries of wrongdoing, then it could fan the flames in regional politics, observers in Dhaka said.

General Rawat’s statement has not created much noise in Pakistan and China, as both the countries are openly on the same page in their stance on India. But in Bangladesh, security and international relations experts said his statement was misconceived and “uncalled for.”

The Bangladesh government, however, is silent on whether it will issue a statement or seek a clarification from the Indian authorities on Rawat’s statement. The Wire contacted officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs here and they termed the whole matter a bit “complicated.”

One foreign ministry official who preferred anonymity said that had the Indian government or the Ministry of External Affairs said anything about Bangladesh, then the Bangladesh ministry would have been in a position to issue a counter-statement or seek clarification.

Security analyst Major General (retd) Abdur Rashid told The Wire that the Indian army was a very “well-informed and well-disciplined” institution and “it’s baffling that its incumbent chief made such a remark.”

Rashid said the Sheikh Hasina-led AL government was obviously India’s “most dependable ally” in the region and both countries had co-operated with each other in tackling terrorism and insurgency. “Once people like Paresh Baruah (ULFA leader) used to roam in Bangladesh openly but such a thing is impossible here now.”

Rashid believes that in an election year in Bangladesh, a statement like this from the Indian army chief could put both the Bangladesh and Indian governments in a delicate position. “I believe, the Indian government is aware of the fact that this incumbent government is the least possible pro-Pakistan government. Their [AL] alternatives obviously have better relations with India’s arch rivals,” he said.

Talking to The Wire, political commentator Afsan Chowdhury said that while China was not considered an enemy in Bangladesh, Pakistan certainly was, especially by the present government, and “General Rawat’s accusations make Bangladesh look like it’s sleeping with its enemy, unable to manage its national security. It obviously makes Bangladesh look weak and in urgent need of India.”

Chowdhury said India had been suffering from “China anxiety” and some of that anxiety was deflected towards Bangladesh since China has been Bangladesh’s largest trading partner for quite some times now. “Hating Pakistan as enemy is one thing but looking behind the shoulder to see what China is up to in the region is another.”

He said Rawat’s statement reflected the collective anxiety of the Indian ruling party (the Bharatiya Janata Party) which knows that its Hindutva ideology – which is a bit out of date in today’s mercantile world – may not be enough for China’s cold-headed economy-driven regional politics.

Debate in India too

Rawat also observed that the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) – a party formed in 2005 to champion the cause of the Muslim community in Assam – had been facilitating the influx of Bangladeshis into Assam to trigger a demographic change in the state.

The Indian army chief said the AIUDF’s growth had been “faster” than that of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 1980s. The AIUDF currently has three MPs in the Lok Sabha and 13 legislators in the Assam assembly.

After Rawat’s comment, Badruddin Ajmal, the president of AIUDF, responded by asking why it was a concern for the army chief that a political party, based on democratic and secular values, was rising faster than BJP.

“Alternative parties like AIUDF, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) have grown because of the misgovernance of big parties,” Ajmal tweeted. Later, at a press conference at the state capital Guwahati, he said, “The statement [of Rawat] lacks reality and the army chief should not indulge in politics.”

General Rawat who has a decade of counter-insurgency ops to his credit, has faced flak from the Indian media and political pundits on a number of occasions for his “more than usual media appearances” and remarks seen as “too political” for an army chief.

Noted Indian historian and writer Ramachandra Guha in an article titled “General Speaks Too Much” wrote that “both the frequency and manner of his (Rawat’s) public utterances have damaged the credibility of his office and of the Indian Army itself.”

Faisal Mahmud is a journalist from Bangladesh.