While the attention of Indian diplomats remains focused on China, and the outreach to Western nations following the incursions in Ladakh, there should be concern, too, at developments in the neighbourhood, which in 2014 was the pivot of the Prime Minister’s foreign policy.
While ties with Nepal are strained, after India’s Himalayan neighbour redrew its map and its Prime Minister did all he could to provoke New Delhi, there ought to be concern, too, that Pakistan has launched a charm offensive to woo a nation that India considers a steadfast friend but sometimes takes for granted. This week, Pakistan Prime Minister telephoned his Bangladesh counterpart, Sheikh Hasina, for the first time to say Islamabad is “committed to deepening fraternal relations with Bangladesh on the basis of mutual trust, mutual respect and sovereign equality.”
The telephone contact came after months of effort to normalise ties after years of a deep freeze and appear to have gained traction after Pakistan’s current high commissioner to Dhaka took up his assignment. Mr Khan reaffirmed Pakistan’s commitment to Saarc and invited Sheikh Hasina to visit his country. Ties between the two South Asian countries had plummeted after Sheikh Hasina took over as Prime Minister in 2009 and announced trials relating to Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971.
Pakistan has always considered the bitter past of its dismemberment a closed chapter and claimed that Bangladesh’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, had agreed in 1974 that no one would be tried for war crimes. That pledge was of course overtaken by Mujib’s assassination in August 1975. Sheikh Hasina overturned immunity granted to army officers involved in the assassination plot and tried them, resulting in six of them being hanged. In 2009, she also set up a War Crimes Tribunal to investigate and prosecute those involved in the genocide of 1971 committed by the Pakistan Army and its local collaborators.
Members of two political parties considered close to Pakistan ~ the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Jamaat-e-Islami ~ were among those indicted as suspects, developments Islamabad viewed with extreme disfavour. It is against this backdrop that the thaw in relations between Pakistan and Bangladesh must be viewed. Also noteworthy from India’s perspective are three other factors. First, the consternation caused in Bangladesh by the enactment of the Citizenship Amendment Act last year.
Second, China’s growing influence on Dhaka and its role in bringing the two countries closer. Finally, the festering Teesta dispute that has evaded resolution for as long as it has despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s frequent assurances to Sheikh Hasina that it would be settled soon. New Delhi would do well to remember that while it may be gaining friends in Washington, Tokyo and Canberra, it ought to nurture the friendships it has closer home. With China determined to encircle India, this is no time to drop the ball.