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Geopolitics and Bangladesh

Introduction



Bangladesh came into existence on December 16, 1971, following a war of independence from Pakistan. The region, formerly known as East Pakistan, sought autonomy due to political, economic, and cultural differences with West Pakistan (present-day Pakistan). The struggle for independence culminated in the Bangladesh Liberation War, which lasted about nine months. The conflict began in March 1971 when the Pakistani military launched an operation against Bengali nationalists in East Pakistan. The situation escalated into a full-scale war, marked by widespread atrocities and human rights abuses committed by the Pakistani military. The Bengali nationalist movement, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the Awami League, aimed for independence for East Pakistan. The war concluded on December 16, 1971, when the Pakistani military surrendered to the joint forces of India and the Mukti Bahini (Liberation Army) of Bangladesh. This victory led to the creation of the independent and sovereign state of Bangladesh. The date, December 16, is celebrated annually in Bangladesh as Victory Day to commemorate the country's independence.


International Boundary


At the time of its formation in 1971, Bangladesh shared international boundaries with India and Myanmar. The dimensions and specifics of these borders have remained relatively consistent since independence. Here is an overview of Bangladesh's international boundaries:

The western and northern borders of Bangladesh are shared with India. The India-Bangladesh border is approximately 4,096 kilometers long. This border extends along the western, northern, and eastern sides of Bangladesh and is characterized by the presence of several Indian states, including West Bengal (2,216.7 km), Assam (263), Meghalaya (443), Tripura (856), and Mizoram (318). The border with India is demarcated by the Joint Rivers Commission, and various rivers, such as the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna, play a significant role in defining parts of the boundary.


The southeastern border of Bangladesh is shared with Myanmar. The Myanmar-Bangladesh border, primarily defined by the Naf River, is approximately 271 kilometers long, flows into the Bay of Bengal. The border region has historical and contemporary significance, witnessing movements of populations, refugee crises, and diplomatic discussions regarding boundary demarcation.


There have been occasional discussions and negotiations between Bangladesh and its neighbors regarding specific border issues and demarcation. Some areas, particularly those along rivers, may have experienced changes due to natural causes such as riverbank erosion or deposition. Diplomatic efforts and agreements have been made to address border-related concerns, with both India and Myanmar playing crucial roles in maintaining peaceful relations with Bangladesh. Overall, while there may have been minor adjustments and discussions over specific border issues, the general dimensions of Bangladesh's international boundaries with India and Myanmar have remained stable since its formation in 1971.


Refugee Issues


The Bangladesh Liberation War escalated due to widespread atrocities committed by the Pakistani military against the Bengali population. As a result of the military crackdown, millions of Bengalis, including both Hindus and Muslims, were displaced internally within East Pakistan. The humanitarian crisis led to a massive influx of refugees into neighboring India, particularly the bordering states of West Bengal, Assam, Tripura, and Meghalaya. Indian states, especially West Bengal, became primary destinations for millions of Bengali refugees seeking safety from the violence in East Pakistan. Following the creation of Bangladesh, efforts were made to facilitate the return of refugees to their homeland. Many refugees returned to Bangladesh, while others chose to stay in India for various reasons, such as concerns about their safety and the political situation in the region. It is estimated that over 10 million refugees sought shelter in India during this period.


Historically, natural calamities, including flooding and cyclones, have occasionally led to migration and displacement in Bangladesh to India. 


In 1970, a devastating cyclone struck the coastal areas of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), causing widespread destruction and loss of life. Bangladesh is prone to seasonal flooding due to its geography, with major rivers like the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna overflowing during the monsoon season. Riverbank erosion is a recurring issue, displacing communities along the riverbanks. While these events may lead to internal displacement, they have not historically resulted in large-scale migrations to neighboring countries. Accurately quantifying the number of people migrating solely due to natural calamities is challenging due to factors such as the informal nature of many movements, lack of comprehensive tracking systems, and the influence of multiple factors on migration decisions.


Bangladesh has faced another significant refugee issues, and one of the most notable instances is the Rohingya refugee crisis. The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority group from Myanmar, particularly the Rakhine State. Over the years, due to violence in Myanmar, a large number of Rohingya have sought refuge in Bangladesh. The crisis escalated in 2017 when a military crackdown in Myanmar forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee their homes into Bangladesh. By the end of 2017, it was estimated that over 700,000 Rohingya had crossed into Bangladesh, joining the pre-existing Rohingya refugee population (total - over one million). The majority of Rohingya refugees reside in camps in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, with the Kutupalong-Balukhali camp complex being one of the largest refugee settlements in the world. The influx of refugees created significant humanitarian challenges for Bangladesh, straining its resources and infrastructure. The Bangladesh government, international organizations, and NGOs worked together to establish refugee camps to provide basic necessities, such as shelter, food, healthcare, and education. Efforts to repatriate the Rohingya to Myanmar have faced obstacles, including concerns about the safety and rights of the displaced population.


Ethnicity


In 1947, British India gained independence and was partitioned into two separate nations, India and Pakistan, based on religious lines. East Pakistan became part of the newly formed state of Pakistan. In 1952, the Language Movement took place in East Pakistan, protesting the imposition of Urdu as the sole official language. This movement played a crucial role in asserting the linguistic and cultural identity of the Bengali-speaking population.


The 1970 Bhola cyclone had a devastating impact on East Pakistan, leading to widespread destruction and loss of life. The response to the disaster highlighted the economic and political disparities between East and West Pakistan. The general elections of 1970 resulted in a clear majority for the Awami League in East Pakistan. The political discontent in East Pakistan escalated into the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. The conflict resulted in the emergence of the independent state of Bangladesh after intervention by Indian forces. The war had significant demographic consequences, including displacement, migration, and loss of life.


Bangladesh has experienced continued population growth, but efforts to control population growth through family planning programs have had some success. Urbanization has increased, with Dhaka becoming one of the most densely populated cities in the world.

In 1951, the population of East Pakistan was around 42 million. By 1971, the population had increased to approximately 71 million. The current population of Bangladesh is over 170 million. Dhaka, the capital, has a population of over 20 million people, making it one of the most populous cities globally.


The overwhelming majority of the population in Bangladesh is Bengali, constituting around 98% of the total population. Various indigenous communities exist in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) and other regions of Bangladesh. These communities include the Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Mro, and others. The percentage of indigenous peoples in the overall population is relatively small, estimated to be around 1-2%.


Bangladesh is also home to various minority communities, including Biharis, Hindus, Christians, and others. The Hindu community is the largest religious minority, comprising about 8-10% of the total population. According to the 1951 Census of Pakistan, which included both East and West Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh and Pakistan), Hindus constituted about 22% of the population in East Pakistan. Instances of religious intolerance and prejudice against Hindus in Bangladesh have been reported. Political factions may exploit religious sentiments to gain support, leading to communal tensions. In some instances, Hindu minorities have faced eviction or displacement due to land-related issues.


Political Evolution of Bangladesh


The transformation from East Pakistan to Bangladesh was a tumultuous process that significantly impacted national stability, crime rates, insurgencies, and terrorism in the region. The people of East Pakistan primarily spoke Bengali, while Urdu was the official language of Pakistan. This linguistic and cultural divide fueled a sense of alienation among the Bengali-speaking population, leading to demands for linguistic equality and autonomy. The economic policies of the Pakistani government disproportionately favored West Pakistan, resulting in economic disparities and grievances in the east. This economic inequality contributed to a sense of marginalization and fueled the demand for greater autonomy.


The 1952 Language Movement in East Pakistan, which sought official status for Bengali, marked a turning point in the region's political landscape. The movement eventually led to Bengali being recognized as one of Pakistan's official languages, but the underlying discontent persisted. The Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, emerged as a prominent political force advocating for the rights and autonomy of East Pakistan. The Six-Point Movement in 1966 called for greater autonomy for the provinces, further intensifying the political crisis. The culmination of political discontent and the violent crackdown by the Pakistani military led to the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. The conflict resulted in the creation of the independent state of Bangladesh, marking the end of East Pakistan.


Since then, Bangladesh has grappled with various challenges to its stability, including political violence, insurgency movements, and terrorist activities. Factors such as poverty, political polarization, and radicalization have contributed to periodic outbreaks of violence. The role of political parties, such as Jamaat-e-Islami, during the Liberation War has been a source of tension. The subsequent war crimes trials have led to polarization, with some segments of the population supporting accountability measures while others oppose them.


Insurgency and Terrorism


Bangladesh has witnessed the emergence of various insurgent groups throughout its history. These groups often originated from political, economic, or ethnic grievances and sought to address perceived injustices through armed struggle. The evolution of insurgent groups in Bangladesh is a complex narrative, and their present status is diverse, with some having disbanded or been suppressed, while others continue to pose challenges to the region's stability.



The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) region has been a focal point of insurgency, primarily led by indigenous groups seeking autonomy and preservation of their cultural identity. The Shanti Bahini, the armed wing of the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti (PCJSS), was a major insurgent group. The conflict persisted for decades, with the signing of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord in 1997 bringing an end to the insurgency (which started in 1970). The accord aimed to address the demands of the indigenous communities and ensure their rights.

In the early 2000s, Bangladesh experienced a rise in militancy linked to Islamist extremist groups. The Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) emerged as a significant player, advocating for the establishment of Islamic rule. The group was responsible for a series of bombings and attacks, including the synchronized bombings in 2005. Subsequent government crackdowns, arrests, and trials led to the weakening of JMB. However, remnants of the group and new entities inspired by radical ideologies have continued to pose periodic threats.

Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (HUJI), with its roots in the Afghan-Soviet War, established a presence in Bangladesh. It was involved in various attacks, including the attempted assassination of the then-Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in 2000. The group maintained connections with international jihadist networks. Government efforts, both domestically and through international cooperation, have targeted HUJI, but the threat of transnational militant links remains a concern.


The Rohingya crisis has spilled over into Bangladesh, leading to the emergence of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). This insurgent group, formed in response to the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, carried out attacks in the Rakhine State. While the group's activities have primarily been across the border, the situation poses security challenges for Bangladesh, especially in the southeastern region.


Bangladesh has experienced political violence and insurgencies associated with various political parties. Over the years, factions within mainstream political parties have been involved in violent activities. This has included clashes between the supporters of the ruling party and the opposition, leading to sporadic incidents of unrest. Political violence in Bangladesh has often been associated with conflicts between mainstream political parties, such as the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and their respective supporters. These clashes are usually driven by political rivalries, electoral disputes, and competition for power.


Elections



The country's first general elections were held in 1973, establishing a parliamentary democracy. However, this period was short-lived. On August 15, 1975, a group of army officers led by Major Syed Faruque Rahman and Major Rashid initiated a coup d'état that resulted in the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding leader of Bangladesh and its first President. The coup led to the establishment of a military government, and General Ziaur Rahman emerged as the new leader. This marked the beginning of a prolonged period of military rule, characterized by authoritarian governance and the suppression of political opposition. The country underwent significant changes during this time, including the adoption of Islam as the state religion.


After General Ziaur Rahman's assassination in 1981, Bangladesh continued to face periods of political instability, with the military playing a role in some instances. The 1991 general elections, following mass protests, marked a crucial turning point as Bangladesh transitioned back to a multi-party democratic system. The 1991 elections paved the way for the return of democracy, with Khaleda Zia becoming the country's first female Prime Minister. Another significant coup attempt occurred in 1996, during which the military tried to intervene in the political crisis between the two main political parties. However, due to public protests and international pressure, the military intervention was short-lived, and democratic governance was restored.


The political landscape was dominated by Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, both of whom served multiple terms as Prime Ministers in subsequent years. This period saw alternating power dynamics between the Bangladesh Nationalist Party led by Khaleda Zia and the Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina. Khaleda Zia served as the Prime Minister of Bangladesh from March 1991 to March 1996, and again from June 2001 to October 2006. As of now, Zia is effectively under house arrest.


The mid-2000s brought new challenges to Bangladesh's democratic journey. Political violence, allegations of corruption, and a controversial caretaker government system created an atmosphere of uncertainty. In 2007, a state of emergency was declared, leading to the postponement of scheduled elections and a period of military-backed interim rule. The 2008 elections marked the return of Bangladesh to democratic governance, with Sheikh Hasina securing a significant victory. Under her, the subsequent years witnessed economic growth, infrastructural development, and social progress. The general elections held in January 2014 saw the Awami League securing a landslide victory. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its allies boycotted the elections, citing concerns over fairness. The general elections held in December 2018 saw the Awami League winning a third consecutive term.


The Present Situation 


Since independence, Bangladesh has conducted 11 general elections to choose members for its national parliament. This year, on January 7, 2024, the 12th general elections took place, as the current tenure of the Awami League was set to conclude on January 29, 2024. A total of 27 political parties participated in the elections. The Parliament of Bangladesh, known as 'Jatiya Sangsad,' comprises 350 seats, with 300 directly elected through first-past-the-post voting in single-member constituencies. Additionally, 50 seats are reserved for women, and these seats are filled proportionally by elected members.


To ensure the smooth administration of the elections, the government deployed 800,000 personnel from the Coast Guard, Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB), Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), and the Police. Notably, the opposition party Bangladesh Nationalist Party chose to boycott the elections.


The security arrangements involved the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) taking charge in 45 bordering upazilas, while the Coast Guard and Bangladesh Navy operated in 19 districts, including Bhola and Barguna. The BGB and Army collaborated in 47 bordering upazilas and coordinated with the Coast Guard in four coastal upazilas. The Bangladesh Air Force, guarded polling centers in the Hill Tracts.


Leading up to the polling date, the Police were investigating incidents such as fires in Gazipur near the capital Dhaka. It was suspected that individuals seeking to disrupt the election set fire to schools on the night of January 6, 2023. In addition, arson attacks on polling booths occurred in the northeastern districts of Moulavibazar and Habiganj. Similar incidents were reported across the country over the two daysweek preeceding the elections. 


The Bangladesh Nationalist Party had earlier urged citizens to boycott the poll and called for a two-day strike in the country on January 6 and 7, 2024.


The Awami League emerged victorious in the 2024 parliamentary elections.


The Indian Context



Bangladesh occupies a crucial position in global geopolitics due to its strategic location in South Asia. Situated at the crossroads of South and Southeast Asia, the country serves as a gateway between the two regions, fostering economic and diplomatic ties. Bangladesh shares borders with India to the west, north, and east, Myanmar to the southeast, and the Bay of Bengal to the south. The Bay of Bengal provides Bangladesh with access to important sea routes, contributing to its significance in maritime trade. Additionally, Bangladesh's geopolitical importance is underscored by its membership in regional organizations like the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), where it actively engages in diplomatic initiatives to address regional challenges.


Moreover, Bangladesh's role in global geopolitics is increasingly pronounced due to its growing economic prowess. The country has experienced remarkable economic growth in recent years, emerging as one of the world's largest textile and garment exporters. This economic dynamism has garnered international attention, as Bangladesh becomes an attractive destination for foreign investment. As a populous and rapidly developing nation, Bangladesh's stability is crucial for regional security and economic cooperation. Additionally, the country plays a vital role in addressing transnational issues such as climate change and refugee crises. Its vulnerability to the impacts of climate change, notably rising sea levels, positions Bangladesh as a key player in global discussions on environmental sustainability and adaptation measures. Overall, Bangladesh's geopolitical standing is multifaceted, combining its strategic location, economic growth, and contributions to addressing global challenges. Ensuring a stable, prosperous, and amicable Bangladesh is crucial for India's best interests. Under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina, stringent measures were taken against insurgents, terrorists, and separatists. During her tenure, India and Bangladesh established an extradition treaty in January 2013. The Indo-Bangladesh border faces challenges due to its high porosity, with the control of illegal cross-border activities and migration from Bangladesh to India being significant concerns. These issues are expected to see improvement if Sheikh Hasina returns to power.


Bangladesh holds a key position as India's largest trade partner in South Asia, while India ranks as Bangladesh's second-largest trade partner in Asia. Besides the traditional trade, the Aditya Birla Group operates textile subsidiaries, while the Tata Group diversifies in Bangladesh through companies like Tata Motors, Tata International, Tata Consultancy Services, and Tata Tea. Reliance Industries invests in telecommunications via Reliance Jio, and the Essar Group engages in energy, infrastructure, and steel. ITC Limited, Mahindra & Mahindra, Hero MotoCorp, and Bharti Airtel also maintain a significant presence. In August 2023, Indian Gas Exchange Ltd (IGX) and National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) express interest in cross-border gas and electricity trade, reflecting a growing interest from Indian companies in expanding into new areas, contributing to the bilateral economic relationship.


The geographical proximity of India and Bangladesh offers an opportunity for both nations to enhance connectivity and boost their economies, as highlighted by government sources.

Historically, the Awami League has maintained a more positive and friendly relationship with India compared to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The counting of votes is scheduled to commence shortly after the voting process begins.


References



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