Recent U.S. delegation’s visit to New Delhi and implications for Democracy in Bangladesh

Julian Rafah | 16 July 2023
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On 8 July, 2023, U.S. Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights and U.S. Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, Uzra Zeya, travelled to New Delhi and according to sources had met Indian high officials including Indian Ambassador to Bangladesh, Mr. Pranay Verma. Elections in Bangladesh was one of the central agendas of this meeting. Uzra Zeya is expected to visit Bangladesh on 12 July, 2023 accompanied by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Donald Lu. 

In 2021, the Biden Administration imposed sanctions on the elite force, Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and seven of its individuals for gross human rights violation. The RAB has been accused of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances of political dissents, shrinking democratic space in the country. This year, the U.S. has imposed a blanket visa ban on individuals who will be involved in election irregularities in the upcoming election due in December 2023 or early 2024. As a matter of fact, the U.S. has long been concerned about the human rights situation in Bangladesh and has been vocal about a free, fair and inclusive election in Bangladesh.  

Last month, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a high-level visit with U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington DC. The India and US made robust defence deals and have agreed to counter Chinese influence in the Indo-pacific region. Unlike what many had predicted, the Bangladesh issue had not been raised by Modi while meeting President Biden. The Government has been desperate to tackle the growing U.S. pressure by various means including spending money on lobbyist firms, threatening the U.S. to join the BRICS, an organisation that calls for an end to the “dollar hegemony”. Also, after almost a decade, the Jamaat-E-Islami and Islami Andolon, Bangladesh were allowed to hold political rallies and showdown. Some political observers argued that this was to show the U.S. and West that radical Islamists groups are on the verge of rising and the current regime is the only choice to counter violent extremism in the country. The key argument however is that- Bangladesh will move closer to China if the U.S. keeps putting too much pressure on the regime. The Hindustan Times reported “Bangladesh Pleads India For Help; Wants PM Modi To Speak To Biden Over Election Faceoff”. Even though the Modi administration did not bring up the issue while meeting President Biden, Uzra Zeya in this recent meeting in New Delhi is likely to discuss this issue with the Indian officials. It is evident from India’s media and think-tanks that they want the current regime in Bangladesh to stay in power. Brahma Chellaney, Sreeradha Datta and other Indian think-tanks have advocated for the Awami League Government staying in power, even though there are questions about the previous two elections. Ajit Doval, Indian National Security advisor, also echoed this message while meeting U.S. National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan last month.

Even though China and India are engaged in conflicts and tensions, these two powers are on the same page regarding the current regime staying in power in Bangladesh. According to a USAID report, China has secured megaprojects at the expense of the interests of Bangladeshi people by bribing corrupt government officials to further its political ambitions in Bangladesh. The Chinese government seems to be cautious about U.S. interference in Bangladesh and has been making statements and press releases in solidarity with the Awami League Government. The Russian Embassy and U.S. Embassy had been engaged in a social media tug of war regarding U.S. Ambassador Peter Haas making a visit to the Mayer Dak office, an organisation working for the families of the victims of enforced disappearances.  This is a new phenomenon in Bangladesh. On the one hand, the U.S. and its Democratic allies are promoting a value-based foreign policy and on the other hand Russia, China and India, now an electoral autocracy, are promoting anti-U.S. sentiments undermining President Biden’s Democracy and Human Rights promotion campaign in Bangladesh. 

According to an article titled “Bangladesh election 2024: What role will India play?” by Dr. Ali Riaz published in the Atlantic Council, during 2013-14 Washington and New Delhi had engaged in meetings for an inclusive election in Dhaka but due to New Delhi’s reluctance, the U.S. could not proceed further due to the fact that Bangladesh was seen through an Indian lens. But now the Biden-Harris administration has changed its policy towards Bangladesh and other smaller South Asian countries. This is clear from the continuous high level visits from Washington DC to Dhaka in recent times. The U.S. donated the largest number of COVID-19 vaccines to Bangladesh and these efforts did not go through New Delhi which showed that the “US is no longer watching Bangladesh through the lens of India”, according to Dr. Ali Riaz. 

U.S. National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications, John Kirby, at a briefing ahead of Modi’s state visit to the U.S. was asked whether India would join the U.S.effort to ensure voting rights and restoring democracy in Bangladesh to which he told the journalists, Washington wants Delhi to speak for its bilateral ties with Dhaka and Washington has already made clear its desire for a free and fair election in Bangladesh. Ambassador Peter Haas, in an interview in the popular TV program Tritiyo Matra told that anyone who tries to look at Bangladesh through the lens of India does so at their own perils. However, in reality a single Bangladeshi-American was not nominated as a President of the U.S.-Bangladesh Business Council, the establishment of which was a significant development of the U.S.-Bangladesh relation. From its inception since 2021, all the Presidents of the U.S.-Bangladesh business council were Indians which clearly does not indicate a U.S. policy shift towards Bangladesh of not viewing it through the lens of India. 

Dr. Riaz in an interview with journalist Monir Haider said, India has two options: either it can keep supporting the current regime in Bangladesh till things get exacerbated or it can support the U.S.-led democracy promotion campaign in Bangladesh so that in the long run they can engage with a government which has the people’s mandate and cooperate in Bangladesh’s development. 

What India lacks in its Bangladesh policy is that the Indian officials do not maintain a people to people tie unlike the U.S. They are more interested in a Government to Government relationship, which is a myopic foreign policy. There are growing anti-Indian sentiments in Bangladesh due to its interference in the political matters of Bangladesh, border killing, transboundary river disputes and its big brotherly nature. India’s stance during the last two elections were questionable. The people of Bangladesh are getting furious about Indian interference into Bangladeshi politics and its attempts in undermining the democratic ambitions of the Bangladeshi people. The role of the U.S. during the last two elections have also disappointed the people of Bangladesh and naturally have turned them towards China, which is a countering force to both India and the U.S. But the recent U.S. policy shift has brought new hopes in the minds of the Bangladeshis everywhere, both home and abroad. Jyoti Rahman, in an article titled “Why India Needs To Support the Quest for Restoring Democracy in Bangladesh” published in the Wire, objectively discussed why India should support the people of Bangladesh and not favour a certain regime against the people’s will. 

Even though an apparent U.S. policy shift regarding Bangladesh has been observed, there are possibilities that the U.S. administration might come to a compromise with the Indian counterpart to stop pressuring the ruling regime on democracy and human rights issues, which would mean an end to democracy in Bangladesh. It will also frustrate the Integrated Country Strategy for Bangladesh, 2022 goals of the Biden Administration. If this time, the U.S. again comes to a compromise with India frustrating a free, fair and inclusive election in Bangladesh, it will lose its appeal to the Bangladeshi people as a champion for democracy and human rights, naturally making the Bangladeshi population fall into the Chinese orbit, which will be equally frustrating both for the U.S. and India. The sooner India realises this, the better it will be able to navigate its relations with Bangladesh in the long run. The U.S. has a greater responsibility to ensure that the people of Bangladesh get a chance to vote freely through ballots in a free, fair and inclusive election under a neutral interim government. 

The writer is a Research Intern at the Center for Governance Studies (CGS) and an Official Contributor of The Daily Star, Law & Our Rights 

Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.