Kashmiri Shawl, Indian Saree Face Boycott Calls In Bangladesh; PLA-N In India’s Backyard Worries Delhi?

The spike in anti-India sentiments in Bangladesh is unfolding with eerie similarity to that in Maldives. The incumbent Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, called out those behind the ‘India Out’ campaign. But her nod to let China build a naval base in her country that could dock Chinese submarines is a worrisome development for India.

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Prime Minister Hasina has been a strong ally of New Delhi; however, she also inaugurated a Chinese-built submarine naval base that the PLA Navy can one day use for logistics support against India.

The Bangladesh Prime Minister’s doublespeak seems to be hinging on political exigency or a long-term shift in the country’s strategic leanings, which needs to be discerned.

Recent satellite imagery of the BNS Sheikh Hasina, a China-built submarine base, shows the development of a dry dock on site. Experts think it is likely to “support submarine maintenance.”

The move is seen as part of the Chinese navy’s efforts to sustain naval operations in the region. The image taken from Google Earth is dated February 13.

This development is quite detrimental to India’s regional strategic interests, as the prospect of a Chinese submarine docking right under its nose is a big security challenge.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina recently criticized the opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), for launching an anti-Indian products campaign. In a speech, Hasina, known for her pro-India leanings, questioned the sincerity of BNP leaders in boycotting Indian goods. She suggested that if they were truly committed to the boycott, they should burn their wives’ Indian sarees.

This is not the first time that the Bangladesh Prime Minister has publicly proclaimed her Indian leanings. After securing a record fifth term as Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina called India a “great friend,” saying the two neighbors had resolved many problems bilaterally.

Addressing the media, Sheikh Hasina said, “India is a great friend of Bangladesh. They supported us in 1971 and also in 1975. They gave shelter to me and my sister and my other family members.”

A beleaguered opposition has made India the punching bag to whip up anti-India sentiments. Senior BNP leader Ruhul Kabir Rizvi publicly threw away a shawl – purportedly an Indian shawl from Kashmir, giving his blessings to the anti-India campaign.

Indian Sarees and Kashmiri Shawls have become the symbols of the ‘Out India’ campaign in Bangladesh. While the Bangladesh Prime Minister exhorted opposition to burn their wives’ Indian sarees if they wanted to boycott India, Rizvi responded by setting fire to a Kashmiri shawl in front of the party headquarters in Dhaka.

The two countries share a culture and textile heritage, including a love for sarees and shawls. Despite the image portrayed by the opposition parties, textile exports form one-third of India’s total shipments to Bangladesh and more than half of the latter’s exports to India.

India has a rich textile heritage. Its export basket is dominated by primary and manufactured products, and its top exports to Bangladesh include cotton, vehicles (other than railway), machinery appliances, cereals, and mineral fuels.

On the other hand, Bangladesh’s exports are dominated by manufactured products from labor-intensive sectors. Its key exports to India include vegetables, textile fiber, articles of apparel and clothing accessories, knit lead articles, and other made textiles.

The BNP, which boycotted the January 7 elections, has been accusing the Modi-led Indian government of turning a blind eye to the ‘democratic backsliding’ in Bangladesh to keep Sheikh Hasina in power.

There is a general perception in Bangladesh that India controls the political landscape. In his book 1971-2021: Bangladesh-Bharat Shomporker Ponchash Bochor, Bangladesh’s former foreign secretary, Touhid Hossain, pointed out that “India’s consent is a prerequisite for appointments to key positions within Bangladesh” And that the Indian Embassy influences key decision-making processes in the civilian and military bureaucracies.

Daughter of Bangladesh’s towering leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, who led the country to independence, Sheikh Hasina survived when her family was summarily executed in 1975 after his father was assassinated. The military ruled the country after that.

India, under Indira Gandhi, offered shelter and security to Sheikh Hasina. For the next six years, until 1981, Hasina lived in Delhi under an assumed identity. This provided India with immense goodwill.

Despite great ties with India, Hasina has given Chinese submarines front-door entry into the Bay of Bengal near India’s Eastern Naval Command. The Eastern Naval Command is where India’s indigenous nuclear submarine is under construction.

Prime Minister Hasina’s discord between words and deeds could threaten India’s influence in the Indian Ocean Region as China solidifies its presence there.

India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has refused to be concerned about the “India Out” campaigns. “There are two realities we must recognize. China is also a neighboring country and, in many ways, will, as part of competitive politics, influence these countries (Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh), he said at an event in Mumbai on January 30.

Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu had shifted his country away from India. Both New Delhi and Beijing have been vying for influence in the island country. As an opposition leader, Muizzu advocated to remove Indian military personnel stationed in some Maldivian islands, a promise he came through as he was elected to power.

xi hasina
Hasina and Xi: File Image

China’s Submarine Diplomacy

China is constructing a port in Cox’s Bazar, in what is being termed as Beijing’s “submarine diplomacy.” The apprehension of the PLA-Navy gaining “logistical access” to the base is getting real very fast.

“Gaining a foothold in the Bay of Bengal would significantly level up the PLA’s ability to operate farther from China’s shores and create new challenges for India, as well as the United States and its allies,” a recent analysis of satellite imagery of the under-construction naval base in Bangladesh revealed.

Bangladesh ordered its first two submarines from China in 2013 for the meagre price of just US$203 million as a part of its military modernization under the Forces Goal 2030. The submarines are Type 035G diesel-electric attack submarines, a Ming-class variant first commissioned into the PLA Navy (PLAN) in 1990.

China refitted and upgraded the two vessels before handing them over to Bangladesh in 2016, but their capabilities still lag behind any modern attack submarine. A year after delivering the submarines, the Chinese state-owned defense contractor Poly Technologies secured a US$1.2-billion contract with Bangladesh to build a new submarine support facility on the country’s south-eastern coast.

The BNS Sheikh Hasina Naval Base, named after the incumbent Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, is constructed on a sprawling 1.75 square kilometers. Construction began in 2020, and the base was inaugurated in March 2023 by PM Sheikh Hasina, who called it “ultra-modern.” Several Chinese officials, including at least two senior PLA-N officers, attended the ceremony.

“Satellite imagery from July 2023 shows that construction continues. Despite the ongoing work, Bangladesh has already stationed its Chinese-made submarines there. Once completed, the base will be capable of docking six submarines and eight warships simultaneously,” a CSIS report titled “Submarine Diplomacy- A Snapshot of China’s Influence along the Bay of Bengal” read.

  • Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
  • The author can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com
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