“Sustained anti-India sentiment”: MEA complaint to U.S. officials

India cancelled its participation in the 2005 summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in Dhaka in order to encourage Bangladesh “to be introspective,” an official of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) told a U.S. diplomat.

A U.S. Embassy cable sent on February 10, 2005 (26786: confidential) from New Delhi, reporting a February 9, 2005 conversation between Embassy officials and MEA Director Taranjit Sandhu on the decision, reveals much about India's Big Brother attitude towards Bangladesh.

Consequent to New Delhi's decision, the summit that was scheduled for February 6-7, 2005 was postponed. A SAARC summit cannot be held if any member-state declines to attend.

India gave two reasons for non-participation — the imposition of a state of Emergency by the King of Nepal, and the law and order situation in Bangladesh, which had faced several terror attacks in 2004. Another attack targeting a public rally of the opposition Awami League occurred on January 27, 2005, days before the originally scheduled summit.

Was held months later

The summit was eventually held in November 2005. But the February cancellation led to bad blood between India and Bangladesh and resentment within SAARC in general.

The cable reported: “GoI remains unapologetic about the last minute cancellation and the resulting unhappiness in Dhaka…With no apparent sense of urgency to make things right with Dhaka, the MEA explained that the GoI's decision was intended to send a message to BDG [Bangladesh government].”

Mr. Sandhu told the U.S. officials that “in light of increasing intolerance in Bangladesh and ‘sustained anti-India sentiment' there, India needed to bring pressure to bear on Dhaka.”

He urged the Americans not to “lessen the importance” of the events in Bangladesh in New Delhi's decision not to attend the summit. “The Director added to his list of Bangladeshi offenses that ‘sitting ministers' and senior politicians have made statements against India recently, with the intention of raising passions, and concluded that this is not the ‘SAARC spirit',” according to the cable.

He said it was time New Delhi “sent a message to Dhaka,” although the signal was not necessarily a negative one. Rather, “it was meant to encourage Bangladesh to be ‘introspective',” Mr. Sandhu said. He added that India wanted Bangladesh to “realize the danger to themselves from leaving certain issues unchecked.”

Right through Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's tenure in office, India was concerned that the free hand the Bangladesh government seemed to have given Islamist groups would have an impact on India's own security. There was also suspicion of a Pakistani helping hand to these groups, and New Delhi used every opportunity to rope in the U.S. to put pressure on the Bangladesh government.

Mr. Sandhu said “even a layman could see what has been going on.” The U.S. Embassy cable noted that he was “somewhat incredulous” that the U.S. government continued to ask for evidence to support India's claims of “creeping Talibanisation” when even media outlets such as The New York Times had written about it.

When the U.S. diplomats pointed out that a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent from the New Delhi office was on his way to Dhaka to help with the investigation of the January 27 attack, Mr. Sandhu was sceptical of U.S. investigators' ability to get results in Bangladesh.

He disagreed with the U.S. officials' assessment that relations with Bangladesh were at a dead end. The economic interaction between the two countries would not stop, he said, pointing to continuing discussions on a gas pipeline. But “India needs to see the BDG pay attention to New Delhi's political and security concerns.”

Mr. Sandhu rejected the criticism that India had acted in favour of the Awami League (which was then in the Opposition), and said the decision not to attend the summit “had nothing to do” with political parties. “He added that India should not be seen as a bully, emphasizing that someone needed to call attention to what was going on in Bangladesh,” the cable noted.

The cable reported Bangladeshi anger over the Indian decision. During a lunch with the U.S. Embassy's Deputy Chief of Mission, the Bangladesh High Commissioner to India, Hemayet Uddin, “vented his frustration and anger at the way India quashed the SAARC summit.”

The High Commissioner said the Indian government had made its announcement on February 2 without first notifying the Bangladesh government; he was “especially stung that in his statement, Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran singled out Bangladesh as a culprit.”

The cable noted that “despite his vitriol,” the High Commissioner pointed to positive developments in relations with India, including the Tata Group's plan for $2 billion investment in a steel venture in Bangladesh that would include the use of local gas supplies and “smooth the way” for fuel sales to India. The project was given up in 2006 because of Bangladesh's failure to take a decision on it.

Another cable, sent on February 3, 2005, from the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka around the same time (26366: confidential), reported Bangladeshi anger at the Indian action that led to the cancellation of the summit. Cabinet Ministers pointed out during conversations with the Ambassador that previous summits in Nepal and Pakistan went ahead despite violence that prevailed there.

The Indian effort to get the U.S. involved paid off to some extent. According to an Embassy cable of April 13, 2005, a visiting State Department official, Deputy Assistant Secretary John Gastright, told MEA Joint Secretary Neelam Deo (30697: confidential) that “due in part to New Delhi's prodding, Washington has taken a careful look at the situation in Bangladesh and has developed a strategy of working cooperatively with the BDG and letting them know we are paying attention.”

Mr. Gastright said Dhaka had noticed “Washington's stepped up attention to issues of governance” and had lately taken some steps recommended by donor countries. He suggested that during a forthcoming visit by Assistant Secretary Christina Rocca, “we offer a playbook of carrots and sticks that we can offer the BDG to encourage it to improve its governance.”

He suggested that New Delhi should think about offering the summit as an “inducement.” Ms. Deo noted that it was not just the blasts that had led to the cancellation, but the “real build-up in unfriendly attitude.” She expressed concern that the Bangladesh Industries Minister, who represented the Jamaat-i-Islami, was overseeing the Tata project.

She reiterated New Delhi's assertion that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence was active in Bangladesh.

(This article is a part of the series "The India Cables" based on the US diplomatic cables accessed by The Hindu via Wikileaks.)