India has conveyed its opposition to the United States’ (US) visa policy targeting Bangladeshi citizens, stating that it views the policy as counterproductive. The Indian government asserts that this “restrictive approach” would not contribute to the facilitation of free and fair elections in Bangladesh, but rather, it could lead to unintended negative consequences that undermine regional stability and security.
On May 24 of this year, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the US would deny visas to individuals obstructing the process of holding democratic elections in Bangladesh. However, subsequent clarification revealed that the policy would encompass politicians from both ruling and opposition parties in Bangladesh. This announcement sparked intense debate within Bangladesh.
While India, a significant neighbor of Bangladesh, has yet to formally comment on the visa policy, Arindam Bagchi, the official spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs, reiterated that New Delhi expects Bangladesh’s national elections to adhere to its constitution and proceed on schedule.
Nevertheless, the realization that the US visa policy is misaligned with India’s expectations has taken root within the corridors of power in Delhi.
Over the past few weeks, Delhi has strongly presented its case to various levels of the US administration, arguing that India perceives the visa policy’s impact on Bangladesh as “counterproductive”.
Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is anticipated to hold a separate meeting with her Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, on the fringes of the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, scheduled for next week.
Following this, Prime Minister Hasina will participate in the G20 Summit in New Delhi as a special invitee, where she is expected to engage with global leaders including US President Joe Biden and Indian Prime Minister Modi. Rumors also suggest that Modi and Hasina may hold another private meeting during her visit to Delhi.
The Indian government aims to use these significant interactions to clearly convey its stance on the US visa policy to the Bangladesh government. There are indications that Prime Minister Hasina will be briefed on India’s diplomatic approach in handling negotiations with Washington on this matter.
Shortly after the US visa policy announcement, two experts from opposite sides of the globe provided their insights on various aspects of the issue. Ali Riaz, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council South Asia Center and a distinguished professor at Illinois State University, penned an article analyzing the implications of the “New US Visa Policy for Bangladesh”. He noted that past visa restrictions targeting individuals from countries such as Nigeria, Somalia, Uganda, Nicaragua, and Belarus, aimed at curbing anti-democratic activities post-election. Riaz questioned whether this approach would yield different results in Bangladesh and praised the policy’s early timing. He acknowledged the potential impact of the policy on government affiliates and elites in Bangladesh.
Brahma Chellaney, a professor emeritus of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, and a former adviser to India’s National Security Council, criticized the US for unevenly treating Bangladesh and Pakistan, labelling it as hypocrisy. Chellaney highlighted the US’ silence on alleged martial law in Pakistan while vocalizing concerns about democracy in Bangladesh. He drew parallels to US sanctions in other nations, asserting their limited efficacy in producing political change. India appears to align with Chellaney’s viewpoint after closely studying his opinion piece in Nikkei Asia.
New Delhi’s message to Washington
The crucial question is: What arguments has India presented against the contentious US visa policy for Bangladesh? In the past month, the Indian government has dispatched a series of diplomatic communications to the Biden administration. Additionally, Indian officials have consistently raised the issue during bilateral discussions. These actions followed Prime Minister Modi’s prominent visit to the US in June, with India keen on not allowing the Bangladesh issue to overshadow that visit.
Key arguments put forth by India include:
While India shares the US’ desire for free and fair elections in Bangladesh, it contends that visa denials will not facilitate this goal. Rather, India believes that the announcement and timing of the policy may unnecessarily destabilize the Sheikh Hasina government, which has steered a secular and stable regime for 15 years, fostering economic progress.
India points to the ineffectiveness of US sanctions in Myanmar, which could potentially worsen democratic conditions. India also raises concerns that such sanctions may drive Myanmar closer to China, a US-adversary.
India questions the US’ differential treatment of Bangladesh and Pakistan, perceiving a dual application of democratic standards. While Pakistan engages in alleged human rights abuses, the US maintains silence, whereas it actively targets Bangladesh.
India underscores that democracy cannot be promoted through intimidation or coercion, contending that a visa ban in Bangladesh could backfire and harm democratic processes.
India recognizes that once announced, the US visa policy may not be easily retracted before elections. However, New Delhi hopes that Washington will consider India’s perspective and display flexibility in its policy implementation.