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'India Out' Campaign Gains Traction in Bangladesh


Supporters of Gono Odhikar Parishad, an opposition political party, hold a rally in Dhaka in support of the India Out campaign, Feb. 13, 2024. (Golam Quddus for VOA)
Supporters of Gono Odhikar Parishad, an opposition political party, hold a rally in Dhaka in support of the India Out campaign, Feb. 13, 2024. (Golam Quddus for VOA)

Opponents of Bangladesh's Awami League, frustrated by the Sheikh Hasina-led party's runaway victory in elections last month, are promoting a boycott of goods made in neighboring India, which they suspect of covertly working to keep Hasina in power.

While offering no evidence to support charges of Indian interference in the election, members of the groups, based in and outside Bangladesh, suspect New Delhi has used its influence to tone down criticism of the balloting process by the United States and other countries.

More broadly, the boycott campaign has provided a focus for deep-seated resentment of India in Bangladesh, driven by border and water grievances and by a sense that India's Hindu nationalist ruling party looks down on its Muslim neighbors.

The campaign, labeled "India Out," is mainly being driven on social media, and hashtags #IndiaOut, #BoycottIndia and #BoycottIndianProducts have been trending on Facebook for the past few weeks.

Indian cookies are seen at Shwapno Super Store in Kumilla, Bangladesh, Feb. 20, 2024. Many Indian products have been sold at heavily discounted prices in recent weeks in Bangladesh since the India Out campaign was launched. (A. Shaikat for VOA)
Indian cookies are seen at Shwapno Super Store in Kumilla, Bangladesh, Feb. 20, 2024. Many Indian products have been sold at heavily discounted prices in recent weeks in Bangladesh since the India Out campaign was launched. (A. Shaikat for VOA)

Soon after the campaign was launched, employees at several shops in Dhaka and Chittagong told VOA they had seen a drop in sales of some Indian products such as cooking oil, processed foods, toiletry, cosmetics and clothing. Some Indian traders and vendors told VOA's Bangla Service, though, that they were not seeing any impact.

France-based Bangladeshi activist Pinaki Bhattacharya, one of those behind the campaign, said that since the 2014 general election, the Awami League has managed to win three "farcical" general elections with India's support.

"This time, the global community wanted the general election in Bangladesh to be held in a free and fair manner. But the January 7 election was neither free nor fair. It is widely believed that the authorities in Bangladesh managed to conduct the farcical election after India covertly and overtly sided with the ruling party," Bhattacharya told VOA.

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the largest opposition party in the country, boycotted the election after the Awami League refused to install a neutral caretaker government to oversee the voting. Its absence from the ballot left the ruling party with no effective opposition.

After all 300 seats contested were won by the AL-led alliance and "independent" candidates that support it, the U.S. State Department said in a statement the elections had not been "free or fair."

Although her party insists it has no role in the anti-India campaign, BNP leader Rumeen Farhana said that India has been pulling out all the stops to keep "one political party of its choice" in power.

"Any common people with a conscience believe that a government that interferes in [and] helps manipulate the election in another nation and deprives its citizens of their right to vote, is selfish and unethical," Farhana told VOA.

"It is easy to understand why the people are angry and why they have launched this India Out campaign."

The Home Ministry of Bangladesh has not responded to a VOA email requesting comment on the India Out campaign. But Alok Vats, a senior leader in India's ruling Bhartiya Janata Party, said the accusation that New Delhi interferes in the internal politics of Bangladesh is "not true at all."

"However, India morally supports Sheikh Hasina. Her government is secular and does its best to maintain peace and harmony in the country. Any campaign there to malign India will fall flat because India plays fair when comes to human politics," Vats told VOA.

FILE - In this photograph released by Bangladesh Prime Minister's office, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, left, arrives to address a press conference following her election victory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Jan. 8, 2024.
FILE - In this photograph released by Bangladesh Prime Minister's office, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, left, arrives to address a press conference following her election victory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Jan. 8, 2024.

Asif Nazrul, a professor of law at Dhaka University, said the continued tenure of the Awami League in Dhaka serves India's security, strategic and economic interests.

"For example, it gives India access to its sensitive ports, highways and other infrastructure, provides lucrative deals to India's companies, allows its citizens unrestricted employment" in Bangladesh, he said.

He noted the AL also fails to protest India's "shoot-to-kill" policy under which hundreds of Bangladeshis have been slain by Indian border guards and its withdrawal of water from rivers that flow from India into Bangladesh.

Ali Riaz, professor of political science at Illinois State University, told VOA that backers of the India Out campaign assert that without India's support for the Awami League government, the U.S. might have played a more robust role before or after the election.

The United States had threatened last year to impose visa restrictions on Bangladeshi individuals who are found complicit in "undermining the democratic electoral process" in Bangladesh. No sanctions were imposed, however, after the January election.

"The citizens of Bangladesh hold the view that Indian influence played a pivotal role in the United States' decision to retract from imposing visa restrictions in the aftermath of a sham election," said Bhattacharya, the France-based activist.

"Such visa restrictions were seen as a potential lever to bolster our demands for a free and fair electoral process."

Australia-based economist Jyoti Rahman told VOA that while the India Out campaign will send a strong political message, its economic implications are not yet clear.

"Although Bangladesh only constitutes around 3.5% of the Indian exports market, a sustained boycott of Indian tourism, cultural imports [such as Bollywood movies] and consumer products can be politically effective, along with giving a fillip to domestic Bangladeshi tourism, entertainment and consumer product sectors," Rahman said.

"The campaign, if successful, would be politically very important to the extent that it sends a strong message to the Indian policymakers about growing discontent in Bangladesh."

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