How does a nation go about formulating its threat perception? Does popular perception play any role in it? Can there be variation in perceived threat and real threat? Does a country’s past activities help one to figure out the extent of perceived threat?

These are some of the questions that came to mind when I was going through an article recently written by an Indian scholar in which he mentioned that Indian security analysts are always surprised by Bangladesh’s threat perception when they find that India, even if not directly named, appears in the radar of Bangladesh. According to him, differences in perception of threat have made defence cooperation a non-starter between the two countries.

I would say, however, that defence cooperation between Bangladesh and India has thrived in the past decades. A multitude of activities including various exchange programmes have been going on as part of it even before the current government’s coming to power.

General Hussain Muhammad Ershad was the first Bangladeshi officer to attend the National Defence College in India back in the early 1980s. In fact, this is a platform where officers at strategic levels interact with their counterparts on various aspects, covering wide ranging issues that affect national, regional, and global conflict, peace, security, and stability.

The National Defence College in Bangladesh, though a relatively new outfit, has come up very well. The beauty of interaction at such a level is that officers from even arch-rivals like Pakistan and India sit together, interacting and exchanging views on issues controversial and not so controversial.

Hence, the Bangladesh military has an advantage that allows them to sit across a table with both Pakistan and India, at least for academic purposes. We take pride in this venture that provides such a platform to both India and Pakistan, who usually would not get a scope of informal exchange of this kind.

Exchange programmes in institutions such as Defence Services Command and Staff College continued even during the rule of autocrats. We may not have been as fortunate as India in giving democracy an uninterrupted run ever since our birth as an independent country, but such exchange programmes continued even under autocratic or pseudo-democratic rule.

The Indo-Bangladesh border at Sitai in West Bengal. Credit: Dibakar Sanju, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The chiefs of services of both countries visit each other on a regular basis. Training of officers, exercises, and other exchange programmes are done very frequently. As part of informal military exchange, a good number of high ranking military officers of Bangladesh visited India a few years back. Exchange of know-how and experience remains a continuous process. Honouring the Indian veterans of our Liberation War also goes on to showcase the high level of defence-cooperation between the two neighbours.

Bangladesh’s achievement in anti-terrorist operations within our country is having visible impacts both within the country and across the border. India is a direct beneficiary to it. Peace in Mizoram, Assam, Nagaland, and Tripura has been greatly enhanced by fulfilment of our pledge that we shall not allow our territory to be used as safe havens by dissident elements of any origin.

I would like to leave it to the readers’ judgement whether we can call it a “non starter” after having achieved all these.

However, in the name of defence cooperation, if it is expected that Bangladesh’s armed forces should procure certain kinds of military hardware from its neighbours, that may amount to curbing our choice in this regard. It reminds me of the discomfort Indian strategists expressed when Bangladesh procured two submarines in 2017.

Threat perception is something which is dealt exclusively at the core national level. Well-informed citizens can make efforts to visualise and a commonsense approach may not always be wrong.

There would be top-level defence analysts, strategists and planners who would do it by getting feedback from a host of relevant agencies. Besides government agencies, there could be other think-tanks who also devote their efforts into making their own threat perception. This remains a dynamic process.

Military threat may form a small component of it while there could be many other ingredients of threat perception of a nation. A perceived threat may have multiple sources of origin as a result of actions on the part of the country in question. These could be socio-economic, environmental, common and shared resource-centric, and health and welfare-related threats to one’s security.

Over-reliance on one source may itself become an insurmountable threat to a nation’s vital interest and well-being. The handling of Covid-19 by the Bangladesh government is a case in point. Had we relied only on our big neighbour for Covid vaccine, we would have faced dire consequences.

Thankfully, our government acted prudently by utilising other sources as well. This was a smart approach and deserves much appreciation. Hence, keeping options open may prove to be the best option in encountering a threat.

In aspects of defence, nations do cooperate in learning from each other, sharing information, experience, and expertise. But then again, there are issues. Notwithstanding a host of joint training and shared activities, there will be some exclusive segments for specialists and members of the armed forces of only the concerned countries to handle.

Depriving Bangladesh of our rightful share of common rivers, namely Teesta and Padma, is a critical issue for our very survival. The devastating manifestations are only vivid in the desertification of a vast area, adversely impacting the lives of millions. Our rivers have grown shallow and wide, creating havoc by uprooting millions as a result of river erosion and unregulated flooding.

A boat on the Teesta River in Bangladesh. Credit: Ahamed Rafid, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

It is a direct consequence of unilateral withdrawal of water upstream and diversion of natural flow. The number of internally-displaced people as a consequence of river erosion is on an alarming rise. This definitely is a reckonable existential threat which has its origin in India. Efforts from India could be fruitful if dialogues were arranged involving all stakeholders like Sikkim and West Bengal.

Unabated border killing, even dishonouring Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina when she was visiting and having such cordial discussions with her counterpart, is another issue wherein lives of Bangladeshis are continuously put in harm’s way.

When such arbitrary killing goes on and even being justified by our counterpart that only criminals are being killed, the idea of joint patrolling and border cooperation sounds rather unkind. Our border guards have definitely failed at playing their role in safeguarding our lives and their presence at the border did not produce any deterrence whatsoever on their counterparts.

One can only hope that Indian strategists and policy-makers would pay heed to these issues and let India take Bangladesh along in its win-win journey in all spheres of cooperation, including defence.

Brig Gen Qazi Abidus Samad, ndc psc (Retd) is a freelance contributor.

This article first appeared on The Dhaka Tribune.