A Diplomat's View on India Bangladesh Ties

A Diplomat’s View on Delhi-Dhaka Destiny

The birth of Bangladesh in 1971 was thanks to a combination of forces and circumstances that cannot be repeated. Its people wanted to protect and nurture their language and culture in a country separating them by 1400 km. India wanted to get even with a hostile neighbour created by the 1947 Partition. And, it was born because of — and despite — the Cold War politics that neither the perpetrators nor the victims want to talk about today.

Well into the new century, a different phase of the Cold War has ensued with the region’s geopolitics changing with China’s enlarged entry. India and Pakistan remain perennially hostile. And Bangladesh, once derided as an “international basket case” by its mightiest opponent Henry Kissinger, is South Asia’s best economy, soon to join the middle-income group, with human development indicators that are among the best in the region.

Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty, a former Indian High Commissioner and one of the most erudite scholars on Bangladesh, records this ‘Transformation, Emergence and the Evolution of India-Bangladesh Ties’ in his book with this title. Assessing the entire gamut of issues, he concludes: “India and Bangladesh are destined to cooperate given that their destinies will remain intertwined in the future.”

He underlines that like any two neighbours, India and Bangladesh have problems and issues that remain to be resolved. Even as they get resolved, they get impacted by the region’s changing geopolitics that impacts both, inevitably posing new, knotty challenges.

Not the least is the change in India’s position. Its concern in the last century was that neighbours did not sign security-related agreements with the West, especially the United States. It worked diplomatically for the Indian Ocean to become “a zone of peace”. The worry in the changed scenario is that they do not get too close to, and become dependent upon, China.

Indeed, the China factor looms large on the entire region just as it also confronts others across the globe. Chakravarty analyses at length how the India-Bangladesh“Shonali Adhyaha”, the golden phase in bilateral relations, can be impacted by it.

“If Bangladesh-China ties remain within the bandwidth of acceptability, then bilateral ties can be insulated from disruption. If it impinges on India’s security interests, then India will certainly use its leverage to counter it. There are enough indicators that both sides understand this sensitivity and so far, have navigated adroitly, avoiding crossing certain lines that could upset bilateral ties,” he writes.

The reality is that India finds itself encircled by China in the Indian Ocean region, with smaller neighbours playing the “China Card”. Developments in Nepal, the Maldives and Sri Lanka are recent examples. All except India and Bhutan have accepted China’s multi-billion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Eagerly welcoming money and infrastructure projects under BRI, they are now anxious about a “debt trap” and some have continued despite this risk.

Bangladesh is on BRI, but as Chakravarty points out, it fears that if it joins or cooperates with the Quad – Australia, India, Japan, and the United States – it might invite Chinese ire and inevitably, get caught into big-power rivalry. Playing one side against the other is not easy and could get more difficult in future given the ferocity of China’s confrontation with the US and its allies.

In a succinct comment on Bangladesh-China ties, he says: “Bangladesh thinks China is less intrusive than India.” This is inevitable when India and Bangladesh share borders, cultural links, and socio-economic commonalities and are mutually dependent.

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Having spent considerable time in Bangladesh, Chakravarty notes that the young, professional and business classes clamour for closer ties with China. But “the same people make frequent visits to India.”

A domestic political angle often played up pitches India which helped in the freedom movement as a villain. Those with Islamist leanings look to the West, including Pakistan, and China because of the latter’s adversarial relations with India. It’s befriending enemy’s enemy. Indeed, half a century down, the fact that their separation from Pakistan was opposed by the US, China and the Muslim world is becoming a distant memory for the young and is glossed over.

In a unique neighbourhood, India faces problems typical of a large country surrounded by small ones. The ‘friendliest’ Bangladesh, too, finds India’s location on its three sides constricting and generates fears and expectations. India is anxious, particularly when the smaller ones want to play the  “China card.” Like the Maldives that has sent back Indian soldiers and sailors. Or Si Lanka and Nepal where each government is either “pro-India” or “pro-China,” cancelling or dishing out projects.

India’s expectations of Bangladesh, while helping liberally (but without the Chinese deep pockets and the BRI), Chakravarty writes, “are mostly security and migration-related. The principal concerns are border management, terrorism, smuggling and human trafficking, Islamist terrorism and China’s growing engagement in different sectors of Bangladesh that could give China a strategic advantage in the region.”

Chakravarty delves into India’s assistance in the freedom movement with the hope of nurturing a secular, syncretic Muslim society where minorities feel safe. With Bangladesh’s syncretic Islam taking blows from the Islamists, he foresees the struggle between Islamist and secular forces dominating Bangladesh’s domestic politics “that will occasionally turn violent.” Its political impact may not remain confined to India’s east and north-east. The book notes that Hasina has battled the Islamists but also made concessions to some sections that control the madrassas where the rural youth get trained, hoping that radicalisation would not begin early in their lives.

Inevitably in the future, India will have to engage with the conflicting political legacies led by the two ageing women leaders now in their late seventies. Their succession may or may not emerge from the rival families Ailing Zia’s son Tareq is wanted by law and remains in exile. Hasina has yet to indicate any preference for a successor, either from within or outside her family.

The oft-posed question is about India putting all its eggs in Sheikh Hasina’s basket. Chakravarty contrasts that by Sheikh Hasina’s with the record of the two-term premier, Begum Khaleda Zia, when Islamists were part of her government and militants killed with impunity. The distrust is inbred and inevitable, on both sides. That leaves India with no option, as of now. Chakravarty underscores the ‘risk’ but sees no clear picture. “In the long term, India’s strategy should be to develop ties with parties across the political spectrum,” he opines.

Hasina once asked Chakravarty, then India’s envoy: “What did you get from Zia?” He told her that India had no high expectations from her. A decade hence, the ground situation remains the same. Only time can tell how the internal dynamics will work, and how they will impact India-Bangladesh relations.

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Mamata: Centre Did Not Allow Me To Meet Hasina

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on Thursday lambasted the BJP-led Centre for not inviting her to meet visiting Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Addressing her party members at Netaji Indoor Stadium here, Banerjee said, “This is the first time the Prime Minister of Bangladesh came to India and did not come to Bengal despite her desire to meet me.”
The Trinamool Congress (TMC) supremo said she wanted to know why the BJP-led Centre was worried about her meeting with Hasina. Mamata said she should not speak on bilateral ties or external affairs of the country. She further alleged that the Centre attempts to prevent her from visiting foreign countries whenever she was invited.

“I do not know why they (BJP) are so angry. They also did not let me go to many places including Chicago and China to attend events. While BJP attends invitations globally, they stop us from attending the same. We ask: How long will you continue your autocracy?” Mamata said.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who is on a four-day visit to India to strengthen bilateral ties between the two countries, arrived in New Delhi on Monday.

Bangladesh is an important partner under India’s “Neighbourhood First” policy.

Soon after arriving in New Delhi on Monday, Bangladesh Prime Minister met his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi and held bilateral talks to review and further strengthen the relationship between both countries at Hyderabad House, following which seven MoUs have been signed between the two countries.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, during the joint press statement at Hyderabad House, expressed hope that the issue of Teesta water sharing with India will be resolved soon. “The two countries have resolved many outstanding issues and we hope that all outstanding issues, including Teesta water-sharing treaty, would be concluded at an early date,” she said in a joint statement with PM Narendra Modi.

The Teesta river dispute is an important point of bilateral talks between India and Bangladesh. Both countries signed an agreement in 2011 to share surface waters at the Farakka Barrage near their mutual border.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has reservations over the Teesta water sharing with Bangladesh.

Hasina also met President Droupadi Murmu and Vice-President Jagdeep Dhankhar in New Delhi. On Tuesday, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi called on Hasina. (ANI))

Indo-Bangladesh Infra Projects

Delhi-Dhaka Ties Stand The Test Of Time

The government of Bangladesh has been enjoying great cooperation from India ever since Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina came to power in January 2009.

The Indian government headed by Narendra Modi has extended wholehearted support for Bangladesh for rebuilding its economy and its infrastructural development. In return, the Sheikh Hasina government has set a unique example of cooperation and reciprocation out of which the people of both countries would reap ample benefit. The transit, trans-shipment and building regional connectivity, including the waterways, would immensely facilitate and promote trade, commerce and tourism.

A number of issues, including the most critical and complex border problem, which had been hanging for about 40 years despite the inking of a treaty by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Indira Gandhi, was resolved in a unprecedented bills passed in the Indian Parliament with unanimous support by all members of both the houses.

In response to that genial gesture, the Sheikh Hasina government has set an example of a new reality of cooperation. India-Bangladesh relations are based mainly on the solid historic bond of social, political, economic and cultural tradition. India played a vital role and provided substantial diplomatic, economic and military support to Bangladesh during the Liberation War in 1971.

India was the first country to recognise Bangladesh as a sovereign and independent state and established diplomatic ties with the country immediately after its independence in December 1971.

Bangladesh and India are two countries bound by the inalienable link of history, religion, culture, language and kinship. But the relationship between the two friendly nations is based on sovereignty, equality, trust, understanding and win-win partnership that goes far beyond a strategic partnership.

Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was the architect of Bangladesh-India relations. Both Bangabandhu and his Indian counterpart Indira Gandhi were firm believers in democracy and secular ideology. Bangabandhu’s daughter Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi have further strengthened the relations Mujib and Indira forged between the next-door neighbours.

There are more than 50 bilateral institutional mechanisms between Bangladesh and India in the areas of security, trade and commerce, power and energy, transport and connectivity, science and technology, defence, riverine and maritime affairs and so on.

Bangladesh and India share 4,097 kilometres of border, which is the longest land boundary that India shares with any of its neighbours. The two countries also share 54 common rivers. Bilateral trade between them has grown steadily over the last decade.

There are lots of common and bilateral issues between these two neighbours. Both countries are promise-bound to maintain these healthy relations without interrelations. Some of the issues, including regional road connectivity, cooperation in power and energy sector, land border agreement, easy visa process, Bangladesh-India rail services, are vital and significantly beneficial to both the countries.

Regional Road Connectivity

The Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) Initiative is a sub-regional entity in Eastern South Asia. It meets through an official representation of member states to formulate, implement and review quadrilateral agreements across areas such as water resources management, connectivity of power, transport, and infrastructure.

In February of this year, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal agreed on the need to finalise the passenger and cargo protocols for implementation of the BBIN Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA).

Moreover, according to the transport ministers of the four BBIN members, 30 transport corridors will be transformed into economic corridors. This will potentially increase intraregional trade within South Asia by almost 60 per cent and with the rest of the world by over 30 per cent.

Recently, ECNEC cleared an 846-crore Bangladeshi taka project to widen the Baraiyarhat-Heyanko-Ramgarhroad under Chattogram and Khagrachhari districts, aiming to boost export and import between Bangladesh and India. The approval came from the 5th ECNEC meeting of the current fiscal year chaired by Sheikh Hasina.

According to a report of South Asia Sub-regional Economic Cooperation (SASEC), Bangladesh, India and Nepal conducted a trial bus service run on April 24-25 2018. Two buses left Dhaka for Kathmandu in Nepal, carrying delegates from the three countries and the Asian Development Bank. The bus service will strengthen sub-regional connectivity and help tourists and entrepreneurs, including those who travel to West Bengal for medical tourism.

Land Border Agreement

On June 6, 2015, the 1974 India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement came into force, following the exchange of instruments of ratification by Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi during the latter’s state visit to Bangladesh. The agreement provides for the exchange of enclaves of Indian and Bangladesh territory, which remained unresolved following the partition in 1947.

Following the agreement, India and Bangladesh exchanged control of 162 enclaves. The move was branded as akin to the fall of the Berlin Wall by politicians.

Until August 1, about 50,000 people were living in 111 Bangladeshi and 51 Indian enclaves on the India-Bangladesh border, cut off from their parent countries. Daily chores such as visiting the market were cumbersome process because they involved crossing national boundaries.

The Land Boundary Agreement played a historic role in advancing the exchange of 111 enclaves (17,160.63 acres) from India to Bangladesh and reciprocatively the latter transferred 51 enclaves (7,110.02 acres) to India. In addition, the choice of citizenship in either country was offered by states to enclave residents.

Easy Visa Process

India-Bangladesh visa rules were being gradually relaxed and five-year visas would be granted to students, senior citizens and patients. Earlier in 2018, an agreement, Revised Travel Arrangement (RTA)-2018, stated that freedom fighters and elderly Bangladeshi nationals will get five-year multiple visas from India. Easy and hassle-free visa services have been ensured for the travellers of the two countries.

Bangladesh-India Rail Services

Transport between India and Bangladesh bears much historical and political significance for both the countries. A direct Kolkata-Agartala link running via Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, is being developed by both the countries. The Maitri Express (Friendship Express) was launched to revive a railway link between Kolkata and Dhaka that had been shut 43 years ago.

The first container train arrived from India via Benapole-Petrapole rail link carrying FMCG cargo and fabrics loaded in 50 containers, and those were handed over to Bangladesh on July 26 this year. With this container train service, a huge opportunity has opened up for bilateral trade via rail. Bangladesh Railway’s freight trains, noted for bringing stones and fly ash as raw materials for cement, from India, are now used to bring onion, garlic and ginger and other essentials amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In July this year, India handed over 10 broad-gauge diesel-based locomotives to Bangladesh that have a residual life of at least 28 years. These are 3,300 horse-power locomotives that can run at a speed of 120 km/hr. These 10 locomotives are expected to increase the use of the rail sector.

Cooperation in Power and Energy Sector

Cooperation in the power and energy sector has become one of the hallmarks of India-Bangladesh relations. Bangladesh is currently importing about 660 MW of power from India. In March 2016, the two Prime Ministers inaugurated the export of power from Tripura to Bangladesh as well as the export of internet bandwidth to Tripura from Bangladesh.

Five hundred megawatts of electricity was added to Bangladesh’s national grid from India in 2018 as part of India-Bangladesh cooperation in power and energy sector. Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi jointly inaugurated the power supply to Bangladesh-India Power Interconnection Grid at Bheramara of Kushtia through a videoconference. In September last year, Bangladesh signed an agreement to buy 718 megawatts of electricity from India’s Reliance Power over the next 22 years.

Earlier, the Bangladesh Prime Minister unveiled her power import plan and said, “We plan to import 9,000 MW of electricity from our neighbours by 2041 under a regional cooperation framework and I hope India will remain by our side in this endeavour.”

There are several other issues where Bangladesh and India have developed the highest level of friendship and bilateral relations. These two friendly neighbours are also great examples of greater understanding, dialogue, diplomacy and regional cooperation.

The author is the editor-in-chief of Bangladesh Post (ANI)