Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was in India last week to bolster multiple ties. Of late, the neighbour has been the best in South Asia for India. This was underlined by the visit, as stated by the Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque: “India and Bangladesh relations are at their best at present, however, we are keeping our eyes open on NRC”.
Significantly, the ties, especially under Hasina’s regime have grown. Despite the interwoven histories of both countries, and India’s critical role in Bangladesh’s liberation from the oppressive regime in West Pakistan, there were recurring irritants in bilateralism, mainly on sharing of river water and anti-India Islamic fundamentalism under Khaleda Zia’s regime, 2001-2006.
Such tensions have been eased by Hasina, who has stood by India at crucial moments. It was she who was the first South Asian head of State to boycott the SAARC summit in Islamabad in 2016 following the terrorist attack in an Indian army camp in Uri, Kashmir. Again, recently, she almost endorsed the nullifying of Article 370 in Kashmir as an internal matter of India. Both her government and New Delhi are on the same page on terrorism.
Even more important from New Delhi’s point of view is Hasina’s dealing with China. Its main concern has been to prevent its South Asian neighbours from falling prey to Chinese temptation of economic aid etc. New Delhi’s long standing, trusted neighbour, Nepal is being seduced away by China with promise of aid and trade. Bangladesh too has been a part of ‘string of pearls’ strategy of Beijing to increase its presence around the Indian Ocean area.
China has promised an investment of US $24 billion in Bangladesh, compared to $2billion offered by New Delhi. Beijing also has offered to develop the Chittagong port, which carries 90% of Bangladesh cargo, and is the economic lifeline of the country. However, Hasina is moving cautiously to avoid falling into the Chinese debt trap. She has recently scrapped the Sonadia port plan to be supported by China.
Apparently, it looks good thus far. Let us view what transpired during her meeting with Prime Minister Modi and what could be the potential problem areas which might upset the apple cart of India-Bangladesh bilateralism. The main talking points were Teesta water, NRC and Rohingyas. In all, 7 pacts and 3 projects were inked between the two countries under four heads.
On defense, maritime and border security, a network of 21 radar system is to be installed by India in Bangladesh waters. It will help India detect any sea-born terrorist activity along its Eastern coastline, keep an eye on maritime neighborhood, and above all, monitor Chinese presence in Bay of Bengal. India is building similar coastal surveillance in Mauritius, Seychelles, Sri Lanka and Maldives. New Delhi and Dhaka agreed to carry on with border fencing to prevent miscreants from illegally crossing over.
Second was trade. A Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement is to be initiated in order to boost trade and bilateral economic activity. Notably, as Bangladesh is graduating out of LDCs, its exports to India have grown over $1billion. New Delhi has agreed to ease the movement of people with valid documents through border check posts like Akhura in Tripura, and Ghojadanga in West Bengal. Dhaka, on its part, has agreed to supply LPG gas to Tripura, and would allow its ports Mongla and Chaattogram to carry goods to and from Indian North East region.
Third, in sharing of River water, both countries agreed to work on sharing the water of 6 rivers- Manu, Muhuri, Khowai, Gumti, Dhara, Dudhkumar. In addition, Dhaka agreed to supply 1.82 cusecs of water from its river Feni to Shabroom town in South Tripura. There is acute shortage of potable water in the town as the ground water available in the area is not safe to drink. However, the stalemate on Teesta water continues and the pact agreed in 2011 is yet to be signed and delivered. Also New Delhi has not yet agreed to Ganga barrage project, which will allow Bangladesh to secure external funding.
The fourth area of cooperation covered connectivity through air, water, rail and road between two countries. Use of inland water for movement of cargo received immense importance in the negotiations. Under the protocol of Inland Water Transit and Trade, two inland water routes are to be made operational. These are Dhuliana to Aricha and Daudkandi to Sonamura, both include to and fro.
On road and rail, the BBIN Motor vehicle agreement is to be expedited for goods and passengers; the Dhaka-Siliguri Bus service to commence; the frequency of Maitree express to be increased from 4 to 5 times, Bandhan Express from 1 to 2 times a week. New Delhi also offered to modernise the Sadipur Railway workshop and supply on a grant basis broad-gauge and meter-gauge locomotives to Bangladesh. And both countries will increase the air services from 61 to 91 services per week.
Both countries agreed to find safe, speedy and sustainable repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Rakhine State of Myanmar, as the issue has been of great concern to both. However, a greater concern was expressed by Bangladesh on the implementation of National Register of Citizens (NRC) beyond Assam. It is likely to affect the good relations with our neighbour. Already 19 lakh people have been identified as ‘illegal immigrants’ in Assam. Although, New Delhi sought to calm the concerns of Dhaka that NRC is a Supreme Court monitored process and the real picture is yet to emerge, Dhaka will remain worried about how many Bangladeshis may be treated as illegal residents.
It may be noted that India’s excessive focus on security issues is related to the promulgation and implementation of NRC. Taking it beyond Assam is most likely to affect our relations with Bangladesh and Bhutan.
Hasina was in New Delhi to attend the India Economic Summit as its co-chair. It was co-hosted by the Ministry of Trade and Commerce, the CII, and the World Economic Forum. The Summit was meant to showcase India’s ‘growing economy’ and tap the potential for the world market. Aptly titled, “Innovating India: Strengthening South Asia, Impacting the World”, the Summit drew 800 leaders from 40 countries from diverse fields of civil society, arts and culture, science, business and academia.
Decidedly, Bangladesh Premier’s focus was on improving ties with New Delhi. Although she is friendlier than any of the former heads of Bangladesh, her speech to the India-Bangladesh Business Forum bespeaks her expectations from the biggest country in the South Asia region. She said: “We should move away from the majority-minority mindset, and respect the texture of pluralism in South Asia by maintaining its diversities in religion, ethnicity, and language”. She exhorted, “We should balance our geopolitical realities through friendship and collaboration”. Addressing her domestic audience, she said, “We cannot trade off long term interests for short term gain’’. Such meaningful statements enjoin the onus of restructuring social, economic and security policies. Will India, as ‘big brother’, heed this plea?
The writer is Prof. International Politics, JMI.