By Dr. Smruti S Pattanaik
New Delhi, April 9 (newsin.asia): Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s just-concluded visit to India, the second after she became Prime Minister in 2008, is truly significant in many respects. In the past few years, India’s relations with Bangladesh have improved significantly and have become what many have described as a “transformational relationship”.
The relationship has been marked by mutual trust and faith with an underlying belief that cooperation between the two countries has the potential to transform the economies of the two countries. The security of the two countries is also getting tied to each other increasingly as terrorism emerges as a major challenge to both.
Connectivity – road and rail – that was disrupted by 1965 India-Pakistan war; cross border energy cooperation; and India’s decision to provide zero percent tariff to 46 items in 2011 – mostly textiles – have all contributed to the booming ties.
The upsurge in bilateral ties has proven critics wrong, and has silenced the sceptics. In the past eight years, perhaps no other bilateral relationship of India in the neighbourhood has drawn the kind of attention that the relationship with Bangladesh has.
In the past eight years, several steps have been taken to consolidate bilateral relations. The training of 1500 Bangladeshi bureaucrats and the proposal to train another 1500 Bangladeshi judicial officers would go a long way towards building the capacity of Bangladesh civil servants.
Soon after Bangladesh’s liberation, India had trained many bureaucrats and there were strong links between members of the civil society, political parties and soldiers who had fought the liberation war together. However, post-1975, after the assassination of Sheikh Mujib, bilateral relations saw a downward slide. Powerful interests within the military and civil society in Bangladesh schooled in the Pakistani mindset, saw India as an ‘enemy’ that had a vested interest in Bangladesh’s liberation. As the military regime in Bangladesh strengthened its relations with China and Pakistan, relations with India saw a downward trend for about fifteen years.
Bilateral issues like the Ganges water sharing and the fencing of the border contributed to the worsening of relations. Though the advent of democracy in 1990 germinated hope of better relations, ties remained hostage to Bangladesh’s domestic politics and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s perception that good relations with India would be electorally and ideologically damaging to the party.
It was only in 2007 that the relationship improved. For the first time, Indian soldiers who had contributed to the liberation war were publicly felicitated by the military-backed caretaker regime – a recognition that was not formally accorded by the Bangladesh state. Bangladesh’s history text books remained silent on India’s contribution to Bangladesh’s liberation as the two political parties – the Awami League and the BNP – fought bitterly for the legacy of their founders’ contribution to the liberation of Bangladesh.
Against this backdrop, Shiekh Hasina’s visit to India in 2010 became a milestone. She had emerged as a confident leader with a landslide victory in the December 2008 election – a victory only comparable to the 1973 election. In contrast to her stance during her first regime in 1996-2001, she was convinced that connectivity, trade and transit were key ingredients for bringing about economic development in Bangladesh, and not just in India.
To achieve this, partnership with India would be beneficial, she felt. Thus began the saga of India-Bangladesh partnership that has caught the imagination of many in India and has changed the view of those who thought that priority should be given to relations with Pakistan in India’s neighbourhood policy.
Bangladesh has proved that given political will and commitment, India-Bangladesh ties can scale new heights and be an exemplary relationship. The historic land border agreement and the settlement of the maritime boundary strengthened bilateral relations.
What one saw in the April 7 to 10 second visit of Hasina’s is the strengthening of existing relations and a broadening of ties. Therefore, it is not surprising that the two countries decided to sign a defence cooperation agreement; a civil nuclear deal; a deal on coastal shipping; and an agreement on enhanced transmission of surplus electricity. These issues, which were considered unsolvable a few years ago, have been resolved to give a firm foundation to bilateral ties.
Already, the two countries share intelligence. There are regular meetings between the Home Secretaries and the Foreign Secretaries. Joint exercises and joint training of the armed forces as well as border guards take place. There are border “haats” or markets that help the people of the border areas to trade goods produced locally. District commissioners of India’s border states and those posted in Bangladesh’s border region meet at regular intervals to exchange information on law and order and discuss issues of mutual interest.
Institutionalisation of relations between the armed forces of the two countries through a defence cooperation agreement is also a step forward. A US$ 4.5 billion credit line, in addition to existing US$ 2.8 billion that was extended earlier, is going to help Bangladesh fund projects it wants executed.
India’s traditional policy has been to allow the recipient government to decide how to use the credit line and prioritise projects, instead of dictating terms. Unlike Chinese funded projects, Indian funding has helped generate employment for the locals and has contributed to local economic activity.
The only stumbling block is the inability to sign an agreement on the Teesta river due to the relentless opposition of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. It needs to be mentioned that the two countries share 54 rivers. The inability to sign an agreement on Teesta has sent a wrong signal to the people of Bangladesh. Therefore, it is incumbent on the Government of India to see that an agreement on Teesta is reached at the earliest after meeting the concerns raised by West Bengal.
However, India-Bangladesh relations are not centred on one point. There are several areas that demand the attention of the two governments. While attending to the nitty gritty of bilateral problems, the two countries should not lose sight of the large picture – the destinies of the two countries are tied by geography which makes cooperation a compulsion rather than a matter of choice.
(Dr. Smruti S Pattanaik is a Research Fellow at the New Delhi-based Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses)