Yesterday PM Modi took off for Bangladesh on a two-day trip to mark the centenary celebrations of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan.
This will be PM Modi’s first visit abroad since the coronavirus pandemic and is an example of the importance New Delhi gives to its ties with Dhaka.
Bangladesh @ 50
- As Bangladesh marks the 50th anniversary of its declaration of independence from Pakistan, there is widespread admiration for its remarkably successful economic and social transformation.
- Less noted are the profound geopolitical consequences of Bangladesh’s economic rise, including a shift in South Asia’s centre of economic gravity.
- In seceding from Pakistan only 25 years after the creation of Pakistan in the name of religion, Bangladesh is the biggest testimony to the enduring truth that religion can’t peacefully unify a nation.
- Bangladesh’s special location and political character would not have amounted to much if the nation had not made itself an economic success.
To understand the scale of Bangladesh’s economic transformation relative to Pakistan and India, let us consider two important facts.
- First, Bangladesh overtook Pakistan in 2019 to become the second-largest economy in the subcontinent—$303 billion to $279 billion in annual GDP.
- Second, the International Monetary Fund announced last year that Bangladesh’s per capita GDP would overtake that of India by a few dollars in 2020.
Beyond geographical inheritance
It is instructive to see how differently Islamabad and Dhaka have leveraged their geographic inheritance.
- Pakistan’s strategic community has tended to imagine its unique location in geopolitical terms; Bangladesh, in contrast, has focused on leveraging its geography for economic growth.
- To its own detriment, Pakistan insists that commercial links to India must wait until the resolution of the Kashmir question. Bangladesh, on the other hand, has turned its long frontier with India into a source of economic opportunity.
At the same time, it has also made progress in resolving contentious bilateral issues with New Delhi.
India-Bangladesh ties: An organic transformation
- India’s links with Bangladesh are civilization, cultural, social and economic.
- There is much that unites the two countries – a shared history and common heritage, linguistic and cultural ties, passion for music, literature and the arts.
- India was one of the first countries, along with Bhutan, to recognise Bangladesh as a sovereign state on 6 December 1971.
- It is also worth recalling that India shares its longest border of 4,096.7 kilometres with Bangladesh, which is also the fifth-longest border in the contemporary world.
- With the onset of economic liberalization in South Asia, they forged greater bilateral engagement and trade.
What are its various dimensions?
- From the perspective of India’s Northeast, Bangladesh is India’s most strategic neighbour, whom New Delhi cannot ever afford to ignore.
- India’s dream of ‘Act East Policy’ can only be materialized with the helping hands of Dhaka.
- The bridge ‘Maitri Setu’ has been built over the Feni River which flows between the Indian boundary in Tripura State and Bangladesh.
- It is set to become the ‘Gateway of North East’ with access to Chittagong Port of Bangladesh, which is just 80 kms from Sabroom.
- Perhaps on top of the list is connectivity between India’s mainland and the crucial northeast, which is part of India’s “Look East” Policy.
- The only connection between India’s mainland and the northeast was the Chicken’s Neck – a narrow strip of land that has always been a huge security concern.
- India and Bangladesh have signed several pacts, so India can actually send goods and passengers over land across Bangladesh, connecting Bengal to Tripura.
- In December 2020, Modi met Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during which both leaders agreed to revive the trans-border railway link connecting India’s Chilahati and Bangladesh’s Haldibari.
- The other big security concern for India is that Bangladesh should not turn into the frontline of radical terror in the southeast.
- Bangladesh could turn into a launchpad for religious radical terror activities in India.
- India’s relationship with Bangladesh is also linked to its relationship with China.
- India did not want Bangladesh to become a pearl in China’s “String of Pearls” strategy to hem in India by using its neighbours.
- Bangladesh is currently India’s biggest trade partner in the South Asian region.
- To strengthen and encourage Bangladesh’s trade and commerce, India has given several concessions to Dhaka, including duty-free access to Bangladeshi products into the Indian markets.
- New Delhi is also working continually to reduce Non-Tariff Barriers (NTB).
- To encourage trade, India is developing the Integrated Check Post in 10 border crossing points to lower NTBs.
(5) Financial assistance
- India has extended its hand of friendship whenever Bangladesh faced crises.
- India offered lines of credit worth about $10 billion to Bangladesh as part of development assistance, which includes setting up orphanages, cultural centres, and educational institutions.
- India has also simplified the visa process for Bangladeshi tourists and 1.5 million visas were issued in 2019.
- During the coronavirus crisis, India provided medical training to Bangladeshi professionals, test kits and medicines, beside the dispatch of vaccine consignments.
- The successful security cooperation between the nations resulted in tackling militancy in Bangladesh.
- India’s efforts to contain the militant group Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh’s activities are an example of engagement on this front.
(7) Settlement of boundaries
- The resolution of land and maritime boundaries disputes is one of the major highlights of the bilateral ties.
- After a ruling by the United Nations, India agreed to give up around 19,467 km in the Bay of Bengal without challenging the decision, a move that gave great access to Bangladesh to the resource-rich sea.
- The Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) signed between both nations in 2015 facilitated the transfer of 111 enclaves.
- According to the historic agreement, Bangladesh received more than 17,000 acres from India and gave up over 7,000 acres to India.
There are few irritants as well…
(1) Illegal migration
- This has always been a primary problem for India since the partition of Bengal.
- In view of this, recently, the Supreme Court asked the Centre complete the fencing of the India-Bangladesh border soon to check illegal immigration from Bangladesh into Assam.
(2) Dragon is the elephant in room
- In 2016 when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Bangladesh, the smaller country agreed to join the OBOR.
- Bangladesh is increasingly tilting towards China due to the Asian giant’s massive trade, infrastructural and defence investments in these countries.
- In spite of its Neighbourhood First Policy, India has been losing its influence in the region to China.
(3) NRC conundrum
- The National Register of Citizens (NRC) has left out 1.9 million Assamese from the list with a group labelled as “illegal immigrants from Bangladesh” living in Assam post-1971.
- India plans to seek their repatriation to Bangladesh.
- Bangladesh remains firm in its stance that no migrants travelled to Assam illegally during the 1971 war of independence and that the controversial NRC risks hurting relations.
(4) Rohingya Issue
- The Rohingya issue and India’s remarks in 2017 on the issue have been upsetting for Bangladesh which has been facing the challenge of providing shelter to more than a million refugees fleeing persecution.
(5) River disputes
- India and Bangladesh have failed to conclude a framework agreement to optimise the use of waters from six rivers including the Manu, Muhuri, Khowai, Gumti, Dharla and Dudhkumar, which has been discussed for several months.
- No progress was reported on the long-pending Teesta water-sharing agreement either after the recent visit.
Why India still needs Bangladesh?
(1) South Asian geopolitics
- Bangladesh has emerged as one of India’s closest partners and second to Bhutan in South Asia.The role of Bangladesh is critical for India’s Act East Policy.
- India counts on Dhaka’s support in Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) and Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) initiatives.
- These collectively complement New Delhi’s Southeast Asia outreach.
- Bangladesh’s location is a strategic wedge between mainland India and NE seven states. Each of these states is land-locked and has shorter route to the sea through Bangladesh.
- Transit agreement with Bangladesh will spur the socio-economic development of North-East India.
(3) Countering China
- Bangladesh uses China card to supplement its bargaining capacity against India.
- A ‘neutral’ Bangladesh thus ensures containment of an assertive China in this region.
(4) Fight against terror
- Bangladesh has emerged as a key element in sub-regional connectivity initiatives with Pakistan refusing to play ball rendering SAARC ineffective.
- In 2016, when India decided to skip the SAARC Summit in Islamabad following a spike in cross-border terror attacks, Bangladesh and Bhutan wasted no time in joining ranks in solidarity with India.
- The future will present itself with an abundance of opportunities to help the two countries to reach a new plane of bilateral relations higher than ever before.
- Both nations should play their diplomatic cards with more maturity and pragmatism, keeping the regional aspirations and nuances of both countries in mind.
- A judicious aggregation of regional expectations on both sides of the border will help in achieving their mutual national objectives.
- To make the recent gains irreversible, both countries need to continue working on the three Cs — cooperation, collaboration, and consolidation.
- The first 50 years have consolidated the foundation of India-Bangladesh relations.
- Both have matured in the last decade with development in many areas of cooperation.
- The shared colonial legacy, history and socio-cultural bonds demand that the political leadership of the two countries inject momentum into India-Bangladesh relations.