India-Bangladesh Relations

Context

  • Sheikh Hasina’s party, which leads the Grand Alliance, has romped back to power for an unprecedented fourth term in office.
  • The general election has given the Grand Alliance, or, more specifically, the Awami League, a huge majority in the Jatiyo Sangshad, the country’s Parliament, to a point where no effective Opposition is in sight.

Background

Bilateral relations between Bangladesh and India have witnessed unprecedented heights over the last few years.

For India, Bangladesh is important for numerous reasons.

  1. Connectivity
  • 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. Snap the chicken’s neck and a huge part of the country is cut off.
  • India and Bangladesh have signed several pacts, so India can actually send goods and passengers over land across Bangladesh, connecting Bengal to Tripura.
  • Chittagong port, too, is now open to Indian vessels and will ease supply of goods, meaning India is much more connected to the northeast than before.
  • Akhaura-Agartala rail project will provide a major boost to development and economy of eastern Bangladesh and north eastern India. The rail project will go a long way promoting the Indian Prime Minister’s “Act East policy”.
  1. Security
    • The other part of ensuring the security of the northeast is by ensuring that Bangladesh does not become a shelter for its insurgents.
    • It had played a sterling role, flushing out northeastern terrorists from Bangladesh and even handing over the once-dreaded ULFA terrorist Anup Chetia to India.
      • The other big security concern for India is that Bangladesh should not turn into the frontline of Islamic terror in the southeast — something that looked possible in the early 2000s when the Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh, or the JMB, ruled the roost and its leaders like Bangla Bhai terrorised not just Bangladesh but India too. Bangladesh turned into a launchpad for Islamic terror activities in India.
    • It was Sheikh Hasina who proactively cracked down on groups like the JMB that had a free-run in the previous regime of Begum Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
  2. India’s relationship with Bangladesh is also linked to its relationship with China. India does not want Bangladesh to become a pearl in China’s “String of Pearls” strategy to hem in India by using its neighbours.
  3. Industry
  • Given Bangladesh’s GDP and economic growth, the Indian industry is taking a serious interest in investing in the country. Sheikh Hasina has helmed an economic upswing in the country which the industry hopes will continue.
  1. India has ensured duty-free access of Bangladeshi goods to Indian market, an increase of Bangladesh ready-made garments exports to India last year by 115 per cent (from $ 130 million to $ 280 million), and an increase in Indian investment, including in process, from $ 3 billion to $ 10 billion.
  2. A number of welfare measures and schemes have been introduced to commemorate the spirit of Liberation War of 1971 and honour the invaluable contribution of Muktijoddhas towards building a better future for Bangladesh.
  3. Some notable initiatives like-
  • five-year multiple entry visa for all Muktijoddhas, free of cost treatment of all Muktijoddha patients in Indian Armed Forces hospitals and Nutan Muktijoddha Sanatan scholarship scheme.
  • A delegation of Muktijoddhas is invited to invited to participate in Victory Day celebrations in Kolkata every year.

Issues in the Bilateral Relations

Border Issues

  • Illegal immigration 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.
  • Cattle smuggling is also an issue, which is considered to be one of the losses for India of losing its indigenous variety and trade. Cattle haats along the India-Bangladesh border are becoming a source of cattle for smuggling
  • Terrorist Infiltration has been a matter of concern of late. Recently a report sent by the Bangladesh Government to India’s Ministry of Home Affairs noted that approximately 2,000 operatives of the Harkat ul Jihad al Islami – Bangladesh (HUJI-B) and Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) had entered India through the porous India-Bangladesh border.
  • Dumping of Fake Indian Currency Notes, recently several duplicate notes have been found along the border, which cripple the Indian Economy severely.

River Water Sharing – Teesta

  • India and Bangladesh, as good neighbours, have moved forward on other sectors like power, investment and security but the Teesta waters issue remains a big problem due to continuous protest by the Mamata Banerjee led West Bengal government. Bangladesh is unhappy about the lack of resolution on all the common rivers.
  • While India did put the river Teesta on the bilateral discussion table, the federal political dynamics has prevented the Centre from resolving the issue of water-sharing overruling Bengal’s position. Mamata Banerjee is of the view that with Bangladesh having its largest irrigation project, the Teesta Barrage, running, they do not deserve more water.
  • The treaty is particularly important for the Hasina government (which has often been accused by critics as leaning towards India) to show that there has been genuine progress in bilateral relations.
  • The Teesta waters issue apart, the Bangladesh side is also very keen about a Ganga Barrage and talks in this regard are expected during the summit.

Trade and Connectivity

  • Trade has been growing steadily between the two countries. At about 17% in the last 5 years.
  • A bus service and a train service between Kolkata and Khulna will also be launched as a rail link from Radhikapur in north Bengal.
  • Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) has been signed on the development of Ashuganj-Zakiganj stretch of Kushiyara river and Sirajganj-Daikhawa stretch of the Jamuna river to improve connectivity between the two countries and this will help reduce logistics cost of cargo movement to northeast India and also reduce congestion through the Siliguri’s Chicken’s Neck corridor.
  • Connectivity is issue of mutual interest these initiatives on passenger and goods trains which will be of benefit to both Bangladesh and northeast India.
  • Dhaka also has the central role in shaping the future of sub-regional cooperation with Bhutan, Burma, India and Nepal. It is also a land bridge to East Asia and the fulcrum of a future Bay of Bengal community.
  • However, the most important issue in contemporary Asian geopolitics is transit and connectivity. In 2016 when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Bangladesh, the smaller country agreed to join the One Belt, One Road Project (OBOR).
  • China is already investing in a number of infrastructure projects in the country including the deep sea port at Chittagong. It is likely that these projects will now be subsumed under the OBOR project.

Energy Cooperation

  • Energy cooperation between the two sides has also shown a lot of positivity with Indian state Tripura supplying a total of 160 MW of power to Bangladesh in addition to the 500 MW the country is receiving from West Bengal since 2013.
  • Bangladesh has sought extra 100 MW electricity from India to solve its power crisis, and will be likely on the negotiating table in this state visit by Sheikh Hasina.

Defence Cooperation

  • There are talks that a defence treaty is to be signed between India and Bangladesh, it will be a long-term defence deal that will allow for increased defence cooperation, information sharing, joint exercises, training and so on. However, India needs to figure out where it can meet Bangladesh’s security concerns, considering Bangladesh’s largest defence partner is China.
  • Expanding security cooperation with India could only enhance Dhaka’s global leverage. For India, a strong partnership with Bangladesh will help boost the prospects of peace and prosperity in the eastern subcontinent.
  • Defence deal between us in the basis of sovereign equality and geopolitical realities will take us a long way ahead.

Analysis of election-

The election holds significance not only for Bangladesh but is being watched keenly by all regional and extra regional powers. India is no exception in this regard. Any political development in Bangladesh directly impinges on its largest neighbour.

    1. The significance of this election
  • First, for the first time in a decade, all the political parties took part in the election (the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, or the BNP, boycotted the 2014 election). In other words, this time voting was based on an inclusive election.
  • Second, this was the first time a general election was held under a political government since the fall of the Hussain Muhammad Ershad military regime in 1990.
  • The earlier stipulation of elections being supervised by a caretaker administration.
  • It stuck to the justified position that a government elected for five years cannot morally and logically hand over power to an unelected administration for three months before a new elected government comes into office.
    1. What are the challenges for Hasina?
  • Even as she consolidated her grip on the country, Hasina has been accused of human rights violations, cracking down on the media and muzzling dissent, and the eventual disappearance of dissenters.
  • Even as she faces the task of bringing a country wracked by violence back on its feet, the Awami League has faced allegations of targeting activists and stifling democratic voices.
  • Recent reports trickling in about the killings of a couple of liberals indicate that the extremist forces may have bounced back and resorted to a renewed killing spree targeting liberals and minority communities.
  • Draconian laws that heavily censor and control online content and blogs have been passed and used against targets, the most recent being photographer Shahidul Alam for his criticism of the government.
    1. Does Hasina face any opposition?
  • For now, she stands unopposed. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party is rudderless with its chief and former prime minister Khaleda Zia in prison on graft charges.
    1. How does her win impact India?
  • Hasina’s victory is a positive development for India, which has been a stable ally during her term. The return of a trustworthy ally in economic cooperation and in the fight against terrorism bodes well for New Delhi.
  • Bangladesh is key to India’s plans to connect with South-East Asia, as well as developing the landlocked Northeast. India’s plans to forge a viable alternative to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation rests on Bangladesh, given its location bridging South Asia and South-East Asia.
    1. What will be the impact on terrorism?
  • Hasina has assured that no anti-India activity would be allowed on Bangladeshi soil. Since being elected to office for the first time in 2008, she has been determined to fight terrorism.
  • While the two countries share a 4,000km border, it has been peppered by ethnic conflicts, sporadic infiltration and smuggling of fake currency.
  • Under her rule, insurgency dipped in the Northeast, with kingpins of militant groups such as the United Liberation Front of Assam general secretary Anup Chetia being handed over to India.

There is need to seriously re-examine Bangladesh policy in the light of a number of recent developments. Some of India’s policy options include:

  • Shared cultural affinity could be a liability if there is no holistic Indian policy towards Dhaka. The border states of West Bengal, Assam and Tripura share geography and cultural linkages with Bangladesh and they also have greater economic and trade interactions with it.
  • The understanding and experience of these states could provide valuable inputs to New Delhi to enhance bilateral co-operation. At the same time, bilateral relations should not be governed exclusively by the needs of and pressures from these border states, and especially that of West Bengal.
  • Security issues would need tangible action and not declaration of intention. An elected government in Bangladesh, by its very nature, would be less accommodative than the caretaker government of technocrats. India therefore should be willing to scale down its expectations once an elected government takes over in Bangladesh.
  • Leaders from Bangladesh should not be allowed to use Indian territory for political campaigns. In recent years, New Delhi has allowed visiting Awami leaders to criticise the BNP government and its leaders. This has generated unnecessary controversies and ill-will in Bangladesh and generated an impression that India was indulging in partisan politics.
  • Unilateral trade concessions offered by India would have to be implemented and strengthened. It is in India’s interest to facilitate trade and economic engagement with Bangladesh. Even if the outcomes are limited, they offer a strong economic constituency in that country and could strengthen bilateral ties. This is so even if Bangladesh is unable to reciprocate Indian economic concessions.
  • The strengthening of private entrepreneurship. Long-term economic co-operation alone could provide substance to bilateral relations and might enable both countries to overcome their political differences. Economic interactions would have to be promoted primarily through private and non-governmental enterprises because perceived official patronage proved to be problematic for large projects (for example, Tata investments).
  • India should continue the current policy of remaining neutral and uninvolved. Without appearing to be overtly pro-Indian, key Western players such as the US, UK and EU have worked closely with New Delhi while dealing with Bangladesh. Such a posture serves India well and New Delhi should continue to maintain a correct distance vis-à-vis various constituencies within Bangladesh.
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Nice article