External Affairs

A Visit to Bangladesh that Holds Out Much Promise

Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Bangladesh beginning June 6 is an opportunity to consolidate and build upon the substantial progress made in bilateral cooperation ever since the Awami League, under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, returned to power in 2009 and was reelected in 2014. For Modi this marks a reiteration of his foreign policy focus on India’s immediate neighbourhood. His hands have also been greatly strengthened by the recent unanimous passage of the 119th Constitutional Amendment Bill by Parliament paving the way for the ratification of the long pending India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement.

This has sent a powerful message of the political consensus that now exists in India for developing close relations with Bangladesh.

It is to the credit of the NDA government that this consensus has been forged, something that eluded the UPA, even though Manmohan Singh’s team did all the heavy lifting in settling the difficult issues of the un-demarcated sections of the border, enclaves and ‘adverse possessions’. It has already been announced that the other major pending issue – of Teesta water sharing – will not be signed during the Prime Minister’s visit, but the inclusion of the West Bengal Chief Minister, along with other Chief Ministers from states bordering Bangladesh, in the Prime Minister’s delegation, signals a readiness to move ahead on this issue at an early date.

It was the breakthrough in security cooperation that paved the way for the flowering of bilateral relations since 2009. Sheikh Hasina’s uncompromising and unconditional stand against terrorism and extremism was dictated partly by her own beliefs and internal compulsions, but also addressed a long standing concern of India by denying safe havens to insurgents from the north east.

The 2014 blast in Burdwan and the alleged involvement of the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen have demonstrated a cross-border dimension to the security threats faced by Bangladesh. The need to strengthen and deepen security cooperation remains a high priority. Indeed, with the resolution of the land boundary issue, a much greater focus is needed on addressing the rampant criminal activity along the border, including the smuggling of arms and fake currency, trafficking of women and children and also the long-standing issue of export of cattle from India.

Undocumented migrants

Prime Minister Modi can be expected to also raise the issue of undocumented Bangladeshi migration into India. The official position of the Bangladesh government remains that there is no illegal migration into India and yet Indian ministers have spoken at various times in Parliament and outside about the presence of millions of undocumented Bangladeshis in this country. This is an extremely complex issue going back several decades and intertwined with local politics, administrative constraints, judicial intervention, human rights issues and niche employment opportunities for migrant labour in India.

There are no easy prescriptions, but the issue has to be brought back to the forefront of bilateral engagement. Despite Bangladesh’s impressive GDP growth rates of around 6% in recent years, economic migration is likely to increase in the future due to population growth and the effects of climate change.

On trade and economic issues, the Prime Minister has a solid foundation to build upon. The grant of duty free access for Bangladeshi exports to India, including textiles and garments, was a substantial non-reciprocal gesture made by India in 2011. There was a small increase in Bangladeshi exports last year but the trade balance remains heavily tilted in favour of India. Further micro fine-tuning of the trade regime is necessary in terms of border infrastructure, non-tariff barriers, trade facilitation measures and harmonisation of standards.

Make in Bangladesh

For Bangladesh, the key lies in attracting FDI, particularly from India, to diversify its economy away from the continuing heavy dependence on textiles and garments. There is talk of a Special Economic Zone for Indian investors in Bangladesh. In a globalised economy, bilateral trade balances have become less relevant but it is important for Bangladesh to have a tangible stake in India’s growing economy. While in Dhaka, Modi should champion not ‘make in India’, but ‘make in Bangladesh’.

Similarly recent initiatives in the power sector promise win-win outcomes for both countries. Presently India is exporting 500 MW of power from the grid in West Bengal which is to be doubled to 1000 MW, and another 100 MW is to be supplied from Tripura. There is an estimated potential of 50,000 MW of power in the north eastern states. Even if a small portion of this passes environmental concerns, the most obvious and economical way of evacuating the power would be through Bangladesh with a portion supplied to Bangladesh to meet its own acute power shortage.

On the wider energy sector, the settlement of the maritime boundary through international arbitration last year opens up the prospect of joint exploration and development of likely oil and gas reserves in the Bay of Bengal. The north-east also has surplus petroleum refining capacity and there is now a proposal to build a product pipeline into Bangladesh from Siliguri.

Only connect

Connectivity and transit have long been big issues for India in its relations with Bangladesh. New initiatives likely to be announced during the Prime Minister’s visit are direct bus services from Agartala to Kolkata via Dhaka and Guwahati to Dhaka via Shillong. However, the emphasis should be on the implementation of earlier initiatives which, for a variety of reason,s are languishing. These include the Agartala-Akhaura rail link and the road link to Chittagong from Sabroom in southern Tripura. There is the broader point that notwithstanding some notable exceptions, implementation of overseas projects undertaken by India have invariably been tardy.

There are legitimate concerns in Bangladesh regarding the inadequacy of infrastructure to handle large volumes of transit traffic, the need to earn transit fees and the possible loss of export opportunities in the north east. India needs to address these issues and possibly settle for a phased roll out of transit corridors. The Prime Minister can be expected to announce a new substantial government line of credit which could be specifically targeted at upgrading Bangladesh’s road, rail and port infrastructure.

The steady progress in trade and connectivity will go a long way in restoring the close historical links between the north-eastern states and Bangladesh. The economic, social and cultural integrity of this sub-region was disrupted by partition in 1947 and even more so after the 1965 India-Pakistan war when virtually all links were suddenly snapped. The accelerated development and opening up the north-eastern states is vitally linked to close and cooperative relations with Bangladesh.

Prime Minister Modi thus has a very full agenda in Dhaka with the promise of a very successful outcome. The question, therefore, inevitably arises of whether the substantial bilateral gains made so far are irreversible and whether the momentum can be maintained over the medium term.

The war crimes trials, the Shahbagh protest movement, the restoration of secular elements in the Constitution by the Awami League government and the resultant mobilisation of fundamentalist groups like the Hefazat-e-Islami have drawn attention to the strengthening of extremist forces that could derail relations with India.

The danger from politics

Their links with Pakistan are evident from the refuge given to Jamaat-e-Islami cadres and leaders like Ghulam Azam immediately after 1971 and the most recent Pakistan National Assembly Resolution expressing concern at the execution for war crimes of Jamaat leader Abdul Qader Molla in December 2013. Further, the emergence of other radical groups like Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen and Hizb-ul-Tahrir have added a new dimension to the extremist challenge. Their role in assassination attempts against Sheikh Hasina in 2000 and 2014, serial bomb blasts in 2005, attacks on minorities and the country’s secular traditions, and assistance to Indian insurgents are well documented.

While the existence of radical elements cannot be ignored, concluding that the ‘Talibanisation of Bangladesh’ is an imminent possibility would be a gross exaggeration. An indication of this has been the progressive decline of the vote share of the Jamaat. Indeed, one can sense that in the four decades of independence, a complex sense of national identity is emerging in Bangladesh where Bengali linguistic and cultural traditions remain deeply embedded and opposed to Islamic fundamentalism.

The second area of speculation is the impact of a possible return of the opposition Bangladesh National Party to power in the future. It was in their last tenure between 2001 and 2006 that Indian insurgents flourished in Bangladesh, symbolised by the Chittagong arms haul case of 2004. Major initiatives like the Myanmar-Bangladesh-India gas pipeline and the Tata group’s investment proposals in Bangladesh ran into roadblocks. Yet there are now indications that there has been a softening of the BNP’s traditional hardline approach to relations with India. The UPA government reached out to former Presidents Khaleda Zia and General Ershad by inviting them to India in 2012.

Begum Zia made some right noises by stating that Bangladesh territory will not be used for anti-India activities and it was ‘time to look forward and not in the rear view mirror’. She has even said that transit rights could be made part of total connectivity in the region. Most significantly, the BNP welcomed the recent finalisation of the Land Boundary Agreement. As is customary, Prime Minister Modi is likely to meet Begum Zia in Dhaka, and he can be expected to reiterate that mutually beneficial progress in bilateral relations must transcend domestic political rivalries.

Rajeet Mitter is a former Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh.