External Affairs

Spinning a New Fabric of Relations with Bangladesh

Prime Minister Narendra Modi looks on as Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee hug each other at the flag off ceremony of bus services between Bangladesh and India, in Dhaka on June 6. PTI Photo by Shirish Shete

Prime Minister Narendra Modi looks on as Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee hug each other at the flag off ceremony of bus services between Bangladesh and India, in Dhaka on June 6. PTI Photo by Shirish Shete

After winning hearts and minds in Dhaka, Prime Minister Narendra Modi returned home last week with 22 agreements and a 60-paragraph Joint Declaration that are a roadmap for the future course of Bangladesh-India relations. Modi’s host, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, made sure he got the highest profile in terms of protocol and publicity. The visit clearly bolstered her leadership too in this, her eighth year in power. She could justifiably point to the conclusion of the long-pending Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) as a huge foreign policy success. For Modi, the Bangladesh visit was another step towards his “neighbourhood first” policy that has already taken him to Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

Of course, the visit was not beyond critical scrutiny. While welcoming Modi, the Bangladeshi media and opposition lost no time in noting the lack of delivery on the Teesta Water Sharing Agreement. Tired, familiar arguments were trotted out that Hasina is selling out to India and not getting enough in return. The Teesta agreement is caught in the hurly-burly of domestic politics in India, particularly the opposition from West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Bannerji. She has, however, at least come halfway, agreeing to be present in Dhaka for the final exchange of the Instruments of Ratification for the LBA, originally signed in 1974. On Teesta, the best Modi could do was promise to go back and continue working on the agreement. The two countries share 54 rivers but the only water-sharing agreement they have concluded is the Ganga Waters Treaty, signed by the Deve Gowda government and Sheikh Hasina in 1996. That agreement has stood the test of time.

The change in Bangladesh

Modi’s visit to Bangladesh marks a significant evolution in the making of foreign policy in India. A bipartisan consensus was evident in the debate in Parliament, which unanimously passed the constitutional amendment that gave effect to the LBA.

This consensus is a reflection of the extent to which, in Indian eyes, Bangladesh has changed in recent years. Apart from the issue of undocumented migration and human trafficking, which still causes negative feelings against Bangladesh in certain areas of India, the country has transcended its image of being a safe haven for Indian insurgents, a source of fake Indian currency, a base for Pakistani ISI operations against India and an incubator of Islamist radical groups.

During Hasina’s seven years as Prime Minister, her government has steadily tackled all these issues in active cooperation with the Indian authorities. Bilateral security cooperation has helped bridge the trust deficit that had grown under governments led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its coalition ally, the pro-Pakistan Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), whose leaders collaborated with the Pakistani Army in committing genocide on the Bengali people during Bangladesh’s War of Liberation. Many Jamaat leaders stand indicted for their role as collaborators and for committing crimes against the people of Bangladesh. Two have been convicted and hanged and more are facing trial in the War Crimes Tribunal, set up by the Hasina government after she came back to power in the beginning of 2009. The values of the Liberation War are important for both countries and an agreement to keep the memory of it alive finds a place among the agreements signed.

A similar, though less, cohesive consensus on good relations with India appears to be germinating in Bangladesh. The BNP and JeI welcomed Modi’s visit, and Khaleda Zia actively sought a meeting with him. Both parties have publicly articulated positions that favour good relations with India. For India, the question is whether a leopard can really change its spots. Earlier, when President Pranab Mukherjee visited Bangladesh, Khaleda refused to turn up for a scheduled meeting. The BNP and the JeI represent an anti-Indian strain in Bangladeshi politics. They exploit the lingering bitterness and memories of partition. They are the inheritors and upholders of the Muslim League’s legacy in Bangladesh. The BNP camouflages its position as ‘Bangladeshi’ nationalism – an idea first articulated by its founder General Zia-ur-Rahman, Khaleda’s husband – as opposed to Bengali nationalism.

Can India deliver?

The euphoria and excitement of the visit is over and the difficult period of ensuring delivery on several agreements must begin in right earnest. India’s government machinery and its cumbersome bureaucratic processes have always slowed down implementation on international agreements. If the neighbourhood policy of the Modi government has to succeed then a permanent mechanism, presided over by the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, must monitor and ensure that all ministries and agencies work in tandem on delivery and do not retire into their silos after the visit.

The new US$2 billion credit line has to be quickly translated into projects requiring large capital outlays, mainly in the domain of connectivity. Thus railways, waterways, border infrastructure, trade facilitation, coordinated border management, coastal shipping arrangements, the blue economy and maritime cooperation must get priority. Cooperation in the power sector is well underway with the electricity grids of both countries achieving connectivity in 2012. India has agreed to provide more power to Bangladesh and build another connectivity corridor. An understanding for wheeling power through Bangladesh from power projects in Arunachal Pradesh has been reached, with Dhaka drawing power as per mutual agreement. Indian private sector investment in the power sector has also been put on the bilateral agenda.

The agreement on a Special Economic Zone exclusively for Indian companies to set up manufacturing industries will require fast-tracking. The gestation period for setting up industries is usually long. Goods produced in Bangladesh and exported to India will help address the trade imbalance that has consistently been in India’s favour. Trade facilitation measures must help in dealing with non-tariff barriers that impede Bangladeshi exports to India.

While there is an agreement on the prevention of human trafficking, the issue of cattle smuggling from India to Bangladesh has been glossed over. With the BJP in power, cattle smuggling is an emotive and sensitive issue. There is little chance of any rational approach to this issue, which is the most frequent trigger for violent border incidents when smuggler mafias clash with the BSF. The resulting border killings – as the Bangladeshis call these incidents – serve to encourage anti-Indian feelings in Bangladesh. India has been sensitive to this concern and has restrained the BSF and also deployed non-lethal means, like the use of rubber bullets, to deal with the smugglers. But beyond mere border management, the development of border regions and legal economic avenues that generate employment has to be the goal in the long term. Border “haats” are one way of facilitating trade for local consumption and encouraging those living along the border to move away from smuggling to earn their livelihood.

Connectivity the key

Bangladesh-India relations in the next decade will be dominated by connectivity projects that will gradually integrate India’s north-eastern States with Bangladesh and the rest of India, thereby benefitting the whole sub-region. Bhutan and Nepal, both landlocked, must be brought into connectivity agreements. The long overdue Motor Vehicles Agreement between these countries will come into effect soon, enabling trucks to move from one country to another to deliver and pick up goods. The other major issue that will dominate bilateral ties will be water sharing. The situation surrounding the Teesta shows how difficult it is to implement such agreements. There are dozens of shared rivers that will need negotiations over the next several decades.

Bangladesh has a crucial role in India’s “Act East” policy, which now includes the north-eastern States. The geo-strategic significance of connectivity that integrates Bangladesh is important for India’s outreach into the country’s extended eastern neighbourhood. The recent bloody events that took the lives of Indian soldiers in Manipur, and India’s robust response against insurgents now operating out of Myanmar, also highlight the problems of security and their impact on the future of India’s eastern frontiers. Much work remains to be done and the Indian government will have to concentrate more attention and additional resources on these objectives.

Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. He is a former Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs and a former Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh