As Hasina Visits India Ahead of Bangladesh Polls Next Year, Issues Old and New on the Agenda

The Bangladeshi PM's visits to India are closely scrutinised in her country and there's an expectation of concrete movement on topics like water sharing, along with an agreement on a long-term fuel supply.

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New Delhi: As Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina begins her last state visit to India before elections next year, the expectation back home is that there will be some concrete movement on politically emotive topics like water sharing and border killings, along with the arrangement of a long-term fuel supply arrangement to combat rising energy prices.

While she landed in New Delhi on Monday afternoon, the main takeaways of Sheikh Hasina’s third state visit will be unveiled after the formal meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday afternoon. 

With close relations with India being a leitmotif throughout her four terms as prime minister, it is not surprising that Hasina’s bilateral trips are scrutinised thread-bare in Bangladesh’s spirited polity and civil society. This time, the scrutiny of Dhaka’s gains from this relationship will be particularly intense, with general elections scheduled in 2023.

Unlike South Block’s tradition of not publicly revealing any possible outcomes before a diplomatic visit, Bangladesh has already outlined the likely results. Speaking to reporters in Dhaka, Bangladeshi foreign minister A.K. Abdul Momen said on Sunday that at least seven agreements – in areas like water, railway, law, science and technology, information and broadcasting – are likely to be inked.

Among them, the most important, politically, for the Bangladesh government will be the water-sharing agreement for the Kushiyara river, a distributary of the Barak river.

As a lower-riparian that shares 54 rivers with India, water has always been a sensitive matter for Bangladeshis. Speaking to The Wire, former Bangladesh foreign secretary Shamsher M. Chowdhury explained that water was the number one emotive issue for the people of Bangladesh. “For us, water is life. It means everything to us… It is an issue that cuts across society,” he said.

While the Teesta draft agreement remains in deep freeze since 2011, there has been a considerable effort on both sides to ensure Sheikh Hasina will return home with a bilateral water-sharing agreement, only the second in the last 50 years, in her bag.

Last month, the Joint Rivers Commission met at the ministerial level after a gap of 12 years. The official readout noted that the text of the water-sharing agreement for the Kushiyara river had been finalised. Bangladeshi state minister for water resources, Zahid Farooque, who led the Bangladesh delegation, announced after the meeting that India had agreed to provide 153 cusecs of water from the Kushiyara river.

“Progress should be made on rivers that have been under discussion for so many years. For a number of reasons, it is a primary issue… River water has a usage issue that can be done for mutual benefit. The climate issue is also linked to it. It has assumed a lot of significance due to recent developments in South Asia and also globally,” retired Bangladeshi diplomat ambassador M. Humayun Kabir told The Wire.

Besides the Kushiyara river pacts, technical talks on having a framework for water sharing were widened to 15 rivers in total at the JRC meeting – a positive result that will help demonstrate more progress on the crucial water agenda to a domestic audience.

Also Read: PMO Has No Record of Modi’s Claim of Going to Jail Over Satyagraha for Bangladesh’s Independence

Border killings, another emotive issue

Alongside water, there is another topic related to India that generates an equal amount of emotion in Bangladesh. “Border killing (by Indian security personnel) is also very emotive. Both the leaders have to make sure that the commitments, particularly from the Indian side, are kept and reflected on the ground,” said Kabir.

The last several joint statements have always included an understanding that border guards should “bring down such death of civilians to zero”. But, while the numbers have reduced in certain years, it has certainly not come down to zero, as per Bangladeshi civil society groups. 

According to the Bangladeshi human rights organisation Odhikar, at least 1253 have been allegedly killed at the border by Border Security Force between 2000 and 2021. 

The New Age newspaper, citing statistics from the Border Guards Bangladesh, reported that 161 Bangladeshis were killed by the Border Security Force (BSF) between January 2015 and June 2022.

“How much one can decriminalise smuggling, something has to be done concretely to bring down border killing. It is an image question. The sight of one Felani hanging on the barbed wire burned every Bangladeshi’s heart for years,” said Chowdhury, who had headed Bangladesh’s foreign service from 2001 to 2005.

The retired diplomat was referring to the 2011 killing of 15-year-old Felani, who was shot at the border by BSF personnel when she was attempting to return home to Bangladesh. The photograph of her dead body strung out at the border fence led to a massive outcry within Bangladesh.

According to the head of India’s BSF, there has been a substantial reduction in killings, with all those shot being alleged “listed and notorious” criminals while crossing the border at night. 

Indian Border Security Force (BSF) soldiers walk across the open border with Bangladesh to attend a flag meeting in West Bengal, India, June 20, 2015. Credit: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri/File photo

Border Security Force (BSF) soldiers walk across the open border with Bangladesh in West Bengal, June 20, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri

A new crisis: Fuel

While the water and border killings have been part of the discourse for a long time, Hasina is facing a new crisis due to the Ukraine war.

In just one week, Bangladesh hiked fuel prices by over 50%, leading to rising public anger and resentment

With foreign currency reserves depleting, there was a worry that Bangladesh could go the Sri Lanka way. In July, after Sri Lanka and Pakistan, Bangladesh became the third South Asian country to seek a loan from the International Monetary Fund.

However, Prime Minister Hasina dismissed the possibility of her country sharing Colombo’s fate, but anxieties persist.

In the run-up to the current state visit, Bangladeshi media reported that Dhaka was looking to set up a long-term fuel supply arrangement with India. 

“So we will definitely try to enter a long-term agreement with them if they have a surplus. But it will depend on how much they have in excess. They have their own supply and demand thing,” Bangladesh foreign secretary Masud Bin Momen said on August 29.

Bangladesh had indicated earlier that it would like to avoid the risks by importing cheaper Russian oil through the Indians, who have become one of Moscow’s largest buyers. 

At the pre-visit media conference on Sunday, Bangladeshi junior foreign minister Shahriar Alam dismissed plans to buy Russian oil through India, but added that a fuel supply arrangement was definitely on the table.

There will also be discussions on Bangladesh’s plan to buy hydro-powered electricity from Nepal and Bhutan through the Indian electricity grid. Still, no tripartite agreement is likely to be signed.

“Bangladesh is interested in diversifying its energy sources on a sustainable long-term basis, keeping the climate issue in mind,” said Kabir.

The first-ever free trade agreement negotiations for Dhaka

In the economic field, Hasina will also be able to showcase the launch of negotiations for a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Programme (CEPA) with India, which will be the first-ever experience in negotiating a free trade agreement for Dhaka.

Bangladesh is India’s biggest trade partner in South Asia, with bilateral trade volume reaching $18 billion last year. 

With Bangladeshi imports reaching $2 billion, there has been a sharp increase in the presence of Bangladeshi goods in India. Chowdhury recounted that when he visited a Marks and Spencer showroom in Delhi malls, all the garment labels showed ‘made in Bangladesh’. “If you travel to Tripura, the shops are filled with Pran products,” he said. 

However, the trade deficit in favour of India continued to widen as Indian exports to Bangladesh also rose exponentially. However, the trade deficit has not been as much of an issue in recent years, as it often helps to keep the prices of essential commodities low in Bangladesh.

At the same time, Bangladesh has a rising interest in tapping the market of India’s northeastern states through investment in the region, where a comprehensive free trade pact could be helpful.

A woman works in a garment factory in Dhaka, May 3, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

Better connectivity also on the agenda

But, giving a fillip to trade ties requires better connectivity.

For the last several years, India has been touting the resumption of rail links, the building of bridges and the opening up of the riverine route for transit traffic as crucial achievements in building connectivity infrastructure. 

However, there are still many loopholes left in using the existing infrastructure, crippled by inefficient processes at the border.

A February 2022 post by World Bank’s regional director for South Asia Regional Integration and Engagement, Mandakini Kaul, recounted a visit to Integrated Check Posts at Petrapole on India’s side of the border with Bangladesh. It is South Asia’s largest land port, accounting for over one-third of land-based traffic between the two neighbours.

While Petrapole can handle 750 trucks daily, it only clears only 370 trucks per day, as that’s the maximum capacity in Bangladesh’s Benapole. It results in a long line of trucks lined up for kilometres on either side of the border.

Kaul wrote that a truck required an average of 138 hours for its shipment to cross the border at Petrapole. “By comparison, trucks need less than six hours to cross borders in other regions,” she observed.

Kaul felt that the biggest hurdle to integration and trade was the unloading and reloading of goods in a new truck registered in the host country when crossing borders.

Even people-to-people movement at the land border continues to be more of a waiting game. “Even with an Indian visa, if we have to wait at the border for six to seven hours as forms, probably from the British Raj era, are filled in and checked, then how can we talk about seamless connectivity? Why can’t we replicate the airport immigration systems at the land border?” asked Chowdhury.

Incidentally, the Indian missions in Bangladesh grant the largest number of visas worldwide. In 2019, 13.63 lakh visas were issued before the numbers decreased drastically in the last two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Will soft ties continue to build?

One of the two primary markers of the improved ties between India and Bangladesh after Hasina took over in 2009 has been close security ties and soft ties.

Even as security cooperation has led to a sharp decline in insurgency activity in India’s northeast, Dhaka is also the second largest recipient of India’s grants and loans, after Bhutan.

In 2011, India offered its biggest ever $1 billion line of credit to Bangladesh during Hasina’s visit. Since then, three other lines of credit have also been extended, bringing the total amount to $7.862 billion. 

However, the disbursement has only been around $1 billion, with contracts worth $2 billion signed.

The slow pace of utilisation of the lines of credit has undoubtedly been a source of frustration, figuring in discussions in media ahead of the visit. “Not only has a small portion of the LOC commitment been utilised, but now both sides are thinking of dropping some of the projects. Apparently, it may soon be time for Bangladesh to pay back some of the interest even before the projects are completed. There is a lot of discussion going on about this,” said Ambassador Kabir.

He conveyed that there was a general feeling in Dhaka that “India has taken more and Bangladesh has not gained that much”. “There has to be a balance in give and take.. this kind of feeling (of not gaining from the relationship) can be had even between countries with normal and friendly relations”.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Photo: Reuters/Files

The Rohingya refugees

While these bilateral issues will dominate discussions, Bangladesh is also likely to bring up the matter of the repatriation of the 1.1 million Rohingyas, who fled from Myanmar in 2017 after a massive security crackdown.

While there had been initially some disappointment in Dhaka about India’s position, there is now an understanding that the main leverage on the military junta lies with China. 

“There is, of course, a genuine expectation in Bangladesh that the Rohingyas should return to Myanmar. India has some leverage and should exercise that leverage. But the bigger leverage (over the Myanmar government) is with some other country. They are absolutely not willing to put any pressure on Myanmar to take the Rohingyas back. Myanmar’s rigidity on Rohingyas is strictly because of the support they receive from their other, bigger friend,” said Chowdhury.

Over the last weekend, there had been reports of Myanmar military aircraft crossing into Bangladeshi airspace and shells landing across the boundary. “While they don’t want to repatriate (Rohingyas), they should not create a sense of tension at the border… India does have that much with Myanmar to convey the concern and should use it,” proposed the former foreign secretary.

At the same time, India’s policy towards Rohingyas had led to differences in perception, especially when cases came to light of refugees being ‘pushed back’ into Bangladeshi territory. 

“How can you push Rohingyas into Bangladesh? If you want to push them, push them into Myanmar, but not onto Bangladesh. What has Bangladesh to do with them?” asked Kabir. He also added that given the prevailing situation in Myanmar, it would be “inhumane” to deport Rohingya refugees.

While calling for New Delhi to play a “big role” in persuading Myanmar to take back Rohingyas, Bangladesh’s prime minister also noted on Sunday that India could have accommodated more due to its immense size. 

“Well you know… for us, it’s a big burden. India is a vast country; you can accommodate, but you don’t have much. So well… we are consulting with the international community and also our neighbouring countries, they should also take some steps so that they can go back home,” Hasina told the Indian news agency ANI.