Love thy neighbour
In the relationship between India and Bangladesh, the latter has for long been a giver. India, meanwhile, has been a taker. When Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited India in 2010, significant progress was made on three issues that had been vexing the relationship: trade, transport and transit. For example, if one flies to any of the state capitals in North-East India, one has to fly through Bangladesh for quite some distance.
Thus barring the narrow eastern chicken’s head-the Siliguri Corridor, if mainland India is to maintain road communication with the seven sisters, Bangladesh has to provide transit rights to India. Hasina had promised the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that she would look into the issue. She had even opened up the Chittagong port, for transshipment of goods to the North-East. This saved time and money.
Similarly, insurgency in this region was fuelled by militant leaders, who set up safe havens in Bangladesh. During her first term Hasina had failed to advance on their ouster, despite earlier promises. The situation worsened during the regime of Khaleda Zia, even though the erstwhile NDA government had wooed her a great deal.
When Hasina came to power, however, after a long wait in the wilderness this time, she moved aggressively to alleviate India’s security concerns, with the support of the Bangladesh Army. On top of that, her regime showed a keen interest in bringing the bilateral relations on an even keel, though she was pilloried within Bangladesh by the Islamists and supporters of Pakistan.
She took the heat they generated and as a show of trust, the Manmohan Singh-led government had extended a line of credit worth $ 1 billion. In addition, New Delhi had also promised it would seriously look into Dhaka’s demands for a full demarcation of the land boundary that would settle the issue of various enclaves encroaching upon each other’s territory.
Being a lower riparian nation, Bangladesh also needed water not just from Brahmaputra and Ganges, but also from the Teesta. While the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) was ready to be signed by the time Singh went to Dhaka in 2014, the Teesta river water sharing became a major sticking point, due to a sudden petulance on the part of the West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, ostensibly to safeguard West Bengal’s interest. She rather haughtily; even refused to accompany the prime minister.
The LBA was duly signed and is now up for ratification. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power, he showed the primary focus of his foreign policy would be the South Asian region. In fact, he even went to extent of inviting the various heads of government (HOGs) to his oath taking ceremony. Much to the surprise of many, the SAARC heads of governments took him up on his invitation and attended the show of grandeur.
In case of Bangladesh, the relationship of India is critical for New Delhi in an entirely new spectrum. New Delhi would like to show that it could enjoy an excellent relationship with the Muslim majority country on its borders, even while its relations with Pakistan with its overstated Islamic ideological identity, remains rocky at best.
This is a seminal change that has taken place in the attitude of the decision-makers in New Delhi. For during much of the 1990s and the early part of 2000s, Bangladesh was viewed through the prism of terrorism that Pakistan inflicted on the country. But those days have changed.
So, when India’s Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar went on his recent SAARC yatra, the Modi-led government was signalling to each of the SAARC nations a sense of goodwill. On Jaishankar’s plate for Bangladesh was the Teesta Water treaty. The fact that he gave an upbeat report to the leadership of Bangladesh about the ice breaking between New Delhi and Kolkata was on the basis of a much chastened Mamata Banerjee visiting Dhaka, accepting Hasina’s generous welcome and signalling that the past is only an exercise in history.
In other words, it can be now stated that Indo-Bangla relationship is in fine fettle, if only Dhaka remains vigilant about anti-India and Jamaat elements, which are lurking in this part of Bangladesh’s border with India.
And of course, Banerjee with her strong cultural identity as a Bengali, who placed a wreath at the martyr’s column in Dhaka on 21st February – the world language day – will surely not like to witness the lands of that nation parched, the Bangladesh-watchers hope.