A special kind of bond
Bangladesh Prime Minister’s recent visit to India not only yielded greater cooperation but signified a deeper connection between neighbours that transcends strategic alliance
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's visit to India has highlighted the special bond that the two South Asian neighbours share. PM Hasina was on a four-day tour of India from October 6 to 9. The visit had two parts. She was invited as chief guest at the India Economic Summit organised by World Economic Forum in New Delhi on October 4 and 5. October 5 marked her official visit. During the visit, she met her counterpart, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, President Ramnath Kovind and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar. The leaders of the two countries discussed various bilateral and regional issues. The joint statement issued on the visit informed that leaders of the two countries expressed satisfaction on the state of bilateral relations and defined it to be excellent. Nevertheless, the relationship between India and Bangladesh demands special attention for further growth. The visit provided an impetus to sustain the focus on this direction. The 53-paragraph long joint statement observed that India and Bangladesh share a bond that transcends strategic partnership. It is a bond of common history, culture, language and secularism.
Bangladesh was partitioned from India on the basis of religion in 1947. In 1971, the country liberated from Pakistan for the honour of its language and aspiration for secularism. Birth of Bangladesh demystified the two-nation theory, basis of the partition of India.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's party Awami League is a champion of secularism in Bangladesh. Hasina has shown interest in promoting her countries relationship with India, which was not always warm.
India and Bangladesh's relationship faced jolts after the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, leader of Bangladesh's liberation struggle and father of Sheikh Hasina, in 1975. The military dictators who ruled Bangladesh after Mujibur Rahman pursued a policy of distancing the country from India. The trend continued during the Bangladesh Nationalist Party's rule (1991-96 & 2001-06).
Indo-Bangladesh ties have grown steadily in the past few years. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been credited for transforming the relationship. Security cooperation, once a major irritant, was the turning point of this relationship. Today, India and Bangladesh are cooperating in a plethora of areas and security has become a component of this.
Considering the opportunity that lies ahead of both countries, it is time the two countries take a leap and work towards cementing the bond. The joint statement highlighted the areas of priority for the future and these include border management, business partnership, connectivity cooperation, development partnership, defence cooperation, people to people connectivity through enhancing education and youth exchange, cooperation on the regional and international arena, etc.
During the visit, the two countries signed seven pacts in areas such as transport, connectivity, capacity building and culture. The pacts included MoU for providing a Coastal Surveillance System; Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) on the use of Chattogram and Mongla Ports for Movement of goods to and from India; MoU on withdrawal of 1.82 cusec of water from Feni River by India for drinking water supply scheme for Sabroom town, Tripura, India; Agreement concerning Implementation of the Lines of Credit (LoCs) committed by India to Bangladesh; MoU between University of Hyderabad and University of Dhaka; Renewal of Cultural Exchange Programme; MoU on Co-operation in Youth Affair.
Besides these, three other projects were inaugurated – Import of Bulk LPG from Bangladesh; Inauguration of Vivekananda Bhaban (students hostel) at Ramakrishna Mission, Dhaka and Inauguration of Bangladesh-India Professional Skill Development Institute (BIPSDI) at the Institution of Diploma Engineers Bangladesh (IDEB), Khulna.
A prominent aspect of the visit was Prime Minister Hasina's emphasis on deepening the economic relationship. In her address in the India and Bangladesh Business Forum, organised jointly by Indian business bodies, she expressed her priority for economic diplomacy between the two countries. Pitching for investment in Bangladesh, she informed that the country is constructing 100 Special Economic Zones and three of them are exclusively meant for Indian industries. During her visit, an MOU was exchanged between Bangladesh's Economic Zones Authority and Adani Ports and SEZ in this regard. Bangladesh is one of the fastest-growing economies of the world and an emerging economic power in Asia.
The visit suggested India and Bangladesh's desire for developing an all-encompassing relationship with a long term vision. This vision is of creating a peaceful and prosperous society across the border. To attain this goal, the two countries should emphasis on greater collaboration and avoid the feeling of competition.
Given the magnitude of the visit, the tangible details of the visit will be scrutinised microscopically in Bangladesh. This is a given considering their impact on the fulfilment of the wishes. Prominent expectations from Bangladesh include the conclusion of the water sharing agreement of the Teesta which has remained at the top of Bangladesh's wish list. This time Teesta was at the core of the visit because not much progress has been achieved. Teesta negotiation is facing deadlock after West Bengal government objected to the draft agreement that was agreed to be signed between the two countries during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Bangladesh in 2011. Since India and Bangladesh share 54 common rivers, some expectation in Bangladesh was that kind of framework could be sorted out for sharing of waters of common rivers during the visit.
Another desire was a firmer commitment from India in resolving the Rohingya refugee crisis. Around one million Rohingyas from neighbouring Myanmar have been residing in the country since 2017 after they fled their homes following persecution. It is worthwhile to mention that during the visit, India reiterated its stance on the need for safe and sustainable return of Rohingyas and promised to provide larger humanitarian relief assistance for the refugees in Bangladesh.
Since expectations are high from India, any failure would lead to major resentment in the country. Also, the success of the visit is measured only through the wins Bangladesh made. Previous experiences suggest this visit is likely to be judged by these parameters as well.
The visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina suggests that the maturity of the bilateral relations cannot be measured by immediate gains only. Considering the depth of the relationship, it demands continuous nurturing. The visit has been helpful in continuing with momentum. India should work on fulfilling the promises made to the country. Timely delivery of promises will only strengthen the relationship further.
The prominent aspect of the visit was the image of Bangladesh, which is confident of its capabilities and prepared to become an Asian power. Bangladesh's economy has maintained a steady growth of more than 6 per cent for a decade now and it is projected to achieve a growth of 8 per cent. The country soon will be graduating to middle income and hoping to be a developed nation by 2040. However, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina wants India to be its partner in its growth story.
(Joyeeta Bhattacharjee is a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. The views expressed are strictly personal)