Indo-Bangla ties set for big push

Peace and stability in Bangladesh <g data-gr-id="79">is</g> vital for India, which needs effective connectivity to its North-Eastern region, besides a requirement for better trade links to South-East Asia. A sense of satisfaction emanates from the fact that both economies are growing fast– India at over 7% and Bangladesh at over 6%. Both nations, however, need to sustain their growing economies in the long run. Dhaka is India’s largest trading partner in <g data-gr-id="77">South East</g> Asia. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has set forth a vision of a middle-income, technologically advanced and knowledge-based country by 2021 and a developed one by 2041.

Having learnt lessons from the tragic death of her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Sheikh Hasina has adopted a cautious, but effective approach in dealing with the fundamentalist and anti-India forces in her country. The public outcry for trial and execution of war criminals that erupted in the form of the Shahbag movement brought her back to power in January 2014. She was cautious enough to understand that the country could not slip into the hands of the military and hence refused to conduct elections under a caretaker government. The Opposition boycotted the general elections and the subsequent mayoral polls. The Opposition boycott has invited certain criticism about the fairness of the polls. However, her actions had prompted the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to say “Bangabandhu founded Bangladesh and his daughter Sheikh Hasina has saved it.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two-day visit to Bangladesh on June 6 is probably the most opportune moment New Delhi has to resolve the issue of terrorism in the eastern part of South Asia. Modi has done well to get the long-awaited Land Boundary Agreement ratified by the Indian Parliament before his visit. The maritime boundary between the two countries stands resolved – thanks to the settlement by an international body. India honoured the award, despite some initial resentment at home.

The sharing of the Teesta River waters now remains to be implemented. It will take some time as Modi intends to address the sensitivities of the people of West Bengal. However, the West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who is accompanying the Indian Prime Minister on his visit to Dhaka, has lent some hope for its implementation in the near future. Banerjee had visited Dhaka earlier this year at the invitation of Shiekh Hasina. That she has agreed to be a part of PM’s delegation this time is a perceptible change from her earlier position. In international diplomacy, it takes a lot of time to resolve sensitive issues. If the land boundary issue could take 41 years to resolve after Indira-Mujib accord of 1974, one can hope that the Teesta issue will be resolved in the near future. There are 54 rivers flowing from India to Bangladesh and the joint river commission of the two countries is exploring the possibility of water sharing.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who is fighting both fundamentalist and anti-Indian forces in her country, is likely to derive strength from her projection of India as its most friendly neighbour. A number of proposed agreements like cooperation on coastal shipping, prevention of human trafficking, motor vehicle agreement, enhanced power supply, implementation of Dhaka-Shillong-Guwahati bus service, apart from raising the frequency of Dhaka-Kolkata Maitree Express, are on the agenda for discussion. 

There are, however, certain contentious issues between the two countries that need to be tackled promptly. India had raised the issue of illegal migration from Bangladesh to its North-Eastern States. Assam has been complaining about the demographic change caused due to illegal migration. The Indira Gandhi-Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman pact marked March 25, 1971 as the <g data-gr-id="94">watershed,</g> while local groups like All Assam Students Union and others demanded that the cut-off date should be brought back to 1951. Bangladesh, however, has raised its own apprehensions about many of the contentions put forward by India. During his poll campaign last year, Modi had assured that he would push back illegal migrants if he comes to power. The Bharatiya Janata Party has always clamoured for a tougher stand on illegal migration and the smuggling of cattle. These issues call for an amicable settlement between the two parties.

Bangladesh is likely to seek Modi’s help in resolving the drastic humanitarian situation in Myanmar surrounding the minority Rohingya community. Dhaka claims that they are not their people while Myanmar is trying to push them out to Bangladesh.

India and Bangladesh share 4096.7 km land border, of which 1116.2 km is riverine. They share 289.7 km of maritime border. Total fencing of the border is a difficult task. Now with the implementation of land boundary agreement and maritime boundary settlement, it is time for better border management to check the problem of illegal migration, human and drug trafficking, shipment of contraband goods and weapons. Borders should rather become a bridge for cooperation between the two countries.

There are plans for opening four border <g data-gr-id="80">haats</g> <g data-gr-id="81">along</g> Meghalaya-Bangladesh border, apart from two existing one along the Mizoram and Tripura border. Construction of the border <g data-gr-id="82">haat</g> <g data-gr-id="83">Kamlasagar</g> (in Tripura)-Tarapur <g data-gr-id="84">Kashba</g> is in progress. Bangladesh has allowed India to use its territory and infrastructure to ferry 10,000-tonne foodgrains to Tripura. All old rail, road and port connectivity that existed during British rule need to be re-opened. Bangladesh, which proposes to build a deep sea port, can be a partner with India in ship building.

Energy cooperation can also be further explored with India supplying more hydro-power generated in its North-Eastern states. New Delhi can meet its natural gas needs from Bangladesh and Myanmar through a pipeline. Bangladesh has offered space for Indian industries in its Special Economic Zone and New Delhi has offered Rs 60 <g data-gr-id="74">core</g> for small development projects and a $200 million grant for development projects.

Bangladesh is the first Muslim-majority country that PM Modi will visit before he embarks on a tour to West and Central Asia. If he wins the hearts and minds of the average Bangladeshi, it will strengthen not only his neighbourhood first policy, but also his agenda for sub-regional cooperation within SAARC. Sub-regional cooperation in South Asia is mandated under Article VII of SAARC Charter. Keeping in view the difficulties in taking the SAARC agenda forward, owing to problems created by Pakistan, India can catalyze sub-regional cooperation within SAARC and the BIMSTEC route. Bangladesh, in this case, assumes strategic importance. IPA
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