Delhi-Dhaka Ties Stand The Test Of Time

The government of Bangladesh has been enjoying great cooperation from India ever since Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina came to power in January 2009.

The Indian government headed by Narendra Modi has extended wholehearted support for Bangladesh for rebuilding its economy and its infrastructural development. In return, the Sheikh Hasina government has set a unique example of cooperation and reciprocation out of which the people of both countries would reap ample benefit. The transit, trans-shipment and building regional connectivity, including the waterways, would immensely facilitate and promote trade, commerce and tourism.

A number of issues, including the most critical and complex border problem, which had been hanging for about 40 years despite the inking of a treaty by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Indira Gandhi, was resolved in a unprecedented bills passed in the Indian Parliament with unanimous support by all members of both the houses.

In response to that genial gesture, the Sheikh Hasina government has set an example of a new reality of cooperation. India-Bangladesh relations are based mainly on the solid historic bond of social, political, economic and cultural tradition. India played a vital role and provided substantial diplomatic, economic and military support to Bangladesh during the Liberation War in 1971.

India was the first country to recognise Bangladesh as a sovereign and independent state and established diplomatic ties with the country immediately after its independence in December 1971.

Bangladesh and India are two countries bound by the inalienable link of history, religion, culture, language and kinship. But the relationship between the two friendly nations is based on sovereignty, equality, trust, understanding and win-win partnership that goes far beyond a strategic partnership.

Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was the architect of Bangladesh-India relations. Both Bangabandhu and his Indian counterpart Indira Gandhi were firm believers in democracy and secular ideology. Bangabandhu’s daughter Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi have further strengthened the relations Mujib and Indira forged between the next-door neighbours.

There are more than 50 bilateral institutional mechanisms between Bangladesh and India in the areas of security, trade and commerce, power and energy, transport and connectivity, science and technology, defence, riverine and maritime affairs and so on.

Bangladesh and India share 4,097 kilometres of border, which is the longest land boundary that India shares with any of its neighbours. The two countries also share 54 common rivers. Bilateral trade between them has grown steadily over the last decade.

There are lots of common and bilateral issues between these two neighbours. Both countries are promise-bound to maintain these healthy relations without interrelations. Some of the issues, including regional road connectivity, cooperation in power and energy sector, land border agreement, easy visa process, Bangladesh-India rail services, are vital and significantly beneficial to both the countries.

Regional Road Connectivity

The Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) Initiative is a sub-regional entity in Eastern South Asia. It meets through an official representation of member states to formulate, implement and review quadrilateral agreements across areas such as water resources management, connectivity of power, transport, and infrastructure.

In February of this year, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal agreed on the need to finalise the passenger and cargo protocols for implementation of the BBIN Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA).

Moreover, according to the transport ministers of the four BBIN members, 30 transport corridors will be transformed into economic corridors. This will potentially increase intraregional trade within South Asia by almost 60 per cent and with the rest of the world by over 30 per cent.

Recently, ECNEC cleared an 846-crore Bangladeshi taka project to widen the Baraiyarhat-Heyanko-Ramgarhroad under Chattogram and Khagrachhari districts, aiming to boost export and import between Bangladesh and India. The approval came from the 5th ECNEC meeting of the current fiscal year chaired by Sheikh Hasina.

According to a report of South Asia Sub-regional Economic Cooperation (SASEC), Bangladesh, India and Nepal conducted a trial bus service run on April 24-25 2018. Two buses left Dhaka for Kathmandu in Nepal, carrying delegates from the three countries and the Asian Development Bank. The bus service will strengthen sub-regional connectivity and help tourists and entrepreneurs, including those who travel to West Bengal for medical tourism.

Land Border Agreement

On June 6, 2015, the 1974 India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement came into force, following the exchange of instruments of ratification by Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi during the latter’s state visit to Bangladesh. The agreement provides for the exchange of enclaves of Indian and Bangladesh territory, which remained unresolved following the partition in 1947.

Following the agreement, India and Bangladesh exchanged control of 162 enclaves. The move was branded as akin to the fall of the Berlin Wall by politicians.

Until August 1, about 50,000 people were living in 111 Bangladeshi and 51 Indian enclaves on the India-Bangladesh border, cut off from their parent countries. Daily chores such as visiting the market were cumbersome process because they involved crossing national boundaries.

The Land Boundary Agreement played a historic role in advancing the exchange of 111 enclaves (17,160.63 acres) from India to Bangladesh and reciprocatively the latter transferred 51 enclaves (7,110.02 acres) to India. In addition, the choice of citizenship in either country was offered by states to enclave residents.

Easy Visa Process

India-Bangladesh visa rules were being gradually relaxed and five-year visas would be granted to students, senior citizens and patients. Earlier in 2018, an agreement, Revised Travel Arrangement (RTA)-2018, stated that freedom fighters and elderly Bangladeshi nationals will get five-year multiple visas from India. Easy and hassle-free visa services have been ensured for the travellers of the two countries.

Bangladesh-India Rail Services

Transport between India and Bangladesh bears much historical and political significance for both the countries. A direct Kolkata-Agartala link running via Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, is being developed by both the countries. The Maitri Express (Friendship Express) was launched to revive a railway link between Kolkata and Dhaka that had been shut 43 years ago.

The first container train arrived from India via Benapole-Petrapole rail link carrying FMCG cargo and fabrics loaded in 50 containers, and those were handed over to Bangladesh on July 26 this year. With this container train service, a huge opportunity has opened up for bilateral trade via rail. Bangladesh Railway’s freight trains, noted for bringing stones and fly ash as raw materials for cement, from India, are now used to bring onion, garlic and ginger and other essentials amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In July this year, India handed over 10 broad-gauge diesel-based locomotives to Bangladesh that have a residual life of at least 28 years. These are 3,300 horse-power locomotives that can run at a speed of 120 km/hr. These 10 locomotives are expected to increase the use of the rail sector.

Cooperation in Power and Energy Sector

Cooperation in the power and energy sector has become one of the hallmarks of India-Bangladesh relations. Bangladesh is currently importing about 660 MW of power from India. In March 2016, the two Prime Ministers inaugurated the export of power from Tripura to Bangladesh as well as the export of internet bandwidth to Tripura from Bangladesh.

Five hundred megawatts of electricity was added to Bangladesh’s national grid from India in 2018 as part of India-Bangladesh cooperation in power and energy sector. Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi jointly inaugurated the power supply to Bangladesh-India Power Interconnection Grid at Bheramara of Kushtia through a videoconference. In September last year, Bangladesh signed an agreement to buy 718 megawatts of electricity from India’s Reliance Power over the next 22 years.

Earlier, the Bangladesh Prime Minister unveiled her power import plan and said, “We plan to import 9,000 MW of electricity from our neighbours by 2041 under a regional cooperation framework and I hope India will remain by our side in this endeavour.”

There are several other issues where Bangladesh and India have developed the highest level of friendship and bilateral relations. These two friendly neighbours are also great examples of greater understanding, dialogue, diplomacy and regional cooperation.

The author is the editor-in-chief of Bangladesh Post (ANI)

New Delhi Must Address Dhaka's Concerns

For over three decades, since 1981, the political discourse in Bangladesh has been the “Battle of 2 Begums”. Two-term prime minister Khaleda Zia whose official identity is that of  a ‘begum’ fights the three-term current incumbent, Sheikh Hasina who, despite being a devout Muslim, identifies herself with things Bengali. This is crucial in a largely Muslim society that also prides in Bengali language and culture.

Their personal (they rarely talk to each other and never share joy or grief) and political rivalries born out of differing legacies that they have inherited and perpetuated overawe Bangladesh and will continue, at least till one of them is around.

The current mood is one of intense speculation: will Begum Zia, who blundered into boycotting the last parliamentary polls and went into a politically damaging hibernation, contest the elections due this year-end or early next year?

Viewed from New Delhi, chances are that she will. This may be her last chance at political comeback. At 73, she is known to have undergone a heart surgery and has suffered joint pain for long.

Worse, she lost her younger son Arafat, said to be her favourite. He had sought exile in Singapore to escape money-laundering charges back home. Politically worst for her is the self-exile of elder son Tariq who is also wanted in Bangladesh for graft and misuse of power when the mother was the premier (2001-2006). His return would result in instant imprisonment.

An apolitical army-wife pitchforked into politics by the 1981 assassination of her husband, President Ziaur Rahman, Zia has a daunting task ahead fighting an intensely political Hasina.

Zia pursued politics, and legacy of her husband, whom India suspected of having benefitted, if not involved in, the 1975 assassination of the country’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. To carve out a separate identity free of India/West Bengal, the Zias have been adversarial towards India, leaned towards Pakistan from which Bangladesh separated and the Islamic world outside.

At home, the Islamist parties have been their natural allies. Their party, named Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has sought to define ‘nationalism’ as different from rival Awami League.

Indeed, while the husband rehabilitated Sheikh Mujib’s  killers and ended the ban on the Muslim League that had sided with Pakistani rulers, the wife aligned with that party, having League’s ministers in her government during 2001-2006. She has engaged in anti-India tirade, whether in power or out of it. Rival Hasina and her party are painted as “Indian agents.”

By a natural political corollary, she subtly leans towards Pakistan whose establishment has always wanted to undo the humiliation it suffered in 1971, of losing Bangladesh and losing militarily to India.

Under Khaleda, Islamist parties and militant bodies spread terror at the turn of this century, targeting religious minorities and the liberals. Denying their presence at for long, Zia finally acted when threatened with sanctions by the US and criticized by the world community. There were at least three recorded attempts on Hasina’s life.

As opposition parties do, the BNP is showing sudden signs of revival. This month, Zia dispatched three former lawmakers to India. The exploratory visit explains the importance of the larger neighbor, but such visits to the US and Britain cannot be ruled out.

Former Commerce Minister Amir Khosru addressed Indian think tanks and gave media interviews to emphasize that India was “mistaken” in thinking that Begum Zia and the BNP are anti-India. Their effort is to keep India out of the polls discourse and build a scenario of lasting relationship, particularly the economic ties (on which Bangladesh heavily depends and gains) whatever the election’s outcome.

How India looks at Zia and her past record to judge the future remains uncertain. In the past, India has been subtly accused, particularly by the Western powers who are vary of India’s domination in South Asia, of siding with Hasina and prompting her to push on with the 2013 elections. When Zia boycotted them, Hasina received a walk-over and five more years in power.

This discourse leads with Zia, and not Hasina, for three reasons. Firstly, the Islamist forces have gained ground in Bangladesh impacting India’s internal security in the east and north-east. This is despite Hasina emasculating Zia’s main ally, the Bangladesh Muslim League, trying and imprisoning its top leadership and hanging some of them, for targeting unarmed civilians and religious minorities while siding with the Pakistani regime during the 1971 freedom movement.

The nationalist sentiment remains strong 47 years after freedom, but pro-Pakistan sentiment, and the feeling of being ‘surrounded’ by India, do influence the powerful middle class’ mind. They are also influenced by Islamist resurgence that promotes extremism in some parts of the world and a general rightwing lurch across it.

Targeting of liberals has been serious under  Hasina. Her response has been inadequate – she is caught between a pious Muslim identity needed to govern and the need to defend and protect democratic freedom. She could fall between the two stools.

Secondly, in power for over nine years, Hasina faces serious anti-incumbency challenge from a volatile Bangali populace that does not easily re-elect a party and a government. Many socio-economic indicators have certainly improved in last nine years and the economy is performing better than, say, Pakistan or Nepal. But it is a mixed bag of achievements.

Thirdly, the India factor, since Hasina, by her legacy and record, is perceived as pro-India. She has to ‘gain’ from India without ‘surrender’. Like Zia’s, this is also a daunting task.

The extent to which India can and has helped is open to serious doubt and debate. Hasina closed the camps of militants from the Indian northeast, helping the region’s internal security. She naturally expects a quid pro quo. Even allowing for expectation of a smaller neighbor from the bigger one, she has not felt compensated enough.

The Land Border Agreement settled the population/territorial dispute that was legacy of the 1947 Partition. The maritime boundary has also helped. India has not pursued river projects in the northeast to avoid raising alarming sentiments in Bangladesh.

 But water sharing agreement on Teesta river remains crucial to India-Bangladesh ties, no matter who rules in Dhaka. West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee has pursued narrow politics to thwart it, first during the UPA rule and then with NDA. PM Narendra Modi, who has won some support in Dhaka, has failed to convince Kolkata. Looking at Mamata’s political posturing against Delhi and her fear of the BJP, any pact on Teesta seems impossible.

When Teesta pact has not materialized, it is hardly surprising that Bangladesh continues to allow India access through its territory to the Indian northeast.  In denying Teesta waters, India is losing much more.

Imagine a situation if and when Zia returns to power. She could well take Teesta, like she did Farakka issue, to the United Nations General Assembly.

Imagine the prospect of Zia, or any future government in Dhaka, approaching the upper riparian China to pressure India to release more water on the Ganga and less water from Brahmaputra. Dhaka is already on the Belt and Roads Inititiative (BRI) bandwagon and China is already Bangladesh’s largest trading partner and arms supplier.

Whatever the political compulsions of Delhi and/or Kolkata, the larger neighbour has failed the smaller one. India can compensate on the trade front. But that would be grossly inadequate.

 At a time when even tiny Maldives and Seychelles thumb the nose at India, in a region where Chinese Dragon is spreading its presence,  New Delhi should work really hard to keep the only neighbor with which it has a genuinely positive relationship.

The author can be reached mahendraved07@gmail.com]]>