INDIA, BANGLADESH NEED TO DELIVER ON MUTUAL CONCERNS
India’s senior diplomat Rajiv Sikri once described Bangladesh’s as “our most important neighbour”. For the foreign establishment in Delhi, that is often obsessed with Pakistan and China, this was a timely reminder. Bangladesh is crucial to India’s Look East thrust because it is through that country that India can connect to its own northeastern states easily and then use that region to further connect to Southeast Asia and even south-western China.
A friendly Bangladesh is also the surest guarantee for the stability and peace in India’s troubled northeast. That was one of the key reasons for Indian military intervention to liberate Bangladesh in 1971 by breaking up Pakistan. Almost overnight, the rebels from northeast lost their bases in what was until then East Pakistan. The coup that killed Sheikh Mujib and his family and threw his party, Awami League, out of power, drastically changed the scenario as successive military regimes in Dhaka started to back the northeastern rebels again.
All that changed when Mujib’s daughter Sheikh Hasina came back to power with a thumping majority in December 2008. Hasina’s administration furiously cracked down on the rebel bases and handed over scores of their leaders and activists to India. That forced many northeastern rebel groups to start negotiations with Delhi. The downward spiral of insurgencies in the northeast in the last five years owes much to that crackdown. Hasina also cleared movement of goods to the northeastern state of Tripura through the Chittagong port from the Indian mainland, holding out the promise for a more comprehensive transit arrangement if India delivered on its own promises.
The Narendra Modi government has delivered on one of them by ensuring the passage through parliamrent of the constitutional amendment bill to implement the Land Boundary Agreement that will now pave the way for a swap of the enclaves. Modi is also pushing hard to sign the Teesta water sharing treaty with Bangladesh, from which Manmohan Singh had backed out after stiff opposition from West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Now that Modi has succeeded in getting Mamata on board, the agreement is being reworked keeping Mamata’s reservations in mind and hopefully the agreement can be signed some time soon.
That nicely sets the stage for Modi’s visit to Bangladesh in early June. Scores of agreements on issues ranging from transport to trade are likely to be signed during the visit. Bangladesh’s secular Awami League government, which had initial misgivings dealing with a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, now appears to be at ease after Modi delivered on the Land Boundary Agreement. Hopes have risen that Modi will also manage Mamata and deliver on the Teesta issue. Still predominantly an agrarian nation, the waters issue is a serious one in Bangladesh.
The 1996 Ganges Water Sharing Treaty made then chief minister Jyoti Basu a hero in Bangladesh, not just because of his East Bengali origin but because he pushed then prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda into an agreement for sharing the Ganges waters. Mamata Banerjee has so far played a reverse role on Teesta, blocking the agreement when Manmohan Singh was keen to sign it four years ago. A combination of factors may lead her to change her stance now. But Sheikh Hasina made her position clear to Mamata during her recent visit to Bangladesh. “You give me Teesta waters, I give you hilsa fish,” said the Bangladesh prime minister.
For Hasina, who is bludgeoned in local politics by rival Islamists as an Indian stooge, it is important to show her people India has addressed Bangladesh’s concerns as much as she has addressed India’s on the security and connectivity front. By delivering on the land boundary agreement, Modi has taken the first step to bail out a friend who needs all possible support. If Modi delivers on Teesta anytime soon, Hasina’s stock with her people will doubtlessly soar.
India has already provided much better market access to Bangladeshi products in an effort to reduce the trade imbalance. This has been a contentious issue but now the ball is in the court of Bangladesh’s industrial captains. Manmohan Singh wanted India’s neighbours to become beneficiaries in our growth story. Subsequent efforts to provide market access to Bangladesh products has taken off but Indian bureaucracy still needs to iron out a few regulations that keep non-tariff barriers in place. India should not be seen as giving something with the right hand and denying it with the left.
The current state of India-Bangladesh bilateral ties are said to be peaking, but issues like easing visa restrictions on Bangladesh nationals, easing non-tariff barriers for Bangladesh products, preventing Islamist militants from getting shelter in India and extending a fresh line of credit to boost development in critical sectors of Bangladesh economy are outstanding issues which Modi’s visit may address. India will push for a more comprehensive transit arrangement, but will need to deliver on Teesta as a quid pro quo.
Bangladesh is a proud nation born out of one of the bloodiest civil wars of our time. Its present regime led by Sheikh Hasina is the best possible friend India could have in a neighborhood where China is trying to make deep inroads by leveraging the angst against India’s ‘Big Brother’ image. The friendship is born of a history of shared bonds in the liberation struggle, during which thousands of Bengali freedom fighters operated out of India and millions of refugees were sheltered here. But history cannot just cement the bonds — both countries need to understand each other better and deliver on mutual concerns. Hasina has delivered on India’s security concerns more firmly than any neighbour ever has, with the possible exception of Bhutan. She may also deliver on transit if India delivers on her commitments on Teesta now.
Subir Bhaumik is a veteran journalist and author
MAY 25, 2015