Bangladesh India relations: Challenges and prospects

By Arup Dey


India and Bangladesh share ties of blood and culture. The imperatives of geography and interdependence demand that the two countries should work together. Bangladesh’s importance for India’s security and prosperity cannot be overestimated. Likewise, Bangladesh can gain from a closer relationship with India. The challenge before the two countries is how to make bilateral relations irrevocably friendly.

Before Sheikh Hasina came to power in 2009, India- Bangladesh relations had stagnated. Of course, the relationship showed some improvement during the rule of the caretaker government (2006-2008) supported by the military. For India security issues were of paramount importance. Northeast insurgent groups had taken shelter in Bangladesh — often with official connivance. The border was used for illegal migration and trade. Several fundamentalist groups in Bangladesh, enjoying the Pakistan ISI’s support, were involved in terrorist incidents in India. The border security forces on both sides had also clashed several times. India was concerned about the large scale illegal migration of Bangladeshis into India while Bangladesh denied these allegations. In order to deal with security issues India undertook the construction of a fence all along the India- Bangladesh border. This was an expensive exercise which addressed Indian concerns to some extent but created unhappiness in Bangladesh and also amongst the Indian population living along the border.

The leader of opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) Begun Khaleda Zia is visiting India after nearly six years at the invitation of the government. Since her last visit in 2006 as prime minister of Bangladesh, there has been a substantial change in India-Bangladesh relations. Given the proximity of views on communal politics, their socio-cultural disposition and reckoning the historic background of affinity and cooperation between the Awami League of Bangladesh and the Congress Party of India, it was but natural that there would be an upturn in bilateral relations between the two countries with the Awami League and Begum Sheikh Hasina in power. But the Sheikh Hasina government went even further in its approach towards India, as has been evident on a range of issues such as facilitating transhipment of critical stores (though selectively as for example with respect to the Palaitana gas-based power project of Tripura), enabling the setting up of a number of border haats (markets) for the benefit of people inhabiting border areas, allowing the swapping of enclaves to go through and, above all, controlling the activities of anti-Indian Northeastern militants and even nabbing and handing over some of them to the Indian authorities.

It will be the endeavour of the Indian authorities to gauge the likely posture of Begum Khaleda Zia, in the event of the BNP’s return to power after January 2013, on continuation of cooperation in the areas where a large degree of mutual understanding has already been achieved.

It is interesting that Begum Zia’s visit is taking place just after she, as the head of a BNP delegation, has returned from China. As per official declarations from the BNP’s end as well as from Chinese government sources, the visit seems to have been another occasion for reiteration of China’s goodwill and commitment towards Bangladesh. China has assured Bangladesh of financial and technical support for the second Padma river bridge, development of the deep-sea port at Sonadia in the Bay of Bengal, operationalising the Chittagong-Kunming rail link (through Myanmar, which will boost China`s trade to and through Bangladesh) and also modernising the Bangladesh Armed Forces. Earlier, China-Bangladesh relations, particularly during the previous Begum Zia regime, were primarily politico-military in nature and derived significance when appraised in the context of China-India competition in South Asia. Nevertheless, Beijing maintained a thrust towards assisting Bangladesh in building up its infrastructure as noticeable from the its earlier aid pattern including the funding of six “friendship bridges” in Bangladesh. Indian leaders will have to contend with the Chinese presence and influence while assessing Begum Zia”s intentions vis-a-vis India. At the same time, they also have to induce her to adopt a positive view on the overall benefits of all-round cooperation with India and overcome the mental block which the opposition political parties in Bangladesh have traditionally had with respect to comprehensive engagement with India.

A peaceful national election with results accepted by all the political parties of Bangladesh may augur well for India. As per past trends, polls have led to governments alternating between the Awami League and BNP. Therefore, a change of government in Bangladesh may not be unexpected if the next polls there are held properly with the confidence of that country’s stakeholders. If the BNP wins by a good majority, then the prospects of India working out a modus vivendi or a broad range of understanding over core issues of India’s concern viz. control of anti-India militants in Bangladesh, trade and transit of select items from India through Bangladesh between eastern and Northeastern parts of India and water sharing would be better though not necessarily assured. India will have to use all its tact to achieve this. However, an acrimonious, violent and less-than-transparent election process, even if resulting in a shaky BNP victory, will imply that the extremist and fundamentalist political elements will act as pressure groups and prevent the next BNP government from moving away from its traditional ambiguous and unfriendly posture towards India. Indian leaders may have to convincingly convey to Begum Zia and her BNP party delegation their commitment towards the economic development of Bangladesh, continuation of Indian aid in different sectors of that country’s economy and also on their positive intent to address the balance of trade issue, irrespective of the party in power there. In essence, India’s prime minister will have to indicate that his government has strong political will to work with a government led by Begun Zia. A second channel of dialogue at the political party level between the major parties of India and those of Bangladesh including the BNP would have been a reinforcing factor for improving relations between the two countries in the event adequate headway cannot be made at the governmental level. The problem however is that given the situation currently prevailing, the prospects of a peaceful poll with confidence of all concerned in Bangladesh is not too bright. INAV

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