Is India-Bangladesh on the same page?

Barrister Harun ur Rashid

Bangladesh and India share borders in South Asia, are members of SAARC regional organisation of eight countries and share the mighty Indian Ocean. Both have common history and cultural roots. Both were colonised by the British and they left certain common heritage in the land and among people.
Both countries, among others, are members of British Commonwealth, BIMSTEC, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and Asem, the summit of which was held in Mongolia in late July this year.
Bilateral relations are underpinned on certain principles such as non-interference in internal affairs, territorial integrity, cooperation in terrorism, sharing intelligence information, overall security including cyber security, maritime and land security.
Imposed solutions don’t last
The physical proximity between India and Bangladesh cannot be ignored and whether we like it or not, its impact will be felt among the people. The religious divide has been taken over by the new development of technology, social informative digital media and speed and innovation in the actions and ideas of young people. The quality of bilateral relations is being transformed and it cannot be changed easily.
At the beginning of the 21st century, States have lost the monopoly of providing information or news to people. They have almost lost the control of the national budgets. National borders are being threatened by radicalised Islamists. Politics in Europe has been of great concern. Sectarian warfare has surfaced in the Middle East with Saudi Arabia and Iran seemingly running proxy wars ­in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Libya.
Another fundamental principle both countries share is that all bilateral issues must be settled peacefully. Bangladesh has resolved the maritime boundary with India in the Bay of Bengal in 2014 through an international tribunal in The Hague. Both countries concluded a water sharing agreement on the Ganges for 30 years in 1996.
Since 2009 bilaterally and at the multilateral level the Hasina government of Bangladesh has provided bold and new cooperative trajectory with India through a 51 paragraph joint communique in January 2010.  The subject-matter of the communique is diverse and includes almost all bilateral issues which in fullness of time will witness economic, infrastructural, social, educational and cultural development of the people of both countries.  Another important document namely Indo-Bangladesh Framework Agreement of Cooperation for Development which deals with bilateral, and sub-regional issues such as water sharing, regional transportation network, security, and global climate change.
Relations between India and Bangladesh may develop in the background of following factors.  Bangladesh must not feel that India is imposing its solution on Bangladesh because such settlement under pressure does not last and is not conducive to friendly and trustful relations.
Solving bilateral issues
India is endowed with huge natural and human resources than those of Bangladesh because the land and maritime resources are much larger than that in Bangladesh. Therefore Bangladesh people are very alert and sensitive to any diminution of rights of with India.
Another severe irritation in bilateral relations is the avoidable deaths of civilians at the hands of India border guards.  Furthermore many times it was conveyed at the ministerial level that death of an unarmed Bangladeshi by the Indian Border Guards is unacceptable.
India’s geographical location is very central in South Asia and India   is able to share land borders with Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan. Sri Lanka is just a hop over the India’s Palk Strait. None of near neighbours share border with each other.  India’s accessibility to the neighbouring countries is much easier and hugely beneficial. Indian export trade to South Asia has grown much in volume that, it seems that it does not care much with its import-trade with neighbours.
India could promote bilateral trade with Bangladesh by removing the non-tariff and para-tariff against Bangladesh products which Bangladesh has repeatedly requested their removal. Bangladesh has the capacity to export goods worth $2 billion annually to India if favourable conditions exist. Bangladesh exports to India 2013-14 were worth $463 million while India’s exports to Bangladesh was $6 billion.
India is a regional power and is aspiring to become a global power with US cooperation and therefore, India has been vigilant to the influence of other maritime powers in the Indian Ocean. Even the sale of two submarines by China to Bangladesh in 2014 has not escaped its notice and concern.
Bangladesh and India need to move forward in resolving bilateral disputes as quickly as possible especially in sharing waters of the trans-boundary rivers.  Even the Indo-Bangladesh Joint River Commission does not meet as per schedule despite requests from Bangladesh.
India’s lukewarm responses
The more time is taken by India to resolve these issues, the more suspicion is grown in the mind of people whether India is sincere in keeping its words to Bangladesh.
Bangladesh needs to build the Ganges Barrage to offset the misconceived Farakka Barrage completed by India in 1974  on the Ganges and during the visit of Indian Prime Minister Modi in June 2015, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina reportedly raised the issue seeking support from India but the response had been lukewarm.
While Bangladesh has responded quickly to provide trans-shipment facilities to India through Bangladesh coastal waters and security in the northeastern Indian states, India on the other hand has not concluded the promised Teesta River water sharing agreement despite Indian Prime Minister’s visits to Bangladesh in 2011 and June 2015. The failure to ink the agreement has diminished the gloss of the current bilateral relations.
Bilateral relation is a two-way traffic, and if benefits are not shared, it leads to frustration and bitterness on the weaker member.
An uncomfortable feature in relations is the difficulty in getting Indian visa by a Bangladeshi citizen and although they charge service fees (state Bank of India) but it is not returned if visa is refused. It was thought that during Modi’s visit in June last year, visa on arrival would be allowed for Bangladeshi citizens as were allowed to Chinese citizens. But it has not happened.
Another irritation is the killing of Bangladeshi civilians at the border by the Indian Border Guards. India must stop killing Bangladeshi civilians. It is true that they are involved in the illegal bilateral cattle trade along with the Indians in this $1 billion trade; but the Indians are spared. Some mechanism must be found out to halt the killing.
Time is running out
Bangladesh repeatedly agreed to earmark a special trading zone in Bangladesh for Indian companies or joint ventures. But the response from India is found to be poor suggesting that India is not keen to invest in Bangladesh.  India is also not interested to launch a sub-regional economic group with Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and northeastern states of India for growth of regional economy. India’s attitude towards BCIM-economic corridor has been lukewarm although Bangladesh and China show active support for such economic initiative.
It is to be noted that if Bangladesh becomes affluent, it will provide markets for India and India will get benefits directly from the prosperity and stability of Bangladesh. Still there exists much goodwill among the people of Bangladesh for India but New Delhi failed to exploit this sentiment in its favour. (Recently Nepal has closed all Indian cable TV shows Bangladesh has not done so despite mounting pressure for one-way traffic).
Let there be a positive campaign in all sectors including think-tanks, and media by convening seminars in addressing the challenges of improving India-Bangladesh strategic relationships for the benefit of the people of the two countries.
The writer is former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.
Source: Weekly Holiday

1 COMMENT

  1. India could have chosen to play a caring & friendly neighbour to Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Srilanka & Maldivies to great advantage, but it did not.

    Myopic short sighted India.

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