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Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Bangladesh: A new beginning?

Smruti S. Pattanaik is Research Fellow (SS) at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • June 30, 2014

    Sushma Swaraj’s first stand-alone visit as the External Affairs Minister (EAM) has set the tone for India’s relations with Bangladesh under the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime. This forms part of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s focus on the neighbourhood. This visit not only provided her with a firsthand knowledge of where the bilateral relations stood, but was to ‘renew acquaintance’. EAM met with the President, Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh as well as the leader of opposition Rowshan Ershad and Begum Khaleda Zia the Chairperson of the Bangladesh nationalist party (BNP) which is equally significant in India’s effort to establish broad based relationship cutting across the party line. In fact both the BNP and its electoral ally Jamaat Islami welcomed Swaraj’s visit.

    While the visit was proposed as a good will visit, some of the issues that have been bedeviling bilateral relations came up for discussion particularly, from the Bangladesh side, the conclusion of Teesta and the ratification of the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA). The EAM assured Dhaka that New Delhi would conclude the LBA and is already in the process of building a consensus on Teesta. EAM spoke to Mamta Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal before she left for Dhaka and as reported in the media their conversation was positive and constructive which provide a hope for an early conclusion of the Treaty. Both sides have agreed to new measures to further consolidate bilateral relations. For example, increasing the frequency of Moitree Express, selling additional 100 MW electricity from Tripura, reducing incidents at the border, etc. Both the countries have agreed to start a new bus service from Dhaka-Shillong-Guwahati and provide five year multi-entry visa to children under the age of 18 and people above the age of 65, open four more border haats in Meghalaya, extradite Bangladeshi criminals who use the porous border to take refuge in India after committing crime in Bangladesh. Continuing with its earlier policy, Hasina’s government has assured that it would not allow its territory to be used against India. Clearly, the government in New Delhi wants to try and tackle some of the nagging issues like trade and transit and river water sharing.

    While on some other not so difficult issues, practical approach and implementation can help build confidence between the two countries. First, while it is important to increase the frequency of Moitree express and add additional AC coaches to the train, both the countries need to take steps to see that immigration process for the passengers is simplified and is completed in the minimum possible time. Passengers often complain that immigration takes much more time than the travel time. This is the reason why Moitree express which connected the two countries after 43 years has not been a popular mode of transport. The train service is renewed every three years by both the countries. Second, efforts need to be made to operationalize border haats in other bordering states. Meghalaya is the only state which has two functional border haats. Third, to reduce incidents at the border requires effective border guarding mechanism. This would need close cooperation between the Border Security Force (BSF) of India and the Bangladesh Border Guard (BBG). Night curfew is generally imposed by the BSF on the border to prevent illegal activity and no such measure is adopted by the BBG. The EAM emphasized the need to ‘put in place legal and administrative regime which encourages adherence to law’ and help in reducing incidents at border. Since smuggling is a major issue for the two countries, close cooperation should not be a problem. In fact, the BSF and BGB lists of challenges they face while guarding the border presented at the border coordination meetings is a mirror image of each other; yet they cannot optimise cooperation because both have different priorities. While the BGB has a problem with phensydil being smuggled into Bangladesh; it has no such problem with the cattle smuggling; for the BSF the opposite is true. Without coordination it would be difficult to enforce zero killing. It is thus important to devise means to see how the two forces jointly can prevent illegal activities in the border that is responsible for most of firings. Fourth, the Joint River Commission which was made redundant during the BNP regime as no meeting was held should meet at regular interval. The last meeting of the JRC took place in 2011. Since the two countries have 54 common rivers, the important of such a mechanism cannot be underestimated and steps need to be taken to make it effective.

    The EAM also met the leader of opposition Rawsan Ershad and discussed issues of bilateral concern. However, her meeting with Begum Khaleda Zia was significant. It was evident that the BNP was keen on having this meeting after it had refused to meet President Pranab Mukherjee last year. India has been consistently engaging the BNP for the past few years in its attempt to develop broad-based political relationship. India is not very keen to engage Jamaat – a party which many in India feel has a role in fomenting terrorism and anti-India propaganda and continues to have relationship with groups and political forces that are keen in destabilize India. Its role in the attack on minorities remains an issue of concern. Moreover, many of the Jamaat leaders are being tried by the International War Crime Tribunal for their role during the liberation war in which India played a very significant role.

    The EAM proposed ‘new approaches and fresh thinking’ for the purpose of ‘building productive partners in the neighbourhood’. It is evident that the NDA government will consolidate the relationship and take it further as Prime Minister Modi in his letter to Prime Minister Hasina wrote “to foster a new era of cooperation and connectivity across the South Asian region”. A beginning in this regard has already been made; what is needed is to accelerate the process by delivering on the promises that were already made to build a relationship of trust and partner a country for whose birth Indian soldiers also shed their blood.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India