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Towards Better India-Bangladesh relations

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  • January 09, 2009

    The landslide victory of the Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina in the December 29, 2008 parliamentary elections ended the two-year old political uncertainty in Bangladesh and marks the return of a democratic government. With 262 seats out of 299 for the Awami League-led Grand Alliance, Sheikh Hasina is entrusted with the onus of opening a new era in the history of Bangladesh. The mandate clearly shows that people voted to power the party that won the country’s independence from Pakistan, and rejected the BNP-led four-party combine which got only 32 seats. Along with the Khaleda Zia-led BNP, Jamaat-e-Islami faced the biggest rout in the elections. BNP bagged only 29 seats as against its tally of 193 in the 2001 elections. And the Jamaat-e-Islami plummeted to a humiliating 2 seats from a high of 17 seats in 2001. Jamaat was part of the BNP-led government from 2001-2006 when the rise of Islamic fundamentalism took shape in Bangladesh. This election also shows that the people have rejected the Jamat-e-Islami brand of Islamic revival.

    Congratulating Hasina, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has assured India’s commitment to strengthening bilateral relations, while External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee expressed the hope that the new government would seriously and sincerely address the problem of terrorism. In her first post-victory media conference, Sheikh Hasina made the promising observation that “Bangladeshi soil will never be used to carry out any terrorist act against our neighbours.” Her remarks came in response to a question about New Delhi’s assertions in the past that Bangladeshi territory was being used for carrying out terrorist attacks on Indian soil. Hasina also reiterated that Bangladesh wants peaceful relations with its neighbours, indicating India.

    Areas of mutual cooperation

    Unlike BNP, the Awami League is generally considered to be an India-friendly party. From India’s point of view, there is a likelihood of a renewed push to improve bilateral relations. Given that India played a crucial role in the independence of Bangladesh and sheltered over 10 million refugees, coupled with the fact that currently some 20 million illegal Bangladeshis live in India, there is greater need for a close relationship between the two countries. India has always stood by Bangladesh. It provided aid worth US $37 million to help Bangladesh cope with natural disasters and floods in 2007-08 and is co-operating with it to rehabilitate 10 cyclone-affected villages in the southern part of its territory. And when food prices rose during 2008, India also announced that it would export 500,000 tons of rice at a reduced price to Bangladesh, despite a ban on rice exports.

    For Bangladesh, good relations with India are crucial for strategic, economic, and geopolitical reasons. It is a well-known fact that better economic ties have the potential to spill over into the domain of politics as apparent from the experience of the European Community. Better ties in the economic realm is also likely to help the economic development of India's Northeast. Certainly, the resumption of train service in March 2008 between Dhaka and Kolkata after a gap of 42 years has opened up a new chapter in India-Bangladesh relations, as people from both countries will benefit culturally and it will strengthen mutual bonds. Apart from people to people exchanges, the train service could also benefit thousands of Bangladeshis seeking medical treatment in India. An estimated 600,000 Bangladeshis come to India each year; in comparison, only 80,000-90,000 Indians go to Bangladesh.

    On March 28, 1972, India and Bangladesh had signed their first trade agreement. A revised Trade Agreement was signed in 2006, which governs present trading relations. In addition there are about a dozen MoUs for facilitating trade and economic linkages. India-Bangladesh economic ties have grown by 145 per cent in the last five years from about $1 billion in 2001-02 to $2.55 billion in 2006-07. India mooted the idea of a bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in 2002, and a draft proposal was sent to Bangladesh though Dhaka has not yet decided on it despite two rounds of talks in 2003 and 2004.

    The meeting of Fakhruddin Ahmed and Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the 14th SAARC Summit in Delhi in April 2007, followed by several reciprocal visits by Indian and Bangladeshi foreign ministers and secretaries, helped boost mutual understanding. With visits by top military officials, there has also been a revitalization of military cooperation. For example, Bangladeshi army chief General Moeen U. Ahmed's visit to India in February 2008 was followed by the visit of Indian Army Chief General Deepak Kapoor in July 2008.

    To take bilateral relations forward, India must seize the opportunity to engage Hasina on India’s security concerns particularly on two fronts: end of violence in the Northeast where infiltrators from Bangladesh are involved in terror operations, and a complete curb on terrorist organizations like Harkat-ul Jehad-al Islami (HuJI). India should also express its concerns about a new arms bazaar in the no-man’s land near the Bangladesh-Myanmar border town of Naikhangchari, which has become home to Indian insurgent outfits like ULFA, NFT and NDFB. HuJI is known to be imparting training to these outfits. On cross border tterrorism, India and Bangladesh have agreed to a joint fight, though much remains to be done.

    Issues to be resoled

    India-Bangladesh border management is one contentious issue that needs a lasting solution. In 2002, India began fencing off parts of the 4,090-km border to stop illegal migrants and suspected militants, though infiltration of Bangladeshis continues. From the security point of view, in the remote hilly areas of Dhalai district, where barbed wire fencing is yet to be erected, militants have been taking advantage of the long porous border. Moreover, innocent civilians continue to be killed while trying to cross the border, creating tension in the border areas. As a result, several incidents of BDR-BSF clashes have occurred in recent times.

    Illegal immigration is a serious issue. A broad spectrum of Indian public opinion is concerned about the perceived demographic challenge from Bangladesh. Time and again, India has shared these concerns and the magnitude of the problem with Bangladesh.

    Smuggling, human trafficking, and illegal movements are other issues that border forces have to deal with.

    In March 2006, the two countries signed a bilateral agreement on mutual co-operation for preventing illicit trafficking in narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances. In July 2007, Foreign Secretary level talks in Dhaka between India and Bangladesh saw an agreement on three broad issues: sharing of intelligence pertaining to security; India agreed to provide greater access for Bangladeshi goods in the Indian market; and, the two countries agreed to take steps to implement the 1974 Land Boundary Agreement. Another long-standing issue is Ganga water sharing, including operation of the Farakka Barrage by India to increase water supply in the river Hoogly. Bangladesh often complains that it either does not receive a fair share of the Ganga waters or its territory gets flooded during the monsoons because of the release of excess waters by India.

    Though India has tried to improve and consolidate its bilateral relations with Bangladesh, the latter continues to indulge in hostile acts, completely neglecting India's security and territorial integrity. Bangladesh does not accept that any militant camps are functioning in its territory. But the fact remains that some 172 training camps belonging to different insurgent groups have been operating in Bangladesh for a long time. Since the 1990s, the BSF has been regularly submitting lists of such camps to BDR at annual border meetings. But the BDR has rejected such concerns every time. According to the 1996 accord between India and Bangladesh, both countries are expected to disallow such training bases on their side of the border, though Bangladesh has not kept its word. The Khaleda Zia-led government deliberately ignored the disruptive activities of Pakistan's ISI aimed at destabilizing India's Northeast. The new government needs to address Indian security concerns firmly. A friendly and cooperative Bangladesh may gain much, as it could pave the way for an open border between the two countries.

    India, for its part, needs to give renewed life to the "Look East" policy, with special focus on Bangladesh. Now is the time to refresh relations with a new promise and engage Bangladesh proactively to secure a violence-free Northeast and peaceful borders in the east.