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Will Bangladesh Address India’s Security Concerns?

Sreeradha Datta is Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • July 24, 2008

    The spate of talks and meetings between India and Bangladesh is unmatched in recent times. This pace alone sets bilateral relations apart from the five long years when the BNP-led coalition government was in power (2000-05) in Bangladesh. The recent (July 17, 2008) Foreign Secretary level talks have once again brought home the fact of how the interim government in Bangladesh without having to pander to any particular constituency has been able to constructively engage with its largest neighbour.

    The Secretary level talks which were revived after a gap of two years in June last year were basically a review and stock taking exercise and included common issues of concern such as water, trade and commerce. For years the issue of sharing of river waters has plagued relations and despite a successful Ganges water treaty (1996) the talks over sharing of other common rivers like the Teesta have escaped any resolution. While the stalled water talks also resumed in 2007 after a gap of more than two years, a decision was taken to form a technical committee to address the issue of embankment protection of common rivers, which has been a cause of bilateral tension.

    Prior to the meeting between Shivshankar Menon and Md. Touhid Hossain in New Delhi, the media especially in Bangladesh was keenly watching the developments regarding the transit issue. It is no secret that for long New Delhi has been hoping that Bangladesh would allow India to use its territory for accessing the Northeast. This not only makes enormous economic sense for India, but to Bangladesh as well. One Bangladeshi study has reported that the country can earn between Tk. 500 to Tk. 5000 crores per year as annual transit fee. Unfortunately, for years the subject has been hostage to political polemic without it being subjected to serious economic analysis. While Dhaka’s position might not have diluted remarkably, its willingness at least to discuss the issue is a positive development. According to the Indian proposal, Indian vehicles carrying cargo as well as passengers would enter Bangladeshi territory through Benapole land port en route to Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram.

    This apart, the Bilateral Investment Protection Agreement (BIPA) also came under discussion. One of the main Bangladeshi complaints has been the growing trade gap in favour of India. For long India tried to sell the FTA proposal as a means of addressing this problem but that was unacceptable to Bangladesh. Given the small basket of Bangladeshi exports, one way of bridging the trade gap would be through mutual flow of investments. India removed restrictions on Bangladeshi investments early this year, which is likely to go a long way in bridging the asymmetry in trade and simultaneously also facilitate Indian investments in Bangladesh.

    The last 18 months have seen a spate of activity on the bilateral economic front. Indeed, the thaw came with Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Bangladesh in February 2007 to invite Chief Advisor Fakhruddin Ahmed for the April 2007 SAARC summit in New Delhi. India’s easy acceptance of an unelected government in Dhaka along with its grant of ‘duty free access’ to eight million pieces of Bangladeshi readymade garments thawed the almost frozen bilateral ties considerably. The Bangladeshi caretaker government was more than happy to grab the opportunity and a tension-free environment was established easily. It was followed by a spate of contacts and meetings at different levels alongside the signing of various agreements. Not only did Dhaka agree to import 120,000 tonnes of diesel from Assam to help Bangladeshi farmers with irrigation, it also signed a contract with Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited for setting up a sub-station in its territory. The formal launching of the India-Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industry in July last year is also testimony to the growing economic ties.

    But the moot question is while the core Bangladeshi concerns are being met, albeit belatedly, what happens to India’s core concerns? Notwithstanding the assurances from the Bangladeshi side, there is nothing to indicate that Indian security concerns, which have plagued bilateral ties for decades, are being addressed satisfactorily. Dhaka has consistently denied the presence on its territory of terrorist groups which have had links with various terrorist attacks in different parts of India. It has also remained indifferent to India’s other two major concerns: Indian insurgent groups finding safe haven in its territory, and large numbers of Bangladeshis illegally entering India. New Delhi has periodically raised these problems, without much result.

    The visit of Bangladeshi Army Chief of Staff General Moeen U Ahmed in March 2008 is going to be reciprocated soon by his Indian counterpart’s visit to Dhaka later this month. But will any of these meetings facilitate a better understanding of Indian security concerns? Can the Maitree Express mark a new beginning of friendship or will bilateral relations always remain hostage to political calculations at the cost of economics and overall national well being? Certainly, the extradition of ULFA leader Anup Chetia would be a gesture in the right direction to prove that good neighbourliness is a two-way traffic.