Six months after China entered into 27 agreements worth $ 25 billion in a range of areas and struck a deal for two submarines with Bangladesh, New Delhi on Saturday signed four defence Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) with Dhaka, and extended a first-of-its-kind $ 500-million line of credit for it to purchase military hardware.
The four MoUs were part of 22 agreements signed on Saturday in the presence of the visiting Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi. Another 12 pacts worth about $ 9 billion are expected to be signed over the next two days, officials said.
Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar described the New Delhi-Dhaka relationship as “fraternal friendship”. The defence agreements, including the framework agreement, had been signed because “confidence levels are high”, and it seemed a “very opportune time”, he said. “It was a lacuna waiting to be corrected.”
The Prime Minister called the signing of the agreements a “long overdue step”. In implementing the line of credit, India will be guided by Bangladesh’s “needs and priorities”, he said.
While the defence pacts were the key takeaway for the Indian side, Bangladesh did not get the closure on the Teesta water-sharing pact that it was hoping for. Modi did, however, convey his government’s commitment to the pact. With West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in the audience, the PM said:
“Along with our shared land boundaries are our shared rivers. They sustain our peoples and their livelihoods. And the one that has attracted the greatest attention is the Teesta. This is important for India, for Bangladesh, and for the India-Bangladesh relationship. I am very happy that the Chief Minister of West Bengal is my honoured guest today. I know that her feelings for Bangladesh are as warm as my own. I assure you and the people of Bangladesh of our commitment and continuing efforts. I firmly believe that it is only my government and Excellency Sheikh Hasina, your government, that can and will find an early solution to Teesta Water Sharing.”
While Mamata maintained a stoic silence on the matter, Hasina said, “We discussed the issues of water resources management including sharing of water of common rivers like Teesta, the Padma-Ganges Barrage Project and basinwide management of common rivers. I sincerely believe that we shall be able to get India’s support in resolving these issues expeditiously.”
The West Bengal chief minister’s last minute rejection of the draft water-sharing treaty, and refusal to accompany then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Dhaka, had scuttled what might have been a pathbreaking deal in 2011.
India also extended an additional $ 4.5 billion line of credit to Bangladesh, over and above the existing $ 2.8 billion line, to fund infrastructure projects in that country. These will include 17 projects, including the upgradation of Payra, Chittagong and Mongla ports, and airports, highways, roads and rail links, India’s High Commissioner to Dhaka Harshvardhan Shringla said.
There have been concerns in New Delhi about the possibility of Beijing developing a port in Bangladesh to dock the two submarines it has sold to Bangladesh.
New Delhi and Dhaka also decided to forge a formal civilian nuclear cooperation agreement, which is a “basic foundational agreement” for the transfer of nuclear material, developing nuclear plants, training of personnel and sharing of expertise. This is a new area of cooperation in the strategic sector, especially since Moscow has moved to build nuclear power plants in Bangladesh.
Modi was fulsome in his praise of Hasina’s efforts to battle terrorism — a boost to her government as it cracks down on her political rivals, including the Jamaat-e-Islami.
“While our partnership brings prosperity to our people, it also works to protect them from forces of radicalisation and extremism,” the Prime Minister said. Their spread poses a grave threat, not just to India and Bangladesh but to the entire region. We have the greatest admiration for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s firm resolve in dealing with terrorism. Her government’s ‘zero-tolerance’ policy towards terrorism is an inspiration for all of us. We agreed that peace, security and development for our people and for the region will remain central to our engagement.”
Hasina, on her part, said, “We both reiterated our strong commitment to make our borders peaceful and free from criminal activities. We also pledged ‘zero tolerance’ against terrorism and extremism.”
Later, while honouring the 1,661 Indian soldiers who laid down their lives during the 1971 liberation war, Modi took aim at Pakistan, saying, “There is a mentality in South Asia opposed to the approach of India and Bangladesh to promote development; this mentality nurtures and inspires terrorism. The mentality which influences those who plan policies under it and which regards terrorism as higher than humanism, destruction greater than development and annihilation better than creation.”
The two Prime Ministers honoured seven soldiers’ families; the rest will honoured in batches subsequently. Modi announced three initiatives for families of Bangladesh’s liberation war heroes: 10,000 additional Muktijoddha (freedom fighter) scholarships, multiple entry visas for freedom fighters valid for 5 years, and free medical treatment for 100 freedom fighters every year in India.
“We in India rejoice in our ties with Bangladesh. Ties that have been forged in blood and generations of kinship. Ties that seek a better and secure future for our people,” Modi said at a joint media event with Hasina.
“India has always stood for the prosperity of Bangladesh and its people. We are a long-standing and trusted development partner of Bangladesh. India and Bangladesh are also determined that the fruits of our cooperation must benefit our people,” Modi said.
Among other agreements included opening new border haats for trade, passenger and cruise services on the coastal and protocol route, cooperation on cyber security and cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space. New bus and train services were also announced between Kolkata and Khulna in Bangladesh.
“We want to build cooperation in new areas, especially some high-technology areas, that have a deeper connect with the youth in both our societies,” Modi said.
Hasina praised Modi’s dynamism, saying he was “receptive to the issue of growing trade deficit and assured of his government’s concrete steps to address this.”
“We have also discussed the review of anti-dumping duties imposed on jute export from Bangladesh, and resolved the issue. To bring balance in trade between the two countries, we have decided to set up Special Economic Zones for India in Bangladesh at identified locations. We have discussed other issues to promote trade and investments between our two countries,” she said.