Bangladesh and India’s bilateral ties have rarely been a linear affair. That is why Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India beginning October 3 is a much-anticipated political event. There is little doubt that when India assisted Bangladesh to attain independence in 1971, many believed that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Mrs Indira Gandhi would forge a partnership rooted in progressive ideals and a common vision for their nations in South Asia and the world, one that would last for generations.
Trust and engagement
The assassination of Mujib and most of his family members in 1975, which resurrected the political, Islamic and military leaders from the political right between 1975 and 1996, meant that Bangladesh could not structure any lasting partnership with India. Its relationship with India reached an all-time low when the BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami coalition government between 2001 and 2006 allowed Bangladeshi territory to host insurgent activities against the Northeastern states of India. This unfortunate nosedive in the Bangladesh-India relationship was decisively reversed after the electoral victory of the Awami League and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in December 2008. There is little disagreement today that Bangladesh-India ties have greatly benefited since then.
That is why, since 2009, Bangladesh and India have peacefully navigated many contested issues that had remained unresolved since 1947. In 2015, the Indian government led by the BJP ratified the 1974 Land Boundary Treaty which executed a land swap of enclaves, settling historical anomalies dating back to the Partition of the subcontinent. Bangladesh and India also peacefully obtained an international court ruling that allowed the two nations to explore resources in the Bay of Bengal without stepping on each other’s toes. These milestones show that a partnership based on trust and a willingness to engage on equal terms can help sovereign nations resolve historical disagreements.
Rivers and credit lines
The upcoming trip of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina can be viewed as an effort to re-invest in the special friendship that Bangladesh and India have developed during her premiership. It will likely touch on a wide range of issues that will require improvisation and cooperation from both governments to find new solutions to old problems.
Specifically, Prime Minister Hasina is likely to request New Delhi’s cooperation for an improved management of all rivers that Bangladesh and India share, so that a better framework is created to ensure their equitable distribution. The pending dispute over the Teesta river has shown how difficult it is for India’s central government to offer amicable solutions on such matters. Finalisation of an efficient and mutually acceptable river management framework will test imaginations and capacities of the governments on both sides.
Dhaka is also likely to seek New Delhi’s cooperation in upgrading its railways, roads, and shipping infrastructure, and might ask for the export of more electricity to Bangladesh. As of 2017, India had extended three lines of credit worth approximately $7.4 billion; however, the execution of projects under these credit pipelines has been very slow. Less than 10% of the cumulative commitments have been disbursed so far, while almost no money from the third line of credit promising $4.5 billion has been utilised. Dhaka might seek both prompt disbursements of the existing commitments and, perhaps, an additional line of credit to finance infrastructure projects in the pipeline.
NRC and the Rohingya
Refuelling of the development partnership aside, some areas of concern too, are likely to be taken up during the deliberations. It remains unclear how the NRC saga will ultimately play out in Indian politics, and the implications it might have for Bangladesh. For now, it has definitely added an extreme level of suspicion about India among ordinary Bangladeshis. And while Prime Minister Modi has assured Prime Minister Hasina during a meeting at the UN that the NRC will have no implications for Bangladesh, this commitment needs continuous reiteration, because an element of noise has been added to the partnership.
Many among the Bangladeshi intelligentsia believe that if the NRC wave gets more air from communal political currents in India, politicians in India might fail to ensure that this wave does not reach international shores. Given that politicians often create forces that they cannot contain — most people are now familiar with the term “unintended consequences” in international policy literature — the NRC is likely to remain a real concern for both neighbours, and Bangladesh is likely to keep a close watch on it irrespective of Prime Minister Modi’s assurances.
Many in India are also concerned about Bangladesh’s growing partnership with China. This, by any standards, is a misplaced fear. Prime Minister Hasina’s China diplomacy is focused to structure a win-win economic cooperation to address Bangladesh’s developmental aspirations — and so far, there is no indication that this relationship has any possibility of adding a military dimension to it. This balancing act by Bangladesh is especially important because it needs the support of both China and India to mitigate the ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis. Given India’s historical friendship with Bangladesh, New Delhi bears the responsibility of going a few steps further than Beijing on the Rohingya crisis. To what extent Dhaka can convince New Delhi to make the maximum effort to push for a peaceful repatriation of the Rohingya, however, remains to be seen.
On the whole though, Prime Minister Hasina’s visit will underline and nurture the special friendship between Dhaka and New Delhi. In a world where building walls and distrusting neighbours have become the international norm, Prime Ministers Hasina and Modi are likely to demonstrate that forward-looking partnerships on equal terms are possible when bilateral ties are rooted in trust, and a common vision of peace and economic progress.
(Dr Ashikur Rahman is Senior Economist, Policy Research Institute, Dhaka)
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