Behind the noise over the controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC), New Delhi and Dhaka are looking at consolidating the gains from the bilateral relationship of the past decade, and to make the progress “irreversible”.
What started as an attempt to reset the relationship with Dhaka back in 2008 when Sheikh Hasina became Prime Minister, is today India’s good-news story in South Asia.
The reset in the relationship was particularly important after Khaleda Zia’s BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami government, which was a bitter experience for New Delhi in terms of terrorist attacks and anti-India activities from Bangladesh soil.
In Hasina’s first term, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government found the momentum to initiate the resolution of the long-pending Land Boundary. But while the text was finalised, it was stalled by the BJP in Parliament. And in 2011, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee stalled the Teesta water-sharing agreement for the first time.
After Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, the BJP made a U-turn on the land boundary agreement, leading to the resolution of the historical dispute. However, on Teesta, Dhaka’s biggest complaint has been New Delhi’s inability to deliver on its commitment over the last five years.
On Saturday, Hasina said that the people of Bangladesh were awaiting early signing and implementation of the Framework of Interim Agreement for sharing of the Teesta waters, as agreed upon by both governments in 2011. Modi said that his government was working with all stakeholders in India for conclusion of the agreement “soonest possible”.
“It’s not that we don’t want to sign. But political compulsions have prevented us from signing,” a source in the government said.
Now, with the BJP in West Bengal challenging Banerjee, it seems that this diplomatic hot potato has become an even more complicated question.
But the two sides are confident that they will not allow this to become an irritant in the relationship. As Modi met Hasina on Saturday, he is learnt to have told her in Bangla that the two countries are poised for a “shonali adhyay” (golden chapter) in the soon-to-be 50-year-old relationship.
Indeed, over the last decade, the two sides have broadened their areas of cooperation from economy to nuclear, and from connectivity to terrorism. They are now looking at shared prosperity and opportunity, cutting across fields, and at a shared future.
The PM has already assured Hasina that there should be no worries on account of the NRC. Government sources said that he reiterated to Hasina on Saturday that the NRC was an “ongoing process” which was “court-mandated”, and one has to see how that process unfolds.
An Indian government source told The Sunday Express that the process would take a least 5 to 7 years to reach a stage where some action might take place, and the two sides have decided to work on opportunities that exist right now, and not think about the medium-term future. Last year, then Home minister Rajnath Singh had assured Dhaka that nobody would be deported.
A Bangladeshi diplomat said on Saturday: “There is a saying in Bangla, ‘Jodi-r kotha nodi-te’,” which translates literally as “worries about ‘ifs’ are best thrown in the river”. For the present, the two countries were looking at a “mutually beneficial” partnership, and to make the progress they achieve “irreversible”, the diplomat said.
Bangladesh is growing at a rapid 8% annually; its economy has grown by a huge 188% since 2009. Its per capita income is around $ 2,000, and the value of its exports to India crossed $1 billion in 2019, a year-on-year growth of 52%. Hasina wants Bangladesh to rise from being a Least Developed Country (LDC) to a Developing Country by 2021, and a developed country by 2041. Both India and Bangladesh are now looking at a bilateral Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA).
For decades, India has faced difficulty in accessing the Northeast of the country, having to negotiate the so-called chicken’s neck in North Bengal. The friendly government in Dhaka, with an assured political mandate, has more flexiblility in giving access to India’s Northeast through Bangladeshi territory. Several insecurities of the past are fading.
The joint statement said that the two leaders welcomed the conclusion of Standard Operating Procedures for the use of Chattogram and Mongla ports for movement of goods to and from India, particularly to and from the North East of India, which could create a “win-win situation for both economies”.
A Bangladeshi diplomat said that the two countries were now the “most-connected” in the South Asian region. After Hasina’s visit, the two countries will increase flights from 61 to 91 per week in summer, and to 120 per week in winter. The frequency of the Maitree Express will go up from 4 times to 5 per week, and that of Bandhan Express from once to twice per week. Both sides on Saturday welcomed plans for a Dhaka-Siliguri bus; there are services between Kolkata and Dhaka and Agartala and Dhaka already.
Beyond it’s own 162 million people, Bangladesh can be the connecting landmass to a combined market of nearly 3 billion people. With this in mind, the two sides agreed on Saturday that regional and sub-regional cooperation is a priority area for the two countries.
As the SAARC has become moribund due to Pakistan’s attitude, New Delhi and Dhaka have focussed their energies on BIMSTEC, a key grouping in which they have shared interests.
New Delhi hopes that as Bangladesh’s economy improves and more people come out of poverty, the illegal migrations into India would automatically stop.
“The case of movement of people is a global issue. There have always been issues relating to mobility of people among neighbouring states,” said Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque said, citing the example of a similar issue between the US and Mexico.