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Next step in Dhaka: Modi and Hasina must build on the new beginning in ties

PM Narendra Modi is set to hold talks with Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka.

Written by Iftikhar Rashid , Ashikur Rahman |
June 6, 2015 12:18:35 am
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Chanakya, the great Indian political thinker, is known to have pioneered the foreign policy doctrine that considered every neighbouring country an enemy, and an enemy’s enemy, a friend. South Asian politics did not escape this mindset, given India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and even Sri Lanka shared long episodes of uncomfortable bilateral relations, leading to little cooperation at the regional level.

Of course, such international dynamics have seen some reversal, at least between Bangladesh and India, after pro-secular political forces led by the Awami League assumed office in Bangladesh in early 2009. In particular, the “Hasina Doctrine”, if we may call it so, has centred on the notion that all pending issues between subcontinental neighbours can be resolved through constructive diplomatic engagement if sufficient goodwill is created concerning each actor’s intentions. Over the last six and a half years, we have seen this doctrine catalyse a unique transformation in not only how problems are approached by the two countries, but also in developing a genuine faith in each other’s commitment to resolving pending issues.

This, nonetheless, required some bold political action on countering anti-Indian insurgents and politics within Bangladesh’s political periphery — something Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has addressed effectively, at least so far. Consequently, this style of diplomatic governance has eventually generated Indian reciprocity.

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The Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) has vindicated Hasina’s longstanding policy of constructive diplomatic engagement. She has resolutely pursued a policy of improving relations with India during her three terms in government. The 1974 land boundary treaty has finally come into effect after four decades, resolving all border disputes between the two countries, including chit mahals (enclaves), adversely possessed land and undemarcated boundary. The land swap will settle the territorial anomaly of enclaves (in some cases, enclaves within enclaves) in each other’s territory dating back to Partition.

Apart from the humanitarian benefits, the LBA establishes a completely demarcated land boundary between India and Bangladesh. This will pave the path for greater bilateral collaboration in border security management to counter cross-border terrorism, smuggling and trafficking in people, weapons and drugs. The two countries can also work together to reduce violence, generate jobs and promote trade in border areas, thereby transforming the fifth-longest boundary in the world into an oasis of opportunity instead of tension.

Prior to this, the Awami League government signed the Ganges Water Treaty with India in 1996 and also initiated maritime delimitation with India and Myanmar in 2009, which was settled through two separate judgments from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. Further, given the verdicts allowed Bangladesh to gain sovereign territorial rights over more than 1,30,000 sq km of maritime boundary, it exemplified how pragmatic engagement and reciprocity can help mitigate issues that have troubled bilateral relations for decades, especially when states are willing to submit to common “rules of the game”, based on fairness and cooperation.

Such an approach in foreign relations will also allow India and Bangladesh to continue expanding bilateral collaboration and agreements on Teesta, trade, security, connectivity, infrastructure and power in the near future. In this respect, we have seen significant success in mutual collaboration to counter transnational terrorist groups, reduce border casualties, improve trade and develop joint-venture power projects along with the LBA.

Hence, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi embarks on his maiden state visit to Bangladesh, there is a new wave of optimism about bilateral relations in the wake of the LBA. He has proved sceptics wrong by not only succeeding where his predecessors failed, but also mobilising a broad national consensus in ratifying the treaty. This has definitely curtailed the perception of non-reciprocity from New Delhi despite substantive overtures by Dhaka.

Modi’s trip has the potential to take relations between India and Bangladesh to greater heights, but a key challenge facing all relevant stakeholders is to manage expectations while setting focus on larger strategic goals beyond immediate priorities. Though any agreement on Teesta seems beyond the scope of the upcoming trip, this should not dampen the mood, as the visit itself represents a platform for increased cooperation and ongoing engagement. In recent years, both countries have witnessed a change in mindsets about bilateral relations that needs to be crystallised by developing a strong foundation that continues to deliver visible results for both sides.

Finally, it is important to acknowledge that the two countries share an important bond based on our common history, geography and culture, including India’s support during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. Hasina’s policy of being “pro-engagement” goes hand-in-hand with Modi’s “neighbourhood-first” policy. Thus, the onus is now on both leaders to take bilateral relations to the next level.

Rahman is senior economist, Policy Research Institute. Rashid is endeavour scholar, Monash University and director, Institute of Conflict, Law and Development Studies.

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