Shared ancestry, different trajectories
India had a vital role to play in the birth of Bangladesh in 1971, and for a while, the relations between the two countries were fine. But in the last few decades, the relations have soured over border disputes and river water sharing. Be that as it may, Bangladesh is geo-strategically well-located in the new construct of Indo-Pacific Asia, and India would do well to keep that in mind, says Prof. Sanjukta Banerji Bhattacharya.
Bangladesh was the product of two different surgical separations, both involving India in different capacities. The first was in 1947, when both independent India and the new state of Pakistan were born, and this occurred through violent bloodshed and mass exoduses on both sides. The second was when East Pakistan separated from the rest of Pakistan, again after much violence, where India acted as a facilitator in the birth of Bangladesh, partly because of its own self interest (both security and economic), and partly because of sentimental humanitarian concerns for a people who had strong links on the Indian side of the border.
An uneasy relationship
The new country’s relations with India, therefore, have been marked by both attraction and suspicions – having the same ancestry, there is much that is common between the two countries; but the post-1947 history of India and the current state of Bangladesh have followed different trajectories, leading to diverse ideologies, national interests, economic and political outlooks, despite the commonalities in culture and background, and expected similarities in broader areas: economic, security, ecological and political.
Following the birth of Bangladesh in 1971, with considerable assistance from the Indian army, and India’s recognition of Bangladesh even prior to its formal emergence, India’s relations with the country could not have been better. However, after the assassination of Mujibur Rahman in 1975, the relationship has not always been smooth; this has been partly due to upheavals in Bangladeshi politics and perceptions regarding India’s role in the region. It may not be wrong to say that on the whole, when the Awami League is in power, relations between the two countries have improved.
A slew of agreements
In fact, bilateral relations progressed in 1996, when a new Awami League government signed a 30-year Ganges water sharing agreement with India in December (an earlier agreement had lapsed in 1988). A peace accord between tribal insurgents in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and the Bangladesh government in December 1997, also allowed many tribal refugees to return from India, thus easing relations between the two.
Further improvements in relations marked the visit of Sheikh Hasina in 2010 to India, followed by the reciprocal visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2011, and a spate of high-level official visits thereafter, including that of the then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee (2012) and the then Power Minister, Sushil Kumar Shinde (2011). Singh signed 10 agreements/protocols/MOUs, including a Framework Agreement on Cooperation for Development, and a Protocol to the Agreement concerning demarcation of the Land Boundary between India and Bangladesh. Some institutional mechanisms have also been set in motion for promoting unobstructed relationship between the two countries, for instance, the Joint Rivers Commission, the Joint Economic Commission, the Joint Working Group on Security, the Joint Boundary Working Group, the Joint Working Group on Trade, the Joint Group of Customs Officials etc.
The new BJP government also indicated the importance of Bangladesh in its foreign policy agenda when Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s first visit abroad was scheduled to Bangladesh. The fact that she made a special effort to meet with Khaleda Zia, the former opposition leader, and Raushan Ershad, the current one, also implies a long term commitment to the country.
However, contentious issues persist between the two countries and these can be partly blamed on geography and partly on politics. India’s land border with Bangladesh as per the Ministry of Defence is 4351 kms running through five states, viz., West Bengal (2217kms), Assam (262 kms), Meghalaya (443kms), Tripura (856 kms) and Mizoram (318 kms), including nearly 781 kms of riverine border. This border is porous and there have been innumerable issues of non-documented migration, human, cattle and drug trafficking, smuggling, firing on civilians on both sides by their respective border security forces etc. Further complicating the border issue is India’s inability to ratify the protocol to the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) of 1974 with Bangladesh. Under this, 161 adversely held small enclaves are to be exchanged by the two countries; 7,100 acres of land will be transferred to India and nearly 17,000 acres will go to Bangladesh.
The then Union Cabinet had in February 2013 approved a draft LBA Bill for introduction in the monsoon session of Parliament for ratification, but was unable to proceed because of opposition from the Trinamool Congress and the BJP. Another major issue is the sharing of river waters (there are 54 common rivers that traverse India and Bangladesh), especially the Ganges. The problem arose with the construction of the Farakka Barrage which Bangladesh claims restricts water supply during the lean season (January to July), and floods the country during the monsoons. The Ganga water sharing treaty of 1996 has partly resolved the issue, but a new contentious problem is the Teesta water sharing one. An attempt was made to resolve the issue in 2011, but failed primarily because of the intransigence of the West Bengal government. India also wants a land corridor through Bangladesh which will make its Northeast easily accessible. This is important in the context of the development of the region and economic connectivity. So far Bangladesh has not conceded to India’s requests.
Improving relations is in India’s interest
While these and other irritants sour India-Bangladesh relations at times, it may be noted that they have never been adverse; on the contrary, there is a lot of cooperation and generally amiable relations. This is as it should be, as India’s primary interests in the future will lie more and more on its eastern flank, through Bangladesh and Myanmar, to Southeast Asia.
While India has so far showcased India’s Northeast and Myanmar as the hub of its ‘Look East’ policy, rightfully this position should belong to Bangladesh, which is located geo-strategically to reach out to the new construct called ‘Indo-Pacific Asia’. Further, in the context of rising Islamic militancy and the existence of outfits like Harkat-al-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI), Jamaat-e-Islami, Hefajat-e-Islam, Jagrata Muslim Janata, and HUJI-B in Bangladesh, whose links to Al Qaeda are well known and whose export of militancy to India is increasingly evident, it is in India’s interests to improve security and other relations with the country.
India is increasingly aware of Bangladesh’s importance to India. Swaraj’s recent visit was an extraordinary attempt to reach out to the people of Bangladesh using diplomacy, and an unprecedented understanding of grievances and means to assuage them. As she told a gathering of the BIISS (Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies), which represents a large part of Bangladesh’s civil society, “Our desire is that India and Bangladesh should flourish together as two equal partners. We share not just our past but also our future”.
The writer is Professor, Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University, Kolkata.
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