PM Modi's visit shows India, Bangladesh are ready for transformative leap in bilateral ties despite some sticky challenges

·12-min read

When it comes to India-Bangladesh bilateral ties, it is important not to let 'perfect' be the enemy of 'good'. Soaring expectations and anxiety of meeting impossible standards have subjected India's most consequential relationship in the neighbourhood to avoidable pressure.

Notwithstanding some wrinkles that persist, overall ties remain robust and stable. It is also important not to overinterpret, as critics do, the impact of domestic politics in bilateral ties that are rooted in a structure of interdependence and cooperation.

Prime minister Narendra Modi's two-day trip to Dhaka last week €" his first foreign tour since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic €" to attend the birth centenary of Bangladesh's Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and the golden jubilee celebrations of the country's Independence underlined the factors mentioned above. The warmth and goodwill were evident. Modi's camaraderie with Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina €" who greeted him personally at the airport €" was there for all to see.

Both prime ministers had discussions in restrictive as well as delegation-level formats, and a joint statement was also released that reflected a gamut of ties and challenges that lie ahead.

During his stay, Modi inaugurated the Bangladesh leg of the Bapu-Bangabandhu digital exhibition, attended the National Day programme, prayed at two temples and also paid tribute at Rahman's mausoleum in Tungipara €" the first foreign head of state to do so €" where he was joined by Bangladesh prime minister Hasina and her sister Sheikh Rehana.

These are deeply symbolic events for two nations joined at the hip who share an indelible bond steeped in blood, history, identity, culture and language. The forced division of a civilisational landmass into adversarial nation-states leading to the birth of Bangladesh in 1971 and India's pivotal role in that event is etched in the collective memory of both nations and guide their behaviour. Modi stressed on this unique bond and evoked the shared history during his speech at the Bangladesh National Day programme on 29 March.

"Friends, I remember, today the millions of sons and daughters of Bangladesh who have endured countless atrocities for their country, their language, their culture, who sacrificed their blood and put their lives at stake. Today, I remember the valiants of Muktijuddho€¦ Today, I also salute the brave soldiers of the Indian Army who stood with their Bangladeshi brothers and sisters in Muktijuddho. Those who gave their blood in Muktijuddho, sacrificed themselves, and played a significant role in realising the dream of independent Bangladesh."

Bangladesh was the victim of one of the most brutal genocides known to man and carried out by the occupying army of Pakistan €" a chapter that lies forgotten in history simply because Islamabad was on the right side of the Cold War. Between 25 March, 1971, and 16 December, 1971, Pakistan's military junta under the tyrannic General Yaha Khan, aided by local facilitators, killed three million unarmed civilians, raped more than a quarter-million women, ravaged and plundered Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) and forced nearly 10 million people to leave their country and become refugees in India.

In the ensuing war of liberation, Indian soldiers fought shoulder to shoulder with Bangladesh's Mukti Bahini.

The past provides the basis for the future of both the nations to be inextricably linked together, and Modi and Hasina have shown that they understand the enormity of the task at hand in taking advantage of history and geography to stitch an integrated future for mutual prosperity and regional development. The past alone, however, cannot be the sole driver of ties. If a bilateral relationship has now moved to a higher level, the fulcrum of this closeness lies in a unique dovetailing of interests.

Bangladesh is pivotal to India's Act East policy and lies at the heart of India's economic and strategic interests. Dhaka's economic prosperity, improvement in key metrics of human development political and policy stability and its shift away from fundamentalism towards a secular outlook present India with the opportunity to focus on its own developmental priorities as well as drive New Delhi's push for geo-economic integration of the Bay of Bengal region. It also presents India with a chance to better exploit the shared maritime space and geography.

As SD Pradhan, former chairman of India's Joint Intelligence Committee writes in Times of India, "the success of India's Act East policy, development of North East, economic integration with the South East region, progress of Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) as also Mekong-Ganga Cooperation, peace and security in the East of India are linked to our ties with Bangladesh."

The size and scale of India's rapidly growing economy that may become the third largest in the world by 2030 presents Dhaka an opportunity to hitch its economy to a larger engine, seek global integration and drive its own socio-economic development.

Mustafizur Rahman, a fellow at Bangladeshi think tank Center for Policy Dialogue, writes in that "Bangladesh strongly feels that by leveraging closer ties with India €" a rising powerhouse and driving force of the 21st century that is being touted as the "Asian century" €" it will be able to ensure strengthened regional and global integration of her economy" and "deepening of ties with India is perceived to be a critically important cornerstone of this strategy."

From cooperation in the power and energy sector, infrastructure building, development of shared resources, collaboration in technology, defence to upgradation of trade, commerce, transport, multi-modal connectivity, incentives for cross-border investments, and nourishing of culture and people-to-people ties, bilateral ties have seen multi-dimensional progress. This is the result of a gradual policy shift by both sides to reimagine ties as an economically congruent regional space aided by trade and connectivity.

As professor Harsh V Pant of King's College, London, writes in Hindustan Times, "Dhaka's centrality to India's regional outlook is key not only for India realising its own interests but also for larger regional imperatives. If India is becoming more ambitious in defining its priorities in the eastern frontier, Bangladesh is more confident than ever in leveraging these opportunities to its advantages."

Despite the historical legacy and shared interests, however, this shift wouldn't have been possible, if ties had remained plagued by lack of trust. Here, the decision of the Modi government to settle the land boundary with Bangladesh by concluding the long-pending Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) in 2015 despite domestic political pressure has been crucial. In accord with the LBA, both nations facilitated the transfer of 111 enclaves with India giving up 17,000 acres and gaining 7000 acres in return.

Similarly, India settled the maritime dispute with Bangladesh by accepting the verdict of a UN tribunal (Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague) that had in 2014 ruled in Bangladesh's favour. Also worth mentioning here is the move by the Sheikh Hasina government to shut down anti-India terror camps and hand over nearly two dozen of India's "most wanted" terrorists.

Consequently, Bangladesh became the only neighbour with whom India has resolved its land and maritime disputes, and the importance of this issue cannot be overstated. The trust and goodwill that these steps generated made the transformative turn possible in bilateral ties. Modi's visit, therefore, was to take stock of the current progress and lay a marker for the next stage of transformation in ties. Modi and Hasina both have a keen sense of history and a clear-eyed vision for the future.

It wasn't surprising, therefore, to note the ambitious framework within which they are attempting to set the ties. The Indian prime minister laid out his vision in an op-ed for the Bangladeshi newspaper Daily Star. He invoked the spirit of Bangabandhu, called him "one of the greatest statesmen of our times" and posed a rhetorical question, "what could our subcontinent have looked like, had this modern-day giant not been assassinated?"

Modi proceeded to provide the answer: "shonali adhyay" (golden chapter) for the region. In the next few lines, the prime minister gives an outline of the shonali adhyay that he envisages, built on "a closely integrated economic region, with deeply interlinked value-chains", "inter-governmental structures to maximise the economic, scientific and strategic benefits", joint mechanisms to "share meteorological, maritime and geological data", joining the "maritime capacities €" from fisheries to offshore mineral resource exploration€"to propel rapid economic growth in and around the Bay of Bengal", developing a "vast multimodal connectivity network" that could be "seamlessly integrated and coordinated through a Bay of Bengal transportation and logistics council".

Modi imagines a "scenario wherein our people could study, work, and do business effortlessly across this subcontinent €" the world's largest pool of young people joining their energies to create wealth, innovation and drive new technologies".

Modi declared that this future is within "our grasp", and the joint statement that was released post his meeting with Bangladesh prime minister Hasina fleshes out crucial components of this vision. In a push for sub-regional cooperation, Bangladesh has sought additional road and rail connectivity to Nepal and Bhutan to reduce the distance and cost of transportation of goods. Dhaka also sought rail connectivity with Bhutan through the newly inaugurated Chilahati-Haldibari route.

India, in turn, has sought connectivity between Guwahati and Chattogram and from Mahendraganj in Meghalaya to Hili in West Bengal. India, having pushed BIMSTEC as the basis for regional outreach, should consider Dhaka's request favourably. It would act as a force-multiplier in boosting regional trade and commerce and make it difficult for China to cash in on the gaps in ties.

Significantly, both leaders agreed to an "early operationalisation of the BBIN Motor Vehicles Agreement through the expeditious signing of the Enabling MoU for Bangladesh, India, and Nepal to commence the movement of goods and passengers, with provision for Bhutan to join at a later date", pointed out the joint statement.

In a subsequent news conference, India's foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla spoke of "a very active collaboration and cooperation among India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan" and facilitation of "Bangladeshi exports to both these countries via India".

The focus on multi-modal connectivity as a key facilitator of economic integration was evident as the pre-1965 rail linkages have been restored and Bangladesh has "reiterated its eagerness to partner in the ongoing initiative of the India €" Myanmar €" Thailand trilateral highway project". Announcements were also made on the inauguration of the Mitali Express train that would run on the Dhaka-New Jalpaiguri-Dhaka route through Chilahati-Haldibari rail link and the naming of Shadhinota Shorok that links the historic road between Mujibnagar and Nadia.

The joint statement also focuses on enhancing trade ties and it is encouraging to note that discussions have moved forward on a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA). A conclusion of a free-trade agreement may see a tectonic shift in trade and economic cooperation that right now remains "far below potential."

The joint statement also noted progress in the development of and cooperation in the energy and power sector, including between the private sector, and "both sides took stock of progress in the implementation of the India Bangladesh Friendship Pipeline and unit-1 of the Maitree Super Thermal Power Project and expressed hope that these projects would get commissioned soon".

In the new areas of cooperation in technology transfer in space and satellite research, and in facilitating the aspirations of youth, the joint statement nods towards a collaborative future that will be driven by youth and "cooperation in cutting edge areas of science, artificial intelligence, peaceful uses of nuclear technology, big data and technology-enabled services in health and education".

In this regard, India's decision to donate 1.2 million doses of Covishield vaccine €" that makes Bangladesh the largest recipient by far of COVID-19 vaccine delivered by India €" deserves mention. Also notable was Modi's move to announce 1000 Shuborno Jayanti scholarships for Bangladeshi students for pursuing education in India, and inviting young entrepreneurs from Bangladesh to visit India and present their ideas to venture capitalists.

While the progress in ties needs to be noted and evaluated, the assessment will remain incomplete without an acknowledgement of the challenges. The joint statement talks of water resources cooperation but the biggest issue that plagues bilateral ties €" concluding the interim agreement on water sharing of the Teesta river €" remains mired in political roadblocks. It was interesting to observe India link the Teesta water-sharing agreement with the Feni river pact, and it points to a knot that remains immutable.

According to the joint statement, "the two leaders directed their respective Ministries of Water Resources to work towards an early conclusion of the Framework of Interim Agreement on sharing of waters of six common rivers, namely, Manu, Muhuri, Khowai, Gumti, Dharla and Dudhkumar". However, resolving the dispute over shared resources requires political will, in absence of which bureaucratic efforts are bound to fail.

The Teesta water-sharing pact, under which Dhaka seeks a 50 percent share of Teesta's water for the December-March period, remains unimplemented due to fierce opposition from the West Bengal government. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had refused to accompany India's then-prime minister Manmohan Singh during his visit to Dhaka to conclude the agreement in 2011.

The conclusion of elections in West Bengal may see some forward movement in the contentious issue €" that has remained a key unfinished business for Hasina, especially if Banerjee fails to return to power. The violence that erupted in Dhaka following Modi's visit €" leading to 12 deaths €" also presents another challenge that cannot be left to fester. Critics have blamed India's domestic political discourse, but that is too simplistic. The opportunistic violence organised by Bangladeshi fundamentalist outfit Hefajat-e-Islam, with possible help from Pakistan, has likely been caused by the Hasina government's accommodative stance towards the hardline Islamist organization.

As an editorial in Daily Star points out, "Modi's visit was just the excuse, the chaos was intended for the occasion of Bangladesh's 50 years of independence. This is a wake-up call for the government, the Awami League and Sheikh Hasina, who has long been appeasing them by accepting all their demands, some of them quite outrageous."

However, notwithstanding the challenges, the trajectory of bilateral ties points towards a happy cohabitation of mutual trust and amalgamation of strategic and economic priorities. It is time to cash in.

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