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CWA # 45, 24 July 2018

India External
India and Bangladesh: The Long Haul

  Apoorva Sudhakar

In April 2017, twenty-two pacts were signed between the two countries covering areas of nuclear energy, defence, cybersecurity etc. This marked the beginning of new innings in the neighbourhood.

Apoorva Sudhakar a Research Scholar at the Department of International Studies, Stella Maris College, Chennai.

India’s relations with Bangladesh over the past few years have been predominantly cordial. On a recent note, the much disputed Teesta Agreement appears to have finally found a ground for settlement. Subsequently, the scope for connectivity and trade seems to be expanding.

What has led to this transition of relations between the two neighbours? With a lot of factors in play including the Rohingya crisis, the economic dimension etc, how should we understand the New Delhi-Dhaka relations?

 

Contemporary Concerns: Water Sharing, Elections, Security and Rohingya Issues

Since 2015, a number of visits, by the Prime Ministers and other ministers, have taken place to and fro. The visits have not been fruitless. A number of significant advancements have taken place between Dhaka and New Delhi.

In April 2017, twenty-two pacts were signed between the two countries covering areas of nuclear energy, defence, cybersecurity etc. This marked the beginning of new innings in the neighbourhood. The earlier snag in the India-Bangladesh relations had conceded to reconciliatory measures.

For example, the Teesta river sharing issue, a topic of negotiation from as early as 1983, reached a point of dissent in 2011;  showed a completely different phase in 2018. The Teesta Agreement seems to have found a conclusion and leaders of both States agree that the issue should not matter in the relations of both countries.

Another common concern for both the countries is security. A large number of militant and terrorist group operate in the two countries. One way to address this issue is through joining hands and combating terrorism together, therefore, both countries are collaborating in forming counter-terrorism outfits. The Bangladeshi administration pledged to keep India safe from attacks from its side. Quoting Hossain Toufique Imam, Political Advisor to PM Hasina, “We will not allow Bangladeshi territory to be used by any militants or any party to launch activities against others, notably against India. It's not only our security but we are conscious of India's security as well.”

One of India’s main concerns is the upcoming elections in Bangladesh. The strongest opposition to the Awami League comes from the BNP though it does not have representation in the Parliament in this term (resulting from the BNP’s boycott of elections in 2014). However, the BNP, supposedly a pro- Pakistan party has the intention to participate in the elections this year. Their participation might turn the tables unfavourably for India. The region waits until the elections are completed to check for any possible turn of events.

Security issues also relate to the influx of the Rohingya refugees, to which India appeared to have no stance. On humanitarian grounds, Bangladesh has been sheltering Rohingya refugees since the 1980s, but lately, the number of refugees has reached a point where Bangladesh can take no more, to ensure the safety of its own citizens and resources. India has been provided aid to the Rohingyas in Bangladesh. In a visit to Bangladesh in July 2018, Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh emphasised on a statement previously made (in May 2018) by India’s External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, that India is committed to safe and sustainable return of the refugees. India is, at the moment, working on a project to construct houses in the Rakhine state to meet the needs of displaced people.

India sees Bangladesh as a measure of her own security. If the BNP returns to power, it can create security problems for India. To explain this statement, the number of cross-border terrorist/militant attacks from Bangladesh was high during the period of the BNP government. It is, therefore, important for India that the Awami League, which has all the pro-India sentiments, stays in power.

 

The India-Bangladesh-China Triangle

India and China are competing in terms of investment and infrastructure development in Bangladesh. Both have been pumping in money in Dhaka to maintain position in Bangladesh’s foreign relations. So far, remittances and informal trade indicate India’s influence in the country more than China.

Though the influence of China is not dominant, it did supply military equipment to Bangladesh recently, and India was in a tight spot regarding this move. Besides, Beijing dominates the bilateral trading relations with Dhaka. China is pushing for deeper influence in the country while India is apprehensive about this.

The above apprehensions may have pushed India to convince her WB Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee to cooperate on the Teesta issues which had been stalled by her in 2011. The attempt to contradict the Chinese influence might be the reason for India’s increased aid to Bangladesh for the Rohingyas.

With all this in play, will the Bangladesh election turn out to be the game-changer for this Triangle?

 

A strong partnership

For nearly a decade, the relations between the two neighbours have improved over time. Though there have been disputes and misunderstandings, they are being addressed. It is necessary that countries, in a region like South Asia where there is a haven of armed groups, recognise the need for cooperation, especially on bilateral terms. Dhaka and New Delhi have recognised the vulnerabilities of countries, the causal factors including large common boundaries, land as well maritime, common resources etc, leading to the disputes, and addressed them accordingly.

The recent developments in the relations between the two countries have increased prospects for regional stability. India and Bangladesh have set up examples for other South Asian to come to the table and resolve the differences. As Hossain Toufique Imam said, “Problems can only be sorted out through discussions and mutual help. We are taking the problems one by one and trying to solve them.” (DNA) There is a requisite for South Asian countries to recognise this and bring in regional cooperation.

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