GP Insights # 491, 28 March 2021
On 26 March, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his first bilateral visit since the pandemic, met his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka. The visit was to mark the 50th anniversary of the bilateral relationship between the two countries, which coincides with the 100th year birthday celebration of 'Bangabandhu' Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Five MoU's were signed in connectivity, energy, trade, health, and developmental cooperation. As a humanitarian gesture, Modi gave Hasina a representational key of 109 ambulances and a representational box of India's 1.2 million COVID vaccine doses to Bangladesh. In return, Hasina presented to Modi a gold and a silver coin released on the occasion of the birth centenary of her father. She also presented a silver coin released on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh's independence. Modi also visited Bangabandhu's grave and became the only leader to do so.
What is the background?
First, India's neighbourhood first policy with Bangladesh as its 'pillar.' In the past 50 years, the relationship with Bangladesh has been a steady core for India's neighbourhood first policy. In 2020, India had sought to reset its neighbourhood policy through vaccine diplomacy, and Bangladesh became the largest recipient of India's coronavirus vaccine (about 9 million vials). Connectivity serves the second area of cooperation between the two, including the inauguration of the Tripura-Chittagong Maitri Setu over river Feni this month and the restoration of the five pre-1965 war rail lines such as the trans-boundary line from Haldibari to Chilahati. The building of ports on Mongla to an intra-riverine network channelizing the Bengal Sunderban delta is also futuristic progress in the bilateral relationship.
Second, India's relation with the Awami league as continuity in partnership. Bangladesh is the biggest trading partner with over three lines of credit totalling 8 billion dollars from India. The relationship has been cemented through several high-level visits, such as in the past year where both the Indian foreign secretary and foreign minister visited Dhaka. In her every visit, Hasina had paid personal trips to late Pranab Mukherjee with Padma hilsa and Rajshahi silk saree for late Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj.
Third, deep irritants irrespective of the bonhomie. In Bangladesh, anti-Modi protests have gained ground over India's passing of citizenship law that could deregister millions who lived in India post-1971 on religious grounds. Provocative comments from Indian ministers and the stranding of the Bangladeshis of Tablighi Jamaat sect during the pandemic in India have cost the trust where many Bangladeshi ministers, including the foreign minister, have ostensibly cancelled visits to India. 2020 also had high border killings, including the lynching of infiltrators or cattle smugglers. India has consistently raised the issue of attacks on the Hindu minorities with Bangladesh. And currently, Modi's prayers at the Jeshoreshwari temple, amid anti-Hindu violence in Sylhet, have added to the constraints giving the relation a religious fervour. Lastly, the failure to sign the Teesta water agreement remains another area of mistrust.
What does it mean?
The 50 years provide the scope for both countries to observe past precedents and set a futuristic tone in the relation. However, the relation has challenges to be wary of. First, treading the intersection of domestic politics in bilateral relation. Modi's current visit to the birthplace of the Hindu Dalit mystic figure of the Matua community could be construed as an unnecessary politicization of a domestic electoral emotive issue while undertaking a diplomatic visit. Setting a dangerous precedent of adding a religious narrative to foreign policy could beget backlash where people-to-people ethnoreligious ties run deep. Second, a spillover in border tension and future deals such as on water, which has been a long-standing dispute between India and Bangladesh.