Yashwant Sinha’s brief stop-over in Bangladesh from August 24-25 seems to have been a goodwill visit, given that India’s relation with its other neighbour in the north and west, Pakistan, is very tense. The trip resulted in a few economic concessions by India, though there was no breakthrough on the vexed question of gas exports from Bangladesh to India. But these were more than compensated for by the positive political fallout, which should set at rest fears of Dhaka increasingly turning against India.
One of the main reasons for the growing mistrust between the two countries is Bangladesh’s allegations that several of its nationals have been killed in firings by India’s Border Security Force. India, on its part, has been worried about the growing proximity between Bangladesh and Pakistan, specially since Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party came to power and Islamic fundamentalist forces started to raise their head in Bangladesh.
The trip also resulted in both countries agreeing to further boost bilateral trade and prevent cross-border smuggling. Conceding to a long-standing Bangladesh demand, Sinha agreed to allow duty free access to 40 Bangladeshi commodities to narrow the trade deficit between the two countries. Bangladesh imports goods worth about $ 1.2 billion from India, but its exports to India amount to $ 50 million only.
Going for the kill
The Indian external affairs minister’s trip got added importance as it came soon after the Pakistan president’s visit to Bangladesh at the end of July. Pervez Musharraf had laid stress on the “common religious and cultural heritage” while favouring closer relations between the two countries.
With a view to blunting Pakistan’s plan to draw Bangladesh into an anti-India front, Sinha declared that India had never sought a “big brother” role in south Asia and that all it wanted was to maintain bilateral relations on the basis of sovereign equality. Interestingly, an influential section of Bangladesh’s ruling elite considers India as the hegemonic superpower in south Asia.
However, Sinha had to face much heckling on the “killings” of Bangladeshi nationals by the BSF. According to Dhaka, at least 112 Bangladeshi civilians were killed in BSF firings during last year. India, however, puts the figure at 50. While assuring his hosts that he would do all he could to put a stop to the killings, Sinha made the counter-claim that 15-20 Indians had also been killed by the Bangladesh Rifles since last January.
Bangladesh and India agreeing to tighten border security marks a significant improvement in bilateral ties. In West Bengal, senior police officials apprehend that the Inter-Services Intelligence is active in Bangladesh, recruiting and training its nationals for espionage work in India. Officials in Calcutta hope Sinha’s visit will put a stop to infiltration by ISI agents through the porous Bangladesh border.
One positive result has been the Bangladesh government’s agreeing to start the Dhaka-Agartala bus service soon, in addition to the Dhaka-Calcutta bus service in operation since June 1999. This would help the people of Tripura reach Calcutta by the land route, instead of taking the more expensive air route. On the economic front, Bangladeshi imports of jute products and electrical goods are expected to flood Indian markets following a decision to allow duty free access to 40 items.
Also, the much-hoped for gas exports of Bangladeshi gas to India may not materialize in the immediate future. Two expert committees set up by Zia have said that the growing domestic demand does not make exports feasible. Limited exports may be allowed, they have opined, only if new gas deposits are discovered and domestic demand plateaus.
In sum, Sinha’s visit may not have resulted in too many concrete gains for India, but at least it helped to clear the air between the two neighbours.