When Khaleda Zia took over as Bangladesh’s prime minister late last year, heading a coalition of fundamentalist outfits known for their “anti-India” stance, it was predicted that relations between India and Bangladesh might suffer. The porous, poorly-manned border between the two nations has always been a contentious issue, but what sent relations crashing to a new low this time were the remarks of senior Indian ministers.
According to Yashwant Sinha, Bangladesh now poses a greater threat because of al Qaida’s presence there and the Inter-Services Intelligence’s promotion of anti-India activities from bases in Bangladesh. The presence of militant camps across the border is no secret, but India’s vociferous allegations were fuelled more by reports in the Western media of Bangladesh being the latest hotbed of global terrorism.
But the timing of the allegations — coinciding with the visit of the former Bangladesh prime minister and long-time ally, Hasina Wajed, to India — could not have been more inauspicious. Also, given its strained relations with Pakistan, would it be wise to disrupt relations with its eastern neighbour too' On the other hand, India’s northeastern states have always grudged the Centre’s passivity in relations with Bangladesh.
No meeting ground
But few efforts to bring India-Bangladesh relations on an even keel have been made by Khaleda Zia’s government. For example, the agreement on river transit and trade expired on October 3 and no initiative was taken to renew it. The Bangladeshi media blames India for the “delay” in such processes.
The joint working groups of the two countries, which worked on land boundaries, the cause of border clashes, submitted its report to the respective foreign secretaries last June. So far there has only been talk of setting up a joint coordination committee to manage border problems.
The ruling coalition in Bangladesh is also committed to reviewing the Ganga water-sharing treaty, signed by the previous Awami League government. But the joint rivers commission did not meet last year.
Water has always been a contentious issue between the two countries. Bangladesh has often accused India of withdrawing more than its share of river water, leaving it vulnerable to drought. The West Bengal government also blames dams constructed by Bangladesh near the international border for inundating areas in Cooch Behar and North 24-Parganas.
Trade between the two countries also remains bogged down over the tariffs that Bangladesh wants lifted from 25 categories. Greater efforts could have been made to secure supply of natural gas from Bangladesh. Unocal, the American energy giant that is exploring and producing natural gas, is keen to export gas to western and northern India from Bibiyana, barely 100 kilometres from Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura. This would give a fillip to industries in the region as well as ease power supply in the Northeast.
The success of India’s inland water transport policy also depends on regional co-operation. The Brahmaputra and Barak systems could effectively link Assam with Calcutta via Bangladesh.
Coal exporters in Karimganj in Assam also face tough times, as Bangladesh is close to an agreement with Malaysia for importing coal. However, Dhaka has begun expanding the Chittagong port for trans-shipment of goods to the land-locked northeastern states.
With trade holding out pros-pects for mutual development, it is time for renewed efforts by the governments of the two countries to remove irritants to their relationship. The Bangladesh government needs to closely monitor religious radicals in the country.
A separate department dealing exclusively with border management and a crack border force with greater representation from the local populace are also the need of the hour.