India’s Northeast is far from New Delhi, but it is very close to Dhaka. But politics and diplomacy have long denied the region the benefits that geography could have given it. Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s visit to Agartala could initiate a long- delayed process of bridging the gap between geography and politics between Bangladesh and India’s Northeast. The visit is supposed to mark Dhaka’s official recognition of the contribution that the people of Tripura made to Bangladesh’s liberation war of 1971. Ms Wajed surely has personal reasons for relishing memories of the war, which her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, led. But her visit to Agartala is much more than a matter of historical memory. West Bengal and several states in the Northeast, including Tripura, have long borders with Bangladesh. India’s relations with Bangladesh may depend on the policies made in New Delhi and Dhaka. But the success or failure of these policies depends largely on their impact on the lives of the people in the region closest to Bangladesh. Official strategies on cross-border extremism or smuggling of goods, illegal migration of people or peace on the border are all tested in the states in the region.
However, the significance of Ms Wajed’s visit goes far beyond issues that are of special interest to Tripura. This is her first visit to India since the fiasco over the Teesta agreement during Manmohan Singh’s trip to Dhaka last September. The two countries failed to sign the pact over the sharing of waters of the Teesta river during the Indian prime minister’s visit to Bangladesh because of Mamata Banerjee’s last-minute opposition to it. It was an unprecedented diplomatic failure for New Delhi. But the objections by West Bengal’s chief minister left an important message for New Delhi — the Centre needs to address the concerns of the states whose interests will be affected by international treaties. Agreements and projects between India and Bangladesh must benefit the two nations, but they must first serve the interests of the people living closest to the border. Freeing trade and commerce between the two countries can transform the economies of the Northeast and Bangladesh. But a free passage to markets is the first requisite for free trade. The India-Bangladesh border has long been a barrier to the free flow of trade. The time has come to let the economic argument prevail over petty politics.