Attention has been centred for the past few months on the opposition of the Trinamul Congress and the Asom Gana Parishad to the conclusion of the land boundary and the river Teesta sharing agreements with Bangladesh. These two setbacks in relations between India and Bangladesh are estimated to have weakened the position of the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, before Bangladesh goes to the polls around the end of this year and, therefore, to have gravely damaged India’s short- and long-term national and security interests. Hasina’s political party, the Awami League, is being derided by its opponents for its alleged dependence on, and ‘selling out’ to, an unreliable and capricious India that asks too much and gives too little in return.
Yet, despite the acute embarrassment caused to the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, during his visit to Bangladesh in September 2011, when the chief minister of West Bengal declined to be a member of his party and declared her opposition to the Teesta agreement that had already been initiated between the two governments and was due to be signed with some fanfare during the prime minister’s visit, it has to be noted that countless official and unofficial ministerial visits have been exchanged between India and Bangladesh since Manmohan Singh’s ill-starred visit. The president of India was warmly welcomed in March this year in Dhaka on his first visit abroad, and Hasina may visit New Delhi soon for the second time after her highly successful state visit in January 2010. Such a flurry of bilateral activity would seem to suggest that, far from being dire and in deep-freeze, relations between the two neighbours have developed considerable substance over the past three years despite the impediments posed by political formations in two of the Indian states bordering Bangladesh.
Contrary to the voluble denunciations of Hasina by her opponents, who have launched a series of hartals and various other measures, sometimes violent, of civil disobedience, there is much to record on the credit side of the bilateral balance sheet that is worthy of close attention. Bangladesh has doubtless rendered outstanding service to India in security, anti-insurgency and anti-terrorism cooperation. This has expended a considerable degree of political capital on the part of Hasina’s government, and it must readily be acknowledged that it has led directly to a much improved security situation in India as a whole, and a marked betterment in the containment of the insurgency and terror threat in the whole of the North-east. The Awami League has permitted transshipment over Bangladesh territory of over-sized cargo for the Palatana power project in Tripura. This has enabled that state to fulfill its great promise in the generation of power to the Northeast and beyond. Dhaka has also showed a far greater openness than ever before to cultural, academic and intellectual exchanges, not least in the joint celebrations of the Tagore and Nazrul anniversaries.
The Indian government has reciprocated these steps by various initiatives, which can be considered exceptional in its recent dealings with any country in the sub- continent. Permission has been given for Bangladesh to open a deputy high commission office in Mumbai. The biggest single line of credit to any country, of $800 million, was extended to Bangladesh, the interest rate reduced to 1 per cent and the indigenous content lowered when required. This money is to be used for transport material for road, rail and infrastructure projects.
In addition, there has been a grant of $200 million, of which half will be used for the Padma bridge project. Two thousand five hundred shelters and 2,800 solar lanterns for cyclone victims have been delivered. Duty-free quota-free access to 46 readymade garments lines was given during Manmohan Singh’s visit. Two months later, a similar concession was made to all Bangladesh’s export items other than 25 that have been prohibited, which include alcohol and tobacco. This has effectively opened India’s market to Bangladesh, and has resulted in a record increase in that country’s exports in 2012-13 to $550 million.
Border markets have been opened in Meghalaya, with an agreement for four in Tripura and 22 more in Meghalaya. The first-ever trilateral group on sub-regional cooperation in power, water and connectivity between India, Bangladesh and Bhutan has met last April. Movement of Bhutanese and Nepali trucks across India to Bangladesh has been allowed. Rail transit between Bangladesh and Nepal has also been sanctioned. The regime for visas and travel between India and Bangladesh has been liberalized, with visas up to five years being permitted for businessmen, and the two-month gap between tourist visits being dispensed with. Twenty-four-hour access to Bangladesh’s enclaves of Dahagram and Angarpota and the electrification of those areas have been facilitated. An extradition treaty has been signed this year; it should lead to the long-awaited rendition of the Ulfa leader, Anup Chetia, who has been absconding from justice for decades in Bangladesh. The construction of a transmission line and high-voltage direct-current station to connect the electric grid between India and Bangladesh has been completed, and India has agreed to supply 500 MW to Bangladesh with half being supplied at low cost. There is also a joint venture for a 1,320 MW coal-based power plant to be established in Khulna.
It is, therefore, necessary to see the inordinate delays and mutual frustrations of the Teesta agreement and the land border ratification in the overall context. Although the Teesta agreement is not concluded, the river’s customary flows have not been impeded by upstream diversion. The border incidents of excessive force by the Border Security Force have greatly been reduced through self-restraint imposed on the Indian side. The Tipaimukh multi-purpose dam project is still periodically raised with high emotion by the Bangladeshi media and Opposition, but India has shared with Dhaka all the studies and data as reassurance, and offered it a stake in the project.
The political, cultural, social, security and trade relations between India and Bangladesh have been intricately enmeshed, leading to heightened hopes for greater regional cooperation. In most respects, bilateral ties have achieved an intensity not known since the heady days of 1972 immediately after Bangladesh’s independence. Given the intimacy of the relationship, and the complications and complexes that result therefrom, there are inevitably unreasonable expectations and grievances on both sides. Bangladesh has become accustomed to the role of demandeur; for its part, India expects access to Chittagong and Mongla ports that has been denied due to non-delivery of the promised Teesta and boundary accords.
The Feni water-sharing agreement suffers the same fate. Bangladeshi port restrictions restrict imports from India to specified goods, and items like yarn, fish and milk powder are not permitted through most land routes. India is also awaiting clearance for telecom connectivity through optical fibre cable via Cox’s Bazar and Akhaura. Both India and Bangladesh blame the obduracy and lethargy of each other’s bureaucracy, and with good reason.
Both the governments in New Delhi and Dhaka have serious domestic problems. In Dhaka, general elections must be held by January 25, 2014, and Hasina is facing the unwelcome prospect of a boycott by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the main Opposition group, because she has done away with the non-party caretaker system to supervise the polls. Nothing, so far, suggests that there could be an understanding between the two parties, though foreign countries are hard at work to find some compromise formula. More important than the non-receivables in the very broad agenda with India, Hasina needs to lament that she did not inspire constructive youthful aspirations when half the population is under 24, did not empower women who yearn for more technical skills, and was seen as more interested in retributive justice for the assassins of the Liberation War and Mujibur Rahman’s family than in initiating any reconciliation process in her country’s fractured society.