American military operations in Iraq, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali’s interaction for normalizing relations between India and Pakistan, and the visits of the American deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, and of the assistant secretary of state for south Asian affairs, Christina Rocca, have hogged both media and political attention in terms of India’s external relations. In this pre-occupation, there is a general trend of neglecting India’s relations with other neighbours like Bangla- desh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Myanmar, and others. An indication of this neglect in public perception is the visit by the foreign secretary, Kanwal Sibal, to Dhaka (which took place in the fourth week of April), being more or less ignored both in reportage and analyses.
Sibal’s discussions at Dhaka was the first high-level interaction after a gap of time in a crucial political context. The meetings took place as Vajpayee was commencing his latest initiative on normalization of relations with Pakistan and as mutually critical rhetoric about Bangladesh harbouring Pakistan sponsored terrorists on its territory abated after reaching points of high controversy. Sibal’s visit also took place in the context of Begum Khaleda Zia not having paid a single visit to New Delhi after she came to power this time in October, 2001. Vajpayee has not visited Dhaka at all. It is time to indulge in an over-view of India-Bangladesh relations after more than three decades of Bangladesh emerging as an independent country.
First, the important position which Bangladesh should occupy in our foreign policy scheme, and the reasons for it. Bangladesh is the third most populous country in sub-continental Asia. Strategically, it occupies an important position in the northern segment of the Bay of Bengal and along the coastline from Cox’s Bazar down to the western coastline of Myanmar. It is India’s third largest trading partner with potentialities both as a market and as an area of investment and transfers of technology for mutual benefit. Bangladesh also lies athwart the northeastern states of India and the rest of India.
Its borders with Myanmar, and with Manipur in India, add to Bangladesh’s importance in terms of India’s border security concerns in that region. Bangladesh is an important link in the land and land-based trading routes between south Asia and southeastern countries stretching from Myanmar to Malaysia, including countries of the former Indo-China region. Bangladesh is a repository of natural gas reserves which could contribute to the energy security of India, after fulfilling the needs of Bangladesh. All this, apart from long-standing linguistic, cultural and religious commonalties between the peoples of the two countries transcending their respective national identities or recent history.
These factors, together with the role that India played in supporting the liberation war of Bangladesh, should have resulted in a substantive and positive relationship between the two countries. This has not happened because of some atavistic elemental factors affecting Indo-Bangladesh relations. First, India expected the general conformity pattern of gratitude from Bangladesh for India’s support to that country’s liberation struggle. Second, India, although sensitive to Bangla- desh’s threat perceptions because of being surrounded on three sides by Indian states and the Bay of Bengal dominated by the Indian navy in the south, has not been responsive enough in political and security terms. Third, India has not been as forthcoming in meeting Bangladesh’s economic requirements because of India’s narrower and short-term policy orientations on issues related to trade and transit.
Bangladesh’s deliberately cultivating a closer relationship with Pakistan under successive regimes of the country since 1975-76 has not helped matters. In fact, developments became more complicated with the Pakistani inter-services establishment establishing a foothold for its anti-India activities in Bangladesh nearly a decade and half from the mid-Eighties of the last century onwards. There has been delay in settling pending territorial issues with Bangladesh, like the exchange of border enclaves, which have been pending almost since the time of India’s partition. The demographic pressure on land in Bangladesh has perhaps unavoidably resulted in the illegal migration of Bangladeshis into India. Instead of tackling the problem in human terms, both India and Bangladesh have taken a political and rejectionist stand on this important issue, Bangladesh saying there is no illegal migration and India claiming exactly the opposite and threatening to take punitive action against the phenomenon.
Kanwal Sibal must have broadly touched on all these factors affecting bilateral relations, but the focus must have been on expanding bilateral economic relations, finding ways to expand mutual cooperation against international terrorism and for consolidating regional security, as well as to see the extent to which Bangladesh would be interested in cooperation in the energy sector with India. Geo-strategic and general political benefits of mutual cooperation, ensuring mutual security are too obvious and need no elaboration. It is in the economic and technological fields that India should be more forthcoming and generous while Bangladesh should discard its irrational inhibitions about economic cooperation with India.
The volume of India’s exports to Bangladesh is of the order of $1 billion in terms of formal exchange of goods. If informal trade is included, India’s exports to Bangladesh would be of the order of nearly $3 billion. Bangladesh is the third largest importer of manufactured goods from India. Though Bangladesh’s exports to India have increased over the last 30 years, Bangla- desh has an adverse balance of trade with India. Bangladesh’s trade deficit with India can be economically debilitating with the passage of time.
There are two broad steps which can be taken to remedy this predicament. First, India should extend unilateral free trade treatment to Bangladesh. Not only would this result in the expansion of Bangladesh’s exports to India, but it would also help in reducing the trade gap, and establishing strong and fair links between the economies of Bangladesh and India. A positive political fall-out of India playing a role in contributing to Bangladesh’s economic strength and development is obvious. Although India has extended tariff concessions to Bangladesh off and on, this has been done piece-meal and in an inhibited manner which has only generated misunderstanding and apprehensions in Bangladesh. The Indian government’s approach of allowing transit facilities through India to Bangladesh has been conditional to Bangladesh giving reciprocal facilities to India through its territories in India’s northeastern states. Though this is a fair demand, perhaps India could extend these concessions first, to which Bangladesh could respond later after assessing the benefits of a mutually trustworthy economic relationship.
If Bangladesh gives up its political inhibitions and decides to export its surplus natural gas to India it would be a major step benefiting Bangladesh and qualitatively reducing its adverse balance of trade position with India. Although India does not have any intention of making a demand on this subject or imposing on Bangladesh, Bangladesh would be the loser if it does not take an early positive decision in the matter. India is discovering new oil and natural gas reserves on land and its coastal seas. Multilateral financial institutions like the Asian Development Bank are exploring oil and natural gas projects in central Asia and west Asia, targeting the Indian import market. India itself is investing in its energy security in countries as far away as Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation on the one hand and to Sudan on the other. It is for Bangladesh to objectively calculate the implications of India moving away to alternate sources of energy. If this happens, Bangladesh would be sitting on an asset which it would not be able to use as effectively as it can (if it does not move into the Indian market).
The problems of illegal migration and Pakistan-sponsored terrorist bases in Bangladesh need to be addressed through a rational and cooperative approach. Options regarding both these problems are available and have been widely discussed. It is time that governments of the two countries translate positive options into operation. One hopes Sibal’s visit to Dhaka might have made a beginning in this direction.