Ties with Dhaka are priority for Delhi

Experts recommended improvements in Teesta water-sharing agreement and India’s cooperation in resolving the Rohingya issue

High Commissioner of India to Bangladesh Vikram Doraiswami has reassured that India continues to prioritise the friendship with Bangladesh in different aspects, and Bangladesh comes first when it comes to the country’s neighbourhood first policy.

Both countries are in a position today that is unique, and the relationship is better than it has ever been, he said adding that: “And I think leadership on both sides have sort of publicly acknowledged the importance of doing more, and we are committed to doing.”

Highlighting a few commitments that came into reality between two countries, including enclave exchange, cross-border communication connectivity, and opening of more border points for trade, he said the relationships between India and Bangladesh have improved significantly over the time, but actual fulfilment of opportunity is not happening and it is not just for the government to do this.

The High Commissioner Vikram Doraiswami made the remarks at a round roundtable discussion on Bangladesh-India relations jointly organized by leading English daily Dhaka Tribune and the Central Foundation for International and Strategic Studies (CFISS) at a Dhaka hotel on Tuesday. The roundtable is part of a series of discussions on important national and international issues.

Vikram Doraiswami

CFISS’s Chairman and founder Commodore Mohammed Nurul Absar and Dhaka Tribune Editor Zafar Sobhan moderated the roundtable that was attended by academia, local and foreign diplomats, former and serving government officials, and journalists.

Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI) President M Humayun Kabir, and Prothom Alo Head of English Web Ayesha Kabir addressed the roundtable as panellists.

The High Commissioner Vikram Doraiswami said: “It is for civil society, for the media for opinion makers, to make the extra effort to actually realise the commitment of the India-Bangladesh relations. When you do that, and when people do benefit from the relationship, that's when negativity reduces.”

“There is a need for the existing Think Tank universe, the existing socio-cultural universe, to actually work together to increase the number of people who are writing for each other's television, read each other's newspapers, for television stations to get more talking heads on board,” he adds.

He suggested that the countries need to try and make the relationships far more effective in terms of enhancing interconnections through connecting everything between the two countries like economics, investment, people movement and the capacity to exchange cultural products.

Speaker M Humayun Kabir

CFISS’s Chairman and founder Commodore Mohammed Nurul Absar said: “Bangladesh’s relationship with big powers has never been based on a zero-sum calculation, However, the country’s relationship with others has never been at the cost or detriment of one another.”

He added that there are two areas where Bangladesh and India need to give extra attention: the Teesta water sharing agreement and India’s cooperation in resolving the Rohingya issue.

Panelist BEI President M Humayun Kabir, also a former ambassador and secretary for the Bangladesh government, stressed the need for more regional cooperation, especially within Saarc.

“We are not seeing as many examples of regional cooperation as we used to. We have to think about the region as well,” he said.

Speaker Ayesha Kabir

Prothom Alo Head of English Web Ayesha Kabir said: “ The media has a huge role to play with regard to the relationship between Bangladesh and India.”

Agreeing with Ayesha Kabir, Dhaka Tribune Editor Zafar Sobhan said there is a prevailing trend of anti-Indian sentiment among Bangladeshis and anti-Bangladeshi sentiment among Indians.

“We need to open our eyes to recognize and acknowledge the activity that exists on both sides of the border. We need confidence-building measures on both sides,” he said.

“The more Bangladeshis that get to India, the more Indians get accommodation, the better our relations are going to be. However many Bangladeshis study in India today, whatever the number is, it should be doubled or tripled. The same goes for medical tourism and business. Whatever we can do to allow ties across the board to be deepened is really what is needed,” said the Dhaka Tribune editor.

Speaker Zafar Sobhan

On the extension of trade between Bangladesh and India, the high commissioner mentioned that India has had duty-free, quota-free access to almost all Bangladeshi products for the last 11 years. “However trade still isn’t working because the cost of doing business from Bangladesh to India is too high.”

Regarding illegal movement across the border and illicit economic activity, he said the people in borders used to live in an integrated economic community that has been separated by water that has run through villages, communities, fields, etc. “So obviously, these are people who've been disadvantaged.. this is a collective fault on both sides if you've done nothing to ensure their economic upliftment. We need to be able to take people away from the border taking away from these activities, and it needs a joint effort on both sides,” he said.

On the topic of Teesta water sharing, Doraiswami said the Indian government had repeatedly expressed its willingness to move forward with the treaty.

Mohammed Nurul Absar

“We are ready to move forward with the treaty, but you have to understand the constitutional limits of power in India. River water is a sensitive subject in our states and, unfortunately, we have to take the concerns of our states on board,” he added.

Regarding cooperation within Saarc, Doraiswami said: “We certainly do want regionalism, but there is one country that has vetoed everything that we wanted to do, including connectivity with them. For greater regional cooperation, all countries have to be onboard.”