The Assam factor

Both Bangladesh and Assam can reap the benefits from strengthening trade and connectivity ties and take India-Bangladesh relations to greater heights

On November 19, 2022, a 55-member parliamentary delegation of Assam arrived in Bangladesh on a four-day visit; Assam Legislative Assembly Speaker Biswajit Daimary led the group. The visit aimed to improve trade and connectivity between Bangladesh and the northeastern states of India. Bangladesh welcomed the delegation team with warm hospitality. 

This visit enhanced the "Assam Factor" of India-Bangladesh relations. In parallel, Assam's chief minister again lauded Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for showing zero tolerance against terrorism and extremism. These two gestures again indicated the consolidated India-Bangladesh relations. These incidents have significant implications for both Bangladesh and India as it is an inevitable fact that Assam is a key factor in India-Bangladesh relations.

Assam-Bangladesh relations

Chicken's Neck or Siliguri Corridor is of great importance; this narrow corridor separates the whole northeastern region from the Indian mainland. Agartala is 1,650km from Kolkata and 2,637km from New Delhi through Shillong and Guwahati; the journey between Agartala and Kolkata via Bangladesh, on the other hand, is only about 550km. Furthermore, the average distance between Bangladesh's major cities and northeast India is about 300km. 

As a result, Bangladesh is always considered crucial for the region's connectivity with mainland India by rail, road, and river routes. 

So, the bilateral ties and engagements between India and Bangladesh help in exploring many new windows of possibilities for Assam, ranging from trade and commerce to culture and tourism. 

Through the frequent visit of both Assamese and Bangladeshi delegates, attempts need to be made to streamline the policies that will help realize this potential to its fullest. 

Does Assam need Bangladesh?

Bangladesh forms a key triangle around Assam along with Bhutan and Myanmar. Because of its strategic location, there are several opportunities for trade, transportation, commerce, and connection between Bangladesh and Assam. 

Moreover, Bangladesh is India's bridge to Southeast Asia. Bangladesh is a natural pillar of the Act East policy. It can act as a “bridge” to economic and political linkages with Southeast Asia and beyond. 

Bangladesh is also an important part of the regional cooperation forum (ie BBIN, BIMSTEC).  Bangladesh has many potential ways to increase commerce with Assam and subsequently open up access to the Asean nations because both India and Bangladesh have made progress in establishing connectivity through roads and railways. At present, Bangladesh also permits India to transfer commodities between different parts of India by using the Chittagong and Mongla ports, which lowers the cost and speed of shipping.

India's policies concerning Bangladesh have also been shaped by its domestic political dynamics and the necessities of the bordering states. Issues in Assam have been a key factor in this regard. It is Bangladesh that paved the way to build a peaceful northeast India. The strong actions taken by the Bangladesh government since 2009, when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina came to power, against anti-India forces and to also send the militants back to Assam fostered a positive bilateral relationship based on strong cultural ties, and has enhanced economic cooperation. 

Assam is benefitting from that. Bangladesh has played a vital role in curbing terrorism in the region. Bangladesh's handing over ULFA militants to India has freed Assam from separatism and extremism.  Bangladesh has also been very assertive in dismantling the presence of such groups in Bangladesh. This is why the chief minister of Assam lauded Bangladesh for this again and again.

How can Bangladesh utilize the Assam factor?

As Assam is nearly detached from the Indian mainland and Bangladesh has the shortest possible route to bridge them, both Bangladesh and Assam can reap the benefits from strengthening trade and connectivity ties. There is a lot of potential in the sector of border trade, tourism, connectivity, people-to-people contact, and cultural diplomacy between Assam and Bangladesh. 

The chief minister of Assam, Hemant Biswa Sarma, a prominent leader of the ruling party BJP can contribute a lot to resolving some issues between India and Bangladesh.  The CM of Assam can make the Indian central government understand and urge to stop border killings along the India-Bangladesh border and support Bangladesh in case of the Rohingya repatriation process. Following the visit of the parliamentary delegation from Assam, if Hemant Biswa Sarma pays a visit to Bangladesh, it will provide an impetus to the para diplomacy between Bangladesh and Assam.

Bangladesh and India are more than next-door neighbours; there is a warm, deep, and diverse relationship that dates back over 50 years, and Assam is also a partner in this relationship. Given the size, population, and location, Assam's participation in trade and commerce with Bangladesh is important for the Indian government. 

A reciprocal relationship with Bangladesh might transform Assam from a landlocked region to a land-linked region. And through reciprocity, India-Bangladesh relations will reach a new height.

Samara Ashrat is a freelance contributor.