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The trajectory of Indo-Bangla relations

  • Published at 12:05 am October 6th, 2019
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Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina with her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India on Saturday, October 5, 2019 Focus Bangla

What to expect from the PM’s latest visit

The renewal of the BJP government in Delhi for another term isn’t something very pleasant for Bangladesh -- uncertainty about the consequence of NRC in Assam, little Indian support on the Rohingya issue, persecution of Muslims in India, oppression of Kashmiris, and more.

The secular Awami League government ideally would prefer a proper secular dispensation in Delhi. However, the Bangladesh government understands the geo-political reality, and has learned to work with Prime Minister Modi’s right-wing government.

The first Modi government paid due attention to some India-Bangladesh issues and resolved the lingering border enclave matter, and allowed a good number of Bangladeshi products in the Indian market.

Bangladesh, in return, allowed limited waterway-road transit to India through central Bangladesh to connect West Bengal and Tripura through the shortest possible route to enable them to avoid the long detour through the northern Shiliguri corridor.

Also, Bangladesh kept cooperating with India by taking special care that its territory isn’t any way used by India’s northeastern rebels. In regional and international forums, Bangladesh was supportive of India in ways when it came to India-Pakistan issues.

In fact, Bangladesh’s good relations with India and support for the latter have helped India ward off, to some extent, the notion that India is disliked in South Asia by its neighbours due to its big-brotherly behaviour.

It is also important for Bangladesh to resume the already reasonably good tie with its big neighbour after the re-election of the incumbent and try resolving the other bilateral issue with the latter.

The people of Bangladesh are generally a bit suspicious about India, and give and takes with tangible benefits would actually help to mend this traditional doubt. Hence, the ongoing trip of Bangladeshi PM to India bears significance.

Indeed, there are areas where further progress is required. Although Indians are gradually opening up their markets for Bangladeshi products, draconian bureaucratic requirements are making the gesture fail.

One such thing is irrational standard requirements for goods exported to India -- to make their gesture real, Indians need to be reasonable about that.

The water sharing issue of more common rivers including Teesta has got bogged down in the conflict between Delhi and the West Bengal state government of populist Mamata Banerjee.

On one hand, water sharing of international rivers is a subject of the centre, on the other Delhi keeps telling Bangladesh that it has to move in the spirit of federalism and take Kolkata on board before making a decision on water.

Mamata, on the other hand, says she needs central compensation in terms of investment in water preservation before she agrees to release due share of Bangladesh’s water. This has been going on for years now.

It’s time for Modi to act and solve the issue. There are options, and which one he takes is India’s internal matter. There is no point dragging Bangladesh into India’s internal spirit of the federalism debate.

Bangladesh’s overcautious approach to India’s full transit and seaport use request isn’t helpful either. India has been forced to seek the difficult alternative of using the Sittwe port of Rakhine of Myanmar for the Indian northeast.

The Indian northeast is attached to India via a narrow northern passage. Goods and road passengers had to take a big detour to reach those places from West Bengal, central, western, and southern India.

It is a natural need of India to get a passage through Bangladesh. The Bangladesh government should prepare the public with proper information about offering full transit and seaport facilities to India in a win-win deal.

Indians can invest a bit in the road infrastructure and post facilities of Bangladesh and pay some fair transit and maintenance fees. Also, in return Bangladesh should expect wider support from India, especially on the Rohingya issue.

When the mistrust is taken out of the equation, Bangladesh is more of a natural ally of India than Myanmar, which is way closer to India’s rival China.

Bangladesh should be careful, though, about the use of India’s line of credit for purchasing its military armaments. There are a few reasons for that.

If Bangladesh, a country surrounded by India, becomes militarily dependent on Delhi, then what happens if there is an anti-Bangladesh right-wing government in Delhi in the future? Political changes in India in recent decades have been big and multifarious.

Is Bangladesh guaranteed the supplies of more such armaments when it becomes dependent on those in the time of its dire need, for example a conflict situation with Myanmar?

Isn’t it better for Bangladesh to be depending on, for military supplies, countries like Turkey and Russia, which are not directly linked to this region, sub-region, or trans-region?

Even too much dependence on China has become something to worry about.

Decisions on these matters require careful considerations of Bangladesh’s part.

Although India has described relations with Bangladesh as a “high priority,” there is no high expectation from our PM’s visit to India this time around. But reasonable progress would mean things are moving in the right direction. 

Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury is a freelance contributor.