While India’s relationship with its western neighbor Pakistan has been faltering despite concerted efforts, on the eastern front a new bonhomie is forming with Bangladesh.
The recent signing of a new extradition treaty and visa regime between India and Bangladesh, signed by Indian home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde and his Bangladeshi counterpart Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir, marks a major shift in their relationship. India has long demanded an extradition treaty with Bangladesh, which was not forthcoming due to an adversarial relationship with the previous regime in Dhaka.
With the treaty, New Delhi has gained a way to clamp down on insurgency in the northeastern region of the country, long a hotbed for separatist and insurgent groups who mostly operate from Bangladesh and other neighboring countries.
It is believed that senior leaders from the outlawed United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and other underground groups are hiding in Bangladesh. The new treaty will allow India to deport them.
Bangladesh also stands to benefit, with India pledging to track down the two convicted killers of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who are believed to be hiding in India.
Likewise, the new liberalized visa regime is a boon for Bangladesh. According to the Times of India, the new regime allows for the provision of multiple entry tourist and medical visas valid up to a year, five-year business visas, and other categories.
While both countries largely stand to benefit from the agreement, the issue of illegal immigration is a sticking point. With a porous, shared border more than 4000 kilometers long, many poor Bangladeshis illegally enter India to find work. The new visa regime addresses this issue to an extent. Some analysts say that the issue cannot be handled comprehensively unless New Delhi issues permits to Bangladeshi migrant laborers.
The India-Bangladesh relationship has been on the upswing since Sheikh Hasina came to power in 2009. The improved relations are largely due to her efforts to stamp out anti-Indian sentiment in Bangladesh.
Along with greater cooperation, economic activity between the two nations has increased. In 2011, India pledged to invest U.S. $1 billion to build infrastructure in Bangladesh.
While the new extradition and visa agreement and stronger economic ties are a clear marker of progress, there is also a good deal of unfinished business between the two countries.
For one, India has not yet signed the Teesta Water Teaty, which will give Bangladesh access to the Teesta River that flows from India.
Meanwhile, India is waiting for Bangladesh to grant transit access to its landlocked northeastern states bordered by Bangladesh.
According to analysts, as the biggest country in South Asia, India is keen to engage its neighbor in a bid to neutralize China’s growing influence there. To do so, New Delhi must give more economic leverage to Bangladesh and allow Bangladesh to have a bigger share of India’s growing economic success.
Greater concessions from India would also boost Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s popularity, offsetting criticism leveled at her by opposition groups.
Political analysts say the extradition treaty and new visa regime are intended to give the Awami League leader a much needed political makeover before next year’s election.
The arrangement also suits India’s new foreign policy vision, which is based on greater economic engagement with its neighbors.
India has struggled to maintain smooth relations with its neighbors. In the case of Pakistan, it has stepped up economic engagement but made little political progress. By contrast, India’s slowly growing ties with Bangladesh have given its Look East Policy a boost and could be the start of renewed progress.