Indian Decade

A Bangladesh Opportunity

Ties between India and Bangladesh have been warming. Will Manmohan Singh’s visit boost them further?

The recent visit of Indian Foreign Minister S. M. Krishna to Bangladesh was not only intended to prepare the way for the upcoming visit of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, but also to take stock of bilateral ties since Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India nearly 18 months ago.

Indo-Bangladesh relations have generally been good whenever an Awami League government is in power in Dhaka. This is partly due to the fact that the liberation war of Bangladesh was fought under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was the leader of Awami League in a struggle in which India contributed both men and material.

The polity of Bangladesh changed markedly after the assassination of Sheikh Mujib. Following the killing, an effort was made to revive the old Pakistan style of politics under the military regimes and Bangladesh Nationalist Party governments. But in the first Awami League regime under Sheikh Hasina, attempts were instead made to revive ties with India, efforts which really took off during her second term. India has responded in kind to the friendly overtures, and both sides signed a 51 point joint communiqué during Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India in January 2010.

The joint communiqué is expected to serve as a broad framework of cooperation between the two countries. Even before Hasina came to India, Delhi had received significant cooperation on security issues, especially on the question of the insurgency in the northeast of the country. During the previous regime, a large number of insurgent leaders had taken refuge in Bangladesh, where they set up training camps. The Hasina government cracked down on these insurgents, many whom were handed over to the Indian government even in the absence of an extradition treaty.

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The friendly atmosphere has also meant improved relations between the two countries’ border guards. The Indo-Bangladesh border, which had previously seen some tense moments, has generally been free of skirmishes. Indeed, due to the cooperation of the Bangladesh Rifles (now called the Border Guards Bangladesh) India has been able to erect fences in many places that are within 150 meters of the border (in the past, Bangladesh had objected to fences this close, citing a point in the Indira Mujib Accord).

This changed environment has prompted many to believe that the two countries have been presented with a historic opportunity. The question now is whether India can seize this chance.

Krishna’s successful trip has already created a suitable backdrop for Singh’s much-anticipated visit, and has smoothed over some of the problems created by the Indian premier’s recent statement that 25 percent Bangladeshis who follow Jamaat –e – Islami are anti-India and in the clutches of Pakistan’ ISI. While it’s true that Jammat’s following, based on election results, is only 5 percent to 7 percent of the population, there was nothing wrong with the essence of Singh’s argument that Jamaat is anti-India. Still, the statement was unhelpful just as the two are trying to improve their relationship.

The fact that the two sides managed to paper over this diplomatic incident shows the confidence in improved ties, a confidence that was underscored with the signing during Krishna’s visit of two agreements. The first was on investment protection, while the other was over the free movement of Bhutanese vehicles within Indian territory. Both these agreements have been viewed extremely positively by the Bangladeshis, who feel that Indian investment in Bangladesh will boost job creation.  Krishna also discussed a number of other important issues, such as river water sharing, transit and land boundaries, with his counterpart Dipu Moni.

Even before he set off, Krishna’s visit to Bangladesh had already been given a major boost by a Supreme Court judgment that once again allowed the export of limestone to Bangladesh from Meghalaya. The court decision came as good news for Lafarge's $255-million cement plant in Chhatak, which is wholly dependent on limestone mined by the French company in the East Khasi Hills in Meghalaya. The Bangladeshi government had been pushing India to allow resumption of limestone mining for the plant, which holds close to a 10 percent share of Bangladesh's total cement market.

India now appears ready to try to maintain this momentum in the bilateral relationship, with other high level visits having been lined up before the prime minister’s trip takes place. For example, Congress President Sonia Gandhi is to pay a visit on July 25 to receive an award for Indira Gandhi’s contribution in the liberation of Bangladesh.

Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram, meanwhile, will also visit Dhaka later this month to finalise a pact on enclaves and border demarcation. Bangladesh has 3,000 acres of land inside India, in addition to 51 enclaves in Indian territory. Similarly, India has around 3,500 acres of land and 111 enclaves inside Bangladesh.

Bangladesh expects major economic concessions during Singh’s visit. According to Bangladeshi Commerce Minister Faruk Khan, the country hopes to acquire duty free access for 61 products to Indian markets, access that it has spent the past two years negotiating.

Singh is expected to be joined by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, as well as the chief ministers of other northeastern states. This is an important move as these regions are likely to play a key role if Indo-Bangladesh economic ties deepen further. Besides, most of the territorial disputes are also with these regions as they share common border with Bangladesh, meaning any resolution of the territorial problem will require their consent.

Indo-Bangladeshi relations are clearly at a historic juncture. If everything goes well, they could become an example for other South Asian countries to follow – not least the awkward neighbour on India’s western border.

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Anand Kumar is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi