Bangladesh is India’s critically important neighbour. Bangladesh’s liberation and India’s role in it provide for a solid umbilical cord in the relationship between the two countries. The two most worrying issues for North Block today are the rising graph of radicalization in Bangla society and growing Chinese inroads into the Bangla economy, especially in the strategic sectors.
Addressing the media after her formal reception at the Rashtrapati Bhawan (President House), Sheikh Hasina, on her four-day visit to India, stated, “India is our friend. Whenever I come to India, it is a pleasure for me, especially because we always recall the contribution India has made during our liberation war. We have a friendly relationship; we are cooperating with each other”. For Sheikh Hasina, individually, India holds a special place. After her father’s assassination, the founder of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, was provided shelter in Delhi by the then PM, Indira Gandhi. Her family lived on Pandara road near India Gate under an assumed identity.
Her current visit was aimed at enhancing Indo-Bangladesh ties. It is possibly her last visit before Bangladesh moves into election mode. Elections are due in 2023, and her continuation is its best bet for India. Seven agreements were signed after her meeting with the Indian PM, focusing on bilateral cooperation in multiple arenas. Both leaders jointly inaugurated the Maitri Super Thermal Power Project in Rampur in Bangladesh, built under India’s concessional financing scheme. India is currently the largest market for Bangladesh products.
The two nations will begin discussions for the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, which would benefit Bangladesh and enhance trade. An agreement was inked for water sharing of the Kushyara river, which flows into Bangladesh from Assam’s Silchar district. India had provided USD 500 million for defence procurements, for which Bangladesh placed its requirements.
Under the credit scheme, Bangladesh would initially procure Bridge Laying Tanks, Bailey bridges and mine-protected vehicles. Bangladesh also provided its wish list for additional defence equipment, which includes heavy recovery vehicles, armoured engineer reconnaissance vehicles, a floating dock, and a logistics ship, amongst others. The Indian intention is to reduce Bangladesh’s dependency on China, from where it makes maximum defence procurements.
A significant irritant between the two nations is the sharing of the Teesta River water, stalled largely by West Bengal’s Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee. Resolving the issue before elections next year would significantly boost Sheikh Hasina’s re-election campaign. The Teesta water sharing subject has been raised in every visit by a Bangladesh PM.
Also, on the discussion was opening the Khulna-Darshan line and the Prabatpur-Kaunia track. The two leaders also inaugurated the Rupsha rail bridge, a critical part of the Khulna-Mongla Port broad gauge rail project. These would link India’s Northeast via Bangladesh, providing an alternative to the Siliguri corridor. They would also open the ports of Monga and Chittagong for exports from India’s northeastern states.
Some time back, there were stumbling blocks in the relationship when India announced its National Register of Citizens and Citizen Amendment Act. Bangladesh cancelled ministers’ visits, and Sheikh Hasina even commented that these were unnecessary. To assuage fears, the then Indian Foreign Secretary, Harsh Shringla, who had been the Indian Ambassador to Bangladesh, visited twice. In the overall context, Indo-Bangla ties have been a success story.
India and China have been wary of the increased footprints of the other in Bangladesh. Such was the Chinese concern that its Ambassador to Dhaka, Li Jimming, warned Bangladesh against joining the QUAD. Interacting with members of the Diplomatic Correspondents Association, after China gifted Bangladesh 500,000 COVID vaccines, he mentioned that by joining this club (QUAD plus), China-Bangladesh ties could be impacted. Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister, Abdul Momen, responded to the Chinese Ambassador, who termed his comments ‘aggressive’ and ‘very unfortunate.’
If Bangladesh joins QUAD plus, Chinese hopes of bringing South Asia under its control would dissipate. China considers Bangladesh a significant partner in its Belt Road Initiative (BRI). Many Chinese companies are involved in BRI projects. Bangladesh is currently investigating corruption and tax fraud by Chinese companies on its soil. For India, an increased Chinese footprint implies a more significant influence on Pakistan.
Thus far, Bangladesh has balanced its ties with India, the US, Japan, and China, mainly seeking the best from all powers in its development. While discussing China-Bangladesh relations, prior to her visit, Sheikh Hasina stated, “Our foreign policy is very clear – friendship to all, malice to none. If there is a problem, it is between China and India. I do not want to put my nose there”. PM Modi hinted at the influence of China on Bangladesh when he called for both countries to stall attempts by those attempting to undermine and damage the mutual trust between the two nations.
In his conversation with Sheikh Hasina, PM Modi suggested enhanced cooperation in battling terrorism and radicalization. Increased radicalization within Bangladesh is impacting its Hindu minorities and enhancing security threats for India. Sheikh Hasina conveyed her intent to protect Bangladesh’s minority population. Pro-Pak elements are attempting to accuse moderate Bangladeshis, including Sheikh Hasina’s party, of being anti-Islamic, adding to worries in India.
These elements led to anti-India protests post the Nupur Sharma incident as well as during the visit of PM Modi to the country last year in March. Their long-term intent is to convert Bangladesh into an Islamic state. Unless the two nations cooperate, the best that can be done by Bangladesh alone is to control the situation, not eradicate it. Simultaneously, Bangladesh has acted against anti-India insurgent groups on its soil, allaying some of India’s concerns.
The other aspect impacting Indo-Bangla relations is the movement of its population into India. The BSF responds by firing on smugglers as also those seeking to cross the border, resulting in casualties. It irks Bangladesh. Though these incidents have reduced, they cannot be stopped as the border remains porous in many parts.
The Rohingya refugee issue is another thorn between the two nations. Bangladesh currently hosts around 1.1 million of them. India does provide funds to Bangladesh for their care. However, it hesitates to do more though it has some leverage in Myanmar. It compels Bangladesh to bank on China. India also seeks to push its own Rohingyas back into Bangladesh, the route they migrated. Sheikh Hasina stated that she hopes India would accept some Rohingya currently housed by them, which India resists.
Security concerns of both nations found priority under the heading of ‘cooperative matrix of engagement’ during the discussions. Hopefully, things will improve further. With Sheikh Hasina in power, Indo-Bangladesh relations have grown significantly. However, Bangladesh’s two major concerns worry India. These include increased Chinese debt as well as growing radicalization. Sheikh Hasina has kept Islamists at bay and managed Indo-Bangladesh. She remains India’s best bet in Dhaka.
Maj Gen Harsha Kakar (Retd)