People-to-peaple Indo-Bangladesh relationship

Ibne Siraj
Despite intense efforts at both diplomatic and summit levels, Sheikh Hasina’s 2009-2013 regime could not have its two important pledges fulfilled with India. The longstanding Land Boundary Agreement and the Teesta Waters Sharing Agreement could not be signed between Bangladesh and India due mainly to the lack of diplomatic efforts from Dhaka. The good news is that the Indian authorities are up with their intension to settle these two hitherto unsettled issues at the soonest possible time. It was seen that the Awami League-led Grand Alliance Government from 2009 to 2013 maintained a sweet relation with India and it is expected that the same gesture would be followed in the years to come so long Sheikh Hasina remains as the Prime Minister of Bangladesh from now on. Meanwhile, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee, Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and BJP chieftain Lal Krishna Advani hailed Sheikh Hasina’s new government with their big smiles, clearly indicating that New Delhi will be by the side of her new regime born out of the 10th parliamentary polls held on January 5, 2014.
Bangladesh’s relationship with India has been difficult in terms of irrigation and land border disputes post 1976. However, India has enjoyed favourable relationship with Bangladesh during the governments formed by the Awami League in 1972, 1996 and 2009. At the outset, India’s relations with Bangladesh could not have been stronger because of India’s unalloyed support for independence and opposition against Pakistan in 1971. During the War of Liberation, many refugees fled to India. When the struggle of resistance matured in November, 1971, India also intervened militarily and may have helped bring international attention to the issue through the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s visit to Washington. Afterwards, India furnished relief and reconstruction aid, extended recognition to Bangladesh prior to the end of the war in 1971 (the second country to do so after Bhutan) and subsequently lobbied others to follow suit. India also withdrew its military from the land of Bangladesh when Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman requested Indira Gandhi to do so during the latter’s visit to Dhaka in 1972.
Indo-Bangladesh relations have been somewhat less friendly since the fall of Mujib government in August. 1975. Over the years, issues like South Talpatty Island, the Tin Bigha Corridor and access to Nepal, the Farakkah Barrage and water sharing, border conflicts near Tripura and the construction of a fence along most of the border which India explains as security provision against migrants, insurgents and terrorists, were alive as irritants between the two countries.
Many Bangladeshis feel India likes to play “big brother” to smaller neighbours, including Bangladesh. Bilateral relations between the two countries warmed in 1996, when Bangladesh Awami League came to power to see a softer foreign policy being followed by India. Soon, a 30-year water-sharing agreement for the Ganges River was signed in December, 1996, after an earlier bilateral water-sharing agreement for the Ganges River lapsed in 1988. Both the nations also have cooperated on the issue of flood warning and preparedness. The Bangladesh government and tribal insurgents of the CHT region signed a peace accord in December, 1997, which allowed for the return of tribal refugees who had fled into India.
After becoming Prime Minister for the second time in January, 2009, Sheikh Hasina radically overhauled Bangladesh’s foreign policy approach toward India and brought Dhaka much closer to New Delhi. Consequently, Bangladesh-India bilateral relationship has improved significantly but an intriguing question arises: why did Sheikh Hasina adopt an India-positive foreign policy orientation?
During Hasina’s 2009-2013 regime, no particular factor or level was adequate to explain the foreign policy behaviour of her government. A heuristic approach needs to be adopted to explain various components of Sheikh Hasina’s policy approach toward New Delhi. As Bangladesh’s closest neighbour, India has been a dominant factor in the country’s foreign policy (as well as in domestic politics) ever since Bangladesh emerged as an independent state in 1971. Dhaka’s perception of India, and consequently its approach toward that country, has varied over time and under different governments: sometimes perceived as a positive factor, it has, at other times, been viewed as a key source of a threat to security.
Variations in perception have produced changing patterns of Bangladesh-India relations over the last 42 years. The three Awami League (AL) governments (1971-1975, 1996-2001, 2009-2013) have viewed India positively and pursued a positive foreign policy approach toward that country, while the non-AL governments-military regimes or nationalist-led-invariably perceived, albeit in varying degrees, the country’s biggest neighbour primarily as a source of insecurity.
From 2009 to 2013, Sheikh Hasina initiated a radical departure in Dhaka’s approach towards New Delhi, adopting a very India-positive foreign policy orientation in order to build a long-term, irreversible bilateral relationship. New Delhi also responded positively to Dhaka’s initiative. Consequently, the Bangladesh-India relationship has been on an upward trajectory, a trend that has been hardly visible since 1975.
What prompted Bangladeshi political elites, particularly Sheikh Hasina, to adopt such a foreign policy approach towards India? Critics point out that it is natural for an AL government, given the ideological similarity between itself and the Indian National Congress, to pursue a decidedly pro-India policy and get closer to New Delhi. The underlying causes of the Hasina government’s India-positive foreign policy orientation, however, run deeper.
At present, there has been progress in Indo-Bangladesh relations through high level contacts to develop the relations between these two countries. With Bangladesh, India shares not only a common history of struggle for freedom and liberation but also enduring feelings of both fraternal as well as family ties. This commonality is reflected in multi-dimensional relations with Bangladesh at several levels of interaction.
High-level exchanges, visits and meetings take place regularly alongside the wide ranging people-to-people interaction. India’s Missions in Bangladesh issue about half a million visas every year and thousands of Bangladeshi students study in India on self-financing basis and are recipients of over one hundred annual Indian government scholarships. From all these points of views, sustained bilateral tensions should no more prevail between the two friendly counties. India needs a stable and prosperous Bangladesh to support its own efforts to improve governance and maintain security and territorial integrity. Bangladesh, too, could benefit from improved relations: Indian investment could help Bangladesh begin exploiting its hard-to-reach gas reserves and address its chronic electricity shortage. Bangladesh now has aspirations to join the BRICs as one of the Next 11countries, but it will need foreign investment if it is to achieve this goal.
Given Bangladesh’s strategic location between South and South-East Asia, it could benefit from the resurgence of India and China and strengthen its diplomatic hand. But Bangladesh can only take advantage of this growing regional clout if it can steer a course that maintains good relations with both the giant powers. The government of Sheikh Hasina has made a good start by revitalizing diplomatic initiatives with India in the past few years. Although there have been setbacks, these have already born fruit in the form of a cooperation agreement on curbing cross-border terrorism and a billion-dollar Indian investment plan. These initiatives build on earlier, successful bilateral projects such as the Kolkata-Dhaka rail link established in 2007. But much more needs to be done to cement relations around equitable land boundary, water-sharing, border security and bilateral trade. To insure the economic freedom of the people, the disgraceful nationalist and religious card player politicians of the two countries must stop engaging themselves in cheap political stunts. They must participate in active engagement and connectivity of the two countries to transform relations from the present state of mutual suspicious to one of mutual benefit and mutual trust. The two neighbour shares democratic values and should be best friends and practice practical ways and means to resolve the problems, old or new, for the benefits of the both.
(Ibne Siraj is a journalist)