Dialogue January-March, 2010, Volume 11 No. 3
Shaikh Hasina’s Visit to India and Future of Indo-Bangladesh Relations
The coming to power of Shaikh Hasina after the December 2008 elections has aroused lot of hope in both Bangladesh and its neighbour India. The people in Bangladesh are happy because democracy has been restored and Shaikh Hasina has promised to take Bangladesh towards progress by converting the country into a ‘digital Bangladesh’ shunning the backward looking policies of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat-e-Islami. Indians are excited to see a friendly regime in power, on their eastern border which has posed several challenges to the security of the country whenever an unfriendly or hostile regime has been in power in that country. In this environment of hope, the much awaited visit of Shaikh Hasina to India took place from January 10-13, 2009. India has always been more comfortable with an Awami League government in Bangladesh. The Awami League government in Bangladesh is different from a BNP led government in two respects. First, it has secular inclinations, which has implications for domestic politics and regional security. Secondly, it is not hostile towards India which has implications for Indo-Bangladesh relations. For these reasons, the coming to power of Shaikh Hasina is a positive development from Indian point of view. At the same time, it is equally important to know what India can realistically expect from her and what should be its approach towards this friendly government in Bangladesh.
While progress is desirable in all aspects of bilateral relationship, India would do well by focusing on those areas where lasting progress could be made.
Issues Bedeviling Indo-Bangladesh Relations
Indo-Bangladesh relations in present times have suffered because of a number of contentious issues. Some of these issues are important from the Indian point of view, whereas others are significant for Bangladesh. There are also issues, which are important for both.
India has been raising certain issues with Bangladesh for quite sometime. It has been alleging that Bangladeshi territory was being used by Indian insurgent groups (IIGs). Indian insurgents were getting training in camps in Bangladesh and were getting arms and ammunition through Bangladesh. It also alleged that Bangladesh was used as a transit route by the Pakistani Islamist militants and an ISI network was existing in that country. Even militants of Bangladeshi origin specially belonging to groups like HUJI resorted to terror activities in India.
India has also been persuading Bangladesh to grant it transit rights so that Indian goods could reach northeast India in a shorter period. It wanted Bangladesh to allow India to use Chittagong port so that northeast India could trade easily with outside world. These were the two main issues on which India was looking for positive development from the Bangladesh side. Though there are other issues which are of concern to India like illegal migration, land and maritime border issues. India hopes to gradually achieve progress in resolution of these issues.
For Bangladesh, two issues of crucial importance were water sharing and trade deficit.1 India and Bangladesh share 54 rivers.2 Though an agreement has been signed for sharing of Ganga water, similar agreements have not been reached for other rivers. Even the agreement on sharing of Ganga water is resented by a section in Bangladesh.3 Bangladesh is especially keen to sign an agreement to share water of Teesta river. Teesta River originates in India and most of the course of the river is in India. But before merging into Brahmaputra, near Kurigram in Bangladesh it travels for 45 km in that country. On that basis Bangladesh claims it to be an international river and wants 40 percent share of its water.
Bangladesh has a major irrigation project dependent on this river. Phase I of this project has already been implemented. Bangladesh wants an agreement over Teesta water issue so that it can implement phase II of the irrigation project. This phase can not be implemented unless Bangladesh reaches an agreement over the water sharing issue. Phase-II aims at irrigating the commanding areas under Dinajpur, Bogra, Gaibandha, and Joypurhat districts. At least 40,000 cusec water is needed to irrigate the entire cultivable land in winter. Without this, the project objectives are bound to fail.4
Bangladesh has also been complaining about huge trade deficits that it has in its bilateral trade with India.5 Besides, Bangladesh has not been comfortable with India fencing its border and the shooting that takes place there when Bangladeshis try to cross-over illegally. The opposition parties in Bangladesh have also opposed the construction of Tipaimukh dam on Borak River.
Attempts Made to Create Right Environment
Both sides have been aware of the issues that were of critical importance to each other. Hence, efforts were made to achieve progress on those issues prior to the visit. Before her visit, Hasina government took several steps to create right environment. Her visit was preceded by the visit of foreign minister of Bangladesh, Dipu Moni. During this visit groundwork was laid for Hasina’s visit.6 Both sides also held meetings at home secretary level to make major progress over the issue of terrorism. Secretary level meetings were held to negotiate agreement over water sharing.7 During these meetings differences were narrowed down.
Action against terror has been a priority since Hasina assumed power this time. Just two days after taking over she announced that the territory of Bangladesh will now not be allowed to be used by insurgent and terrorist groups. Not many people took it seriously at that time, as similar rhetoric have been used by Bangladeshi governments even in the past, but little action was taken on the ground. Moreover, soon Hasina government faced a serious challenge in the form of Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) mutiny. Though on the face of it, mutiny was triggered by pay and perquisite issues in the para-military force BDR, the brutality resorted to during the course of the mutiny made many people think that it could not have been inspired by only such mundane issues. There must be some other forces behind it who did not like secular intentions of Awami League. It was also felt that the external intelligence agency of Pakistan ISI could have been behind it, as the mutiny took place immediately after Zia Ispahani, the special envoy of Pakistani president left Bangladesh.8
BDR mutiny however failed to weaken the resolve of Shaikh Hasina and if anything it only made her more determined.9 It also made obvious to the Awami League government that if they want to have a democratic government in Bangladesh then such forces must be defeated. Hasina successfully managed to overcome this temporary but a very critical problem. By pursuing the trail of the mutineers, Hasina has also given out the message that she has not been cowed down.
The Bangladesh government took action against both Islamist terror groups and Indian insurgent groups. It has acted against indigenous Islamist groups like Harkatul Jihad al Islami (HuJI), and Jamaat ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). Action against them has exposed their international links. Now it has been decisively proved that these groups have been acting in concert with international terror outfits like Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and Hizbul Muzahideen. Bangladesh has also handed over two Indian members of LeT - T Nasir and Sharfaraz- who hail from Kerala and were operating from Bangladesh.10 They were self-styled commanders of south India. They had planned to attack Indian High Commission and the US embassy in Bangladesh on 26 November 2009. This cooperation of Bangladesh has probably led to many arrests in India and has helped in averting possible terror attacks.
But most importantly, Shaikh Hasina government has acted against the Indian insurgent groups. In her earlier tenure, she could not act decisively against these groups; fearing that the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) would brand her pro-India hampering her electoral prospects. But it seems the landslide victory of Hasina and terror attacks faced by herself during the four-party coalition rule has made her more resolute to act against terror.
To begin with charges were pressed against ULFA Commander-in-Chief Paresh Barua in the Chittagong arms smuggling case.11 That step made Barua flee the country. All the Bangladeshi intelligence officials involved in the Chittagong arms smuggling case have been brought to book. Now this action of Hasina has put a check on arms smuggling through Bangladesh.
The crackdown against Indian insurgent groups started in Bangladesh in the first week of November 2009 when self-styled foreign secretary of ULFA Sashadhar Choudhury, and finance secretary, Chitraban Hazarika were handed over to Indian security forces. But the most important action was handing over of Arabinda Rajkhowa, chairman of ULFA who is now in custody of Assam police along with his body-guard and Deputy Commander-in-Chief Hitesh Kalita alias Raju Barua.12 Similar steps were taken against other insurgent groups also. Top leaders of a Tripura based insurgent outfit NLFT were arrested. Raids were carried out by Bangladesh security forces on the training camps of Indian insurgent groups.
Progress Achieved During the Visit
The Bangladesh action against the Indian insurgent groups created a very congenial atmosphere for the Shaikh Hasina’s visit to India. Bangladesh was also aware of the goodwill generated. To consolidate this Shaikh Hasina government decided to sign three agreements on security. They are Agreement on Mutual Legal Assistance on Criminal Matters, Agreement on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons and Agreement on Combating International Terrorism, Organized Crime and Illicit Drug Trafficking.13 The groundwork for these agreements was done prior to the visit during the home secretary level meeting between the two countries. The Bangladesh foreign minister, Dipu Moni who was accompanying Hasina during the visit, revealed that India and Bangladesh were having discussions to sign an Extradition Treaty.14
India has been persuading Bangladesh to sign an extradition treaty for quite some time. It appears that this treaty may now become a reality. Once signed this treaty would benefit both sides. It will facilitate transfer of Anup Chetia from Bangladesh to India. Chetia is the only important ULFA leader besides Paresh Barua who is not in Indian custody. The treaty would also help Bangladesh take back several Bangladeshi criminals who could be hiding in different places in India. Bangladesh is also striving for the extradition of six killers of Mujib who are believed to be hiding in Pakistan, Libya, Canada, Kenya and the US. The handing over of persons like Anup Chetia might create opinion in favour of Bangladesh and help that country to get the absconding killers of Mujib.
Besides, India and Bangladesh have also signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Cooperation in Power Sector and another MoU on Cultural Exchange Programme. The Prime Minister of India agreed to supply to Bangladesh 250 MW electricity from its grid. In this context, both Prime Ministers emphasized the need to expedite inter-grid connectivity. India has also agreed to help Bangladesh in constructing power plants.
To improve bilateral relations India has agreed to give many concessions to Bangladesh. With a view to encouraging imports from Bangladesh, both countries agreed to address removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers and port restrictions and facilitate movement of containerized cargo by rail and water. In this context, Bangladesh welcomed India’s initiative to provide duty-free access to SAARC least developed countries (LDCs) to the Indian market. India agreed to remove 47 items from its negative list to give Bangladeshi products duty-free access to its market.15 Bangladesh welcomed the reduction of the number of items from India’s negative list that were of direct interest to Bangladesh and requested for further reduction in the list. In the private sector, India’s largest mobile operator Bharti Airtel acquired 70% stake in Bangladesh’s Warid Telecom in a deal worth Rs 1,360 crore.
The visit also addressed the contentious issue of access and made progress
To enhance connectivity between the two countries it was agreed that India will set up a 14-km metre gauge rail line between Akhaura and Agartala. Besides, India also announced that it will give Bangladesh transit to Nepal and Bhutan. It was agreed that Ashuganj in Bangladesh and Silghat in India shall be declared ports of call. The IWTT Protocol shall be amended through exchange of letters. It was agreed that Bangladesh will allow use of Mongla and Chittagong sea ports for movement of goods to and from India through road and rail. Bangladesh also conveyed their intention to give Nepal and Bhutan access to Mongla and Chittagong ports.
The Prime Minister of India announced a line of credit of US$ 1 billion for a range of projects, including railway infrastructure, supply of BG locomotives and passenger coaches, rehabilitation of Saidpur workshop, procurement of buses including articulate buses and dredging projects.
Both Prime Ministers agreed to comprehensively address all outstanding land boundary issues keeping in view the spirit of the 1974 Land Boundary Agreement. In this context, they agreed to convene the Joint Boundary Working Group to take this process forward.
Both Prime Ministers agreed on the need to amicably demarcate the maritime boundary between India and Bangladesh. In response to concerns over proposed Tipaimukh dam, India assured Bangladesh that New Delhi will not take any step that would hurt Dhaka’s interests. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was also conferred the prestigious Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development for 2009 at a ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan during the visit.
Lack of Domestic Consensus in Bangladesh over Policy toward India
The developments taking place during the visit made amply clear that the present Bangladesh government wants cooperative relationship with India. And with this objective, it has tried to make progress on several issues. But the concern arises from political and Islamic elements in Bangladesh, which are not so friendly towards India. Some sections have subtly advised Hasina not to go overboard in its relationship with India whereas others have been openly critical of all the steps taken by her and agreements signed.
On the eve of Shaikh Hasina’s visit a think tank of Bangladesh came out with report which suggested that singular focus of Bangladesh foreign and security policy was not desirable.16 So basically they were suggesting that Bangladesh should give equal attention to Pakistan and China. This may also mean that Bangladesh should not stop playing old games.
Generally, the foreign policy of a country does not change with change in regime in a major way, but Indo-Bangladesh relations seem to defy this rule. This relationship goes through crest and troughs with change of regime. On all issues related to India this country is split down the middle. The two main political parties do not seem to agree on anything. Even within Awami League the pro-India approach is top down. The towering personality of Shaikh Hasina makes her carry along with her many smaller leaders within the party who given a choice may not favour India that much. Moreover, we are not sure about the feelings of second rung leadership with Awami League.
As expected, the progress achieved during the visit of Shaikh Hasina has not been liked by the main opposition BNP and Islamist group Jamaat-e-Islami. They have accused Hasina of signing a ‘secret security deal’ with India.17 They have also blamed her for following a sub-servient foreign policy ignoring national interest.18 The opposition parties have threatened to launch movement in case Hasina tries to implement joint communiqué. This kind of opposition only shows that despite two years long rule of caretaker government the political parties in Bangladesh have not learnt their lessons and they still follow ‘confrontational politics.’
Impact on Chinese Influence in Bangladesh
India has been concerned about growing Chinese influence in its neighbourhood. Hence to increase its space in the foreign policy of Bangladesh, it has offered that country a credit line of $ 1 billion. No doubt, this credit line will increase our engagement with Bangladesh and help that country to improve its rail and road infrastructure. It might also improve the port facility. All this could also be beneficial to India.
While taking this step a certain model is at the back of our mind. Through this we are trying to replicate what Chinese have already done in the region. It is also obvious from the fact that our foreign minister, Sri S. M. Krishna went to Nepal with a similar package immediately after Hasina’s visit. Though, it is important to increase engagement with our neighbours we should also be alive to the fact that this delayed response may not bring the desired result. Here an important question that needs to be answered is will this approach lead to ouster of Chinese influence from these countries or at least diminish its influence. In the case of Bangladesh it appears unlikely. At best, it may only allow India have some engagement with Bangladesh as long as a friendly government is in power.
Barring India, most other south Asian nations have willingly given space to China. They want China to play a bigger role in south Asian politics. They think that bringing in China in south Asian politics will provide some sort of ‘balance’ vis-à-vis India.
Options for India
Though it is desirable for India to have progress in its relation with Bangladesh on all bilateral issues, it would be useful to give thrust on those issues where the progress is likely to be lasting. No doubt, the three security related treaties and the possible extradition treaty would be very useful to act against terror and will help in exchange of insurgents and terrorists, its benefits would occur only so long as a friendly government remains in Bangladesh. Moreover, no such treaty is required to act against terror when a cooperative government is in power. This was amply proved by the Shaikh Hasina government when she acted against Indian insurgent groups and Islamists who often have international connections.
Similarly, the $ one billion credit line will help Bangladesh improve its infrastructure which can also be beneficial for India to take its goods to northeast. But all the facilities offered during the Shaikh Hasina regime could be revoked if the BNP led coalition comes to power. They see granting transit to India as a threat to national security of Bangladesh. They also consider it as a compromise on its sovereignty.
While there are areas where gains could change with change in government, there are also areas where once agreement is reached it could be lasting. The nature of agreement would be such where no government would be in a position to make any change. For instance, the land and maritime border issues are such where once the progress is made it would be lasting. India can also use the opportunity to settle the vexed problem of enclaves. Differences could be further narrowed down on water issues and if possible we can reach a mutually acceptable treaty. This treaty is also likely to be lasting.
Settling of border issues and enclaves will not only ameliorate the living conditions of the people in border areas, it will also greatly improve the security of India. It will make India’s border with Bangladesh less porous, hence more manageable.
To please Bangladeshi side, India also stated that it is stopping construction of Tipaimukh dam.19 This decision was little surprising. Tipaimukh was presented as a run of the river dam. It was said that India would be only producing power and not diverting water. Moreover, it was Bangladesh that proposed the controversial Tipaimukh dam in 1988 to control flooding.20 Then what was the need of stopping work on the project. If everything was what we have been saying all along, then we could have simply invited a delegation of the opposition parties and showed them the project site. In fact, if India wants to harness vast hydro-electric potential in this region, then it would have to go for more such projects and overcome the hurdles presented from the side of Bangladesh. It is possible that the dispute over Tipaikmukh is raised by the opposition parties only for political purposes.
The coming to power of Shaikh Hasina has provided a historic opportunity to get a grip on several issues which have plagued Indo-Bangladesh relations and if possible solve some of them. Already progress has been made in the area of counter-terrorism. A change in this situation will occur only when the domestic political culture of Bangladesh would change. However, domestic developments in last one year in Bangladesh has shown that political culture in that country is not going to change suddenly. In these circumstances, it is far more useful for India to go for resolution of those issues where progress could be lasting. India can use this positive phase in Indo-Bangladesh relations to settle its land and maritime border issues. It can also attempt and if possible reach a mutually acceptable agreement on water sharing. Progress in these areas are lasting and they would not be linked to any particular party in power in Bangladesh. Indo-Bangladesh relations can not convert into a model for south Asia unless there is consensus on both sides of the political spectrum that they should have friendly relationship with India. There is no doubt that a certain dynamism has come into Indo-Bangladesh relations but there is a need for caution as over-optimism will not be advisable. The Awami League government has to cater to internal political pressures and take everyone along. This is the tune to tread carefully and keep expectations at reasonable levels. Emphasis should be on “improvements” and not on “transformation”.
1 .Mahfuz Anam, From Vision To Action, The Times of India, 2 February 2010 at http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/opinion/edit-page/From-Vision-To-Action/articleshow/5524753.cms
2. Mahmud ur Rahman Choudhury, Indian river projects and survival of Bangladesh, The Financial Express, Dhaka, July 16, 2009 at http://www.thefinancialexpress-bd.com/2009/07/16/73144.html
3. Nurul Kabir, “Water Sharing Between Bangladesh and India,” in Farooq Sobhan edited “Dyanamics of Bangldesh – India Relations, Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, The University Press Limited, Dhaka, p.23. Also see, Ishtiaq Hossain, Bangladesh-India Relations: Issues and Problems, Asian Survey, Vol. 21, No. 11, November 1981, pp.1117.
4. Teesta flows in thin: Barrage, dams in India shrink the river most in February, The Daily Star, January 4, 2010, at http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=120364
5. Sreyashi Dastidar, “Bangladesh – India Trade: Economic and Investment Outlook,” in Farooq Shobhan edited Bangladesh-India Dialogue: Vision of Young Leaders, Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, The University Press Limited, Dhaka, pp. 95-110. Also see, Imtiaz Ahmed, “Bangladesh – India Relations: The Context of SAARC and the Emerging Global Scenario,” Asian Affairs, Volume 28, No. 2, April – June 2006, p. 52.
6. Pallab Bhattacharya , Indo-bangla Talks: Power import, river dredging discussed, The Daily Star, September 9, 2009 at http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=105056
7. Water talks start today amid high hopes, The Daily Star, January 4, 2010,athttp://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=120369
8. PR. No. 203, PRESS RELEASE, VISIT OF MR. M. ZIA ISPAHANI AS SPECIAL ENVOY, TO BANGLADESH, Press Information Department, Government of Pakistan, Islamabad: February 14, 2009 at http://www.pid.gov.pk/press14-02-09.htm , also see Sankar Sen, TOWARDS AN UNCERTAIN AND VIOLENT FUTURE, The Telegraph, Kolkata, April 2, 2009 at http://www.telegraphindia.com/1090402/jsp/opinion/story_10756890.jsp
9. Amitava Mukherjee, Sheikh Hasina’s Resolve to Foil the Conspiracy of Destabilisation in Bangladesh, Mainstream Weekly, 17 November 2009 at http://www.mainstreamweekly.net/article1764.html
10. 2 Lashkar men held inside Indian border, The Daily Star, 24 November 2009 at http://www.thedailystar.net/story.php?nid=115334
11. Zia government behind botched ULFA arms shipment, court told, March 5th, 2009 at http://www.thaindian.com/newsportal/world-news/zia-government-behind-botched-ulfa-arms-shipment-court-told_100162786.html
12. Ulfa chief handed over to India, Deccan Chronicle, 4 December 2009 at http://www.deccanchronicle.com/national/ulfa-chief-handed-over-india-858
13 .Dhaka, Delhi sign 3 agreements: India announces $1 billion credit for infrastructure of Bangladesh as Hasina, Manmohan hold talks; 2 MoUs also inked, The Daily Star, 12 January 2010, http://www.thedailystar.net/story.php?nid=121496
14. India, Bangladesh working on Extradition Treaty: Hasina, The Times of India, 13 January 2010 at http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/India-Bangladesh-working-on-Extradition-Treaty-Hasina-/articleshow/5439817.cms
15. Duty-free access to India widens: 47 more Bangladeshi products dropped from negative list, The Daily Star, 12 January 2010 at
16. “Indo-Bangladesh Summit: A Security Agenda for Bangladesh,” Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies, http://www.bipss.org.bd/download/bsr_IBs.pdf
17. PM’s visit a failure, harmful for nation: Says Khaleda; alleges ‘secret security deal’ with India; hints at movement, The Daily Star, 18 January 2010 at http://www.thedailystar.net/story.php?nid=122345
18. Sheikh Hasina sold out Bangla interest: Khaleda Zia, DNA, Mumbai, 17, January 2010, at http://www.dnaindia.com/world/report_sheikh-hasina-sold-out-bangla-interest-khaleda-zia_1335925
19. ‘No dam’, Singh tells Hasina, BDNews24.com, 17, January 2010 at http://www.bdnews24.com/details.php?id=151208&cid=34
20. Dhaka Proposed Tipaimukh Dam: ex-FM, BDNews24.com, 21 January 2010, at http://www.bdnews24.com/details.php?id=151528&cid=34