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17 October 2019, Gateway House

Bangladesh, India’s exemplary neighbour

Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India earlier this month, resulting in seven new agreements, showed the strength of the mutual relationship. But both governments need to address some rankling issues: the sharing of the Teesta waters, the Rohingya problem and repatriation of the illegal people from Assam

Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme

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The latest visit to India by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina earlier this month (3-6 October) was an opportunity for both countries to showcase an exemplary neighbourly relationship and further strengthen bilateral cooperation. (Her last visit was in April 2017.[1]) The two governments expressed satisfaction that the “fraternal ties” and “excellent state of relations” represented a bond that transcended strategic partnership. The conclusion of seven new agreements and the inauguration through video-link of three projects by the two prime ministers revealed a joint resolve to diversify and deepen the relationship.[2]

The business facet of the bilateral relationship drew much official attention. First, Bangladesh is all set to graduate out of the Least Developed Countries (LDC) status: a new era in economic exchanges is expected to begin.[3]

The two countries are studying the feasibility of a bilateral Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA).  India has been extending duty-free and quota-free access to Bangladeshi goods, which has proved helpful. Exports from Bangladesh to India crossed the $1 billion mark in 2019, registering a 52% growth over the previous year.[4]

The two governments have also made good on their resolve to expand connectivity through “air, water, rail, road” and select institutions.[5] For example, plans to start the Dhaka-Siliguri bus service are taking final shape.  Air services between the two countries have been rising from 61 per week to 91 per week since mid-2019, and are expected to go to 120 per week from winter 2020.

Institutional connectivity and cooperation will get a boost through the MoU signed between Dhaka and Hyderabad universities. New Delhi has also approved the opening of a Bangladesh deputy high commission in Chennai.

Sharing of river waters

One of the areas needing greater attention is river water management. Dhaka’s long-pending request – the implementation of an interim agreement for the sharing of the waters of the River Teesta – has not moved forward, the Union and West Bengal governments not being in agreement. Bangladesh will watch with keen expectation the next elections in West Bengal, due in 2021. If a BJP government comes to power in Kolkata, a breakthrough on the Teesta issue may occur, but this is still a long way off.

Meanwhile, Dhaka continues to show patience and goodwill too, in letting India withdraw 1.82 cusecs of water from the River Feni to serve the needs of the people of Sabroom in Tripura. The Joint Rivers Commission will prepare interim agreements for the sharing of the waters of six other rivers – the Manu, Muhuri, Khowai, Gumti, Dharla and Dudhkumar.

Second, defence cooperation can do with more progress. More than two years ago, India declared its intention to extend a $500-million Line of Credit for defence purposes. After the recent Modi-Hasina discussions, withdrawals from this credit line are likely to be expedited: implementation arrangements were finalised in April 2019. Further, Bangladesh has agreed to set up a coastal surveillance radar system, a concrete step towards consolidating maritime security for both countries.

The Rohingyas’ return

One of the biggest challenges the Bangladesh government faces is to arrange the return of the Rohingyas who were driven out of Myanmar in August 2017. About 1 million in number, they are a heavy burden on the country’s economy, resources, and social fabric. Despite sustained efforts, not a single person has returned to Myanmar so far. Delhi and Dhaka are committed to expediting their “safe, speedy and sustainable repatriation”.[6] India has extended generous humanitarian assistance to the Rohingyas, both in Bangladesh and Myanmar. But Dhaka wants Delhi to press for greater cooperation from the Myanmar government.  Dhaka overestimates Delhi’s leverage over Naypyitaw.

The governments of Bangladesh and India are united also in their aim to strengthen regional and sub-regional cooperation. Given the poor state of India-Pakistan relations today, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) continues to be mired in an impasse. The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), a lesser alternative, has been receiving much attention both in Delhi and Dhaka. To re-energise it, they need to work more closely together, in concert with the secretary general of BIMSTEC, to persuade other governments, especially Sri Lanka and Nepal, to act on specific measures agreed upon earlier.[7]

Finally, the issue of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) of India and the present exclusion of 1.9 million people in Assam from it, has become a cause of widespread concern in Bangladesh. A young Indian thought leader, who recently visited Dhaka, reported that his interlocutors were “not just anxious but furious” over calls in India that those excluded from the NRC will be deported.[8]

The feeling in Bangladesh, cutting across party lines, is that the excluded ones are India’s responsibility, not Bangladesh’s. The depth of people’s concern explains why Hasina took up the matter twice with Modi – first in New York in September, and then during her visit to Delhi. The Bangladesh delegation has returned home, satisfied with the Indian prime minister’s elaborate briefing and assurances. Bangladesh foreign secretary Shahidul Haque’s telling observation was, “We are not worried, but we are keeping a close eye on developments. Indian authorities have assured us that this is an internal matter and it will remain an internal matter.”[9]

The NRC dossier will require sensitive handling in the coming months, considering New Delhi’s deep political commitment to maintaining close India-Bangladesh relations which serve mutual interests.

Rajiv Bhatia, a former ambassador, is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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References

[1] Bhatia, Rajiv, “Ties with Bangladesh ‘a flowing river’”, Gateway House, 13 April 2017, https://www.gatewayhouse.in/ties-with-bangladesh-a-flowing-river/

[2] Ministry of External Affairs, “India-Bangladesh Joint Statement during Official Visit of Prime Minister of Bangladesh to India”, Government of India, 5 October, 2019, For details, see paras 50 and 35 respectively of the joint statement. https://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/31911/IndiaBangladesh_Joint_Statement_during_Official_Visit_of_Prime_Minister_of_Bangladesh_to_India.

[3] Karim, Habibullah N, “What graduating out of LDC status means for Bangladesh”, The Daily Star, 22 July 2019

https://www.thedailystar.net/opinion/cybernautic-ruminations/news/what-graduating-out-ldc-status-means-1774918

[4] Ovi, Ibrahim Hossain, “Bangladesh exports to India cross $1 bn mark”, Dhaka Tribune, 10 July 2019

https://www.dhakatribune.com/business/economy/2019/07/10/bangladesh-exports-to-india-cross-1bn-mark

[5] Ministry of External Affairs, “India-Bangladesh Joint Statement during Official Visit of Prime Minister of Bangladesh to India”, Government of India, 5 October, 2019, For details, see paras 50 and 35 respectively of the joint statement. https://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/31911/IndiaBangladesh_Joint_Statement_during_Official_Visit_of_Prime_Minister_of_Bangladesh_to_India.

[6] Ibid. Para 47.

[7] Bhatia, Rajiv, “Green shoots of revival: on BIMSTEC summit”, The Hindu, 4 September 2018.

[8] In an informal conversation with the author on 10 October 2019.

[9] Wion, “Wion Exclusively speaks to Shahidul Haque, Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh”, 5 October 2019, https://www.wionews.com/videos/wion-exclusively-speaks-to-shahidul-haque-foreign-secretary-of-bangladesh-253977

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