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Charting a new route to Bangladesh

India-Bangladesh relations in the past may have been coloured by fractious economic relations and peevish political overtures. But in 2014, the two neighbours will share common ground: Bangladesh will hold general elections in January and India in May 2014.

In the meantime, bilateral relations between the two countries are likely to be subject to domestic political wrangling. Bangladesh’s ruling party, the Awami League, and its leader, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, are looking to extract two key concessions from India in time for elections back home. First, the Indian Parliament must ratify the Land Boundary Agreement, already signed by both governments and ratified by Bangladesh’s Parliament. Second, India must come through on the Teesta river water-sharing accord. The consequences of not following through are dire for Bangladesh. Hasina and her party may pay the price in the polls, and India could lose an important regional ally.

Gateway House’s Shloka Nath talked to India’s High Commissioner to Bangladesh, Pankaj Saran, on the future of India-Bangladesh relations and the potential to set an example for other countries in the region.

Q. Where do you see India-Bangladesh relations at this point?

The relationship has evolved. Over the years, it has strengthened in content and there is greater convergence as well as a greater political willingness on both sides to build a relationship that equally benefits both and responds to the aspirations of the people of both countries. We have moved a considerable distance in tapping areas of cooperation.

A few elements have contributed to this progress. India’s approach to Bangladesh has evolved and it has become one of our key neighbours in South Asia. There is a readiness to look at issues in a new light. We have unilaterally taken some measures to push the relationship forward. The visits of the two Prime Ministers in 2010 and 2011, and an exchange of political leaders at other levels, is an indication that the leaders would like to move ahead.

The most important manifestation of this came in September 2011 with the all-encompassing Framework Agreement for Cooperation in Development. It set in place a new paradigm and is the framework under which we are operating today.  A new generation is coming up in both countries and there is a realisation that their nations stand to gain by cooperating and by responding to each other’s concerns.

Q. Was the Indian government correct in its support of “the capacity for political mobilisation and open-mindedness of Bangladeshi youth” — to use the words of National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon?

The people of Bangladesh are coming to terms with their history, and the trial of the 1971 war criminals is a step in that direction. It enables the people to gain some sense of justice, because the memory of those incidents remains. The youth in Bangladesh have always been politically aware and active in domestic politics. This is an internal judicial process in Bangladesh. It will provide some degree of justice for crimes that were documented internationally.

Q. What are the main issues that need to be addressed for a durable relationship?

There are outstanding economic and political issues. For instance, Bangladesh has always flagged the need to formalise the Treaty to share the waters of the Teesta and to ratify the Land Boundary Protocol Agreement signed in 2011. These are high on their agenda and we are making a constant effort to ensure that the management of our borders is consistently improved so that it is a border for peace and harmony.

On the economic side, more Indian companies are looking at Bangladesh for investment. Many Indian companies use Bangladesh as an investment base and to send out exports; this helps not only Indian companies, but benefits Bangladesh as well. In 2011, we granted Bangladeshi industry unfettered access to Indian markets, so that their own industry can benefit.

There is great potential for Bangladesh to emerge as a hub not just for the Northeast but also for other Indian companies across India. We have to continue to build these bridges, especially in the social sector, education, health, climate change and overall environmental management.

Q. Can the present phase of Dhaka-New Delhi relations influence a greater South Asian understanding on ways to achieve peace, stability and development in the tension-torn region?

We have the potential to set an example for other countries in the region. While we respect each other’s territorial sovereignty, there is enough to be done between the two countries to build a sub-region for greater flow of goods, services, and people. These are important steps, even if small, and if we continue this way we could contribute to regional and sub-regional prosperity together.

Q. Will the growing relationship between China and Bangladesh affect India-Bangladesh ties?

We pursue relations with Bangladesh on the basis of our bilateral interests. In terms of geography and past history, it is a deep and encompassing relationship that must benefit both countries equally. It is a relationship based on respect for each other’s sovereignty. Bangladesh is a sovereign country and has the right to develop relations with other countries in the world, just as we do.

Q. How do you assess the development of transit facilities to India in the backdrop of a strong political opposition to providing these facilities, including the use of Bangladesh’s seaports by India, Nepal and Bhutan?

This is a complex issue and we are discussing it with Bangladesh, since it pertains to how Bangladesh decides to use its own territory. Whenever they are ready for this kind of activity with India, we will move ahead. First, however, they have to come to an internal consensus about how they would like to go ahead. But many initiatives have already begun in the direction of greater sub-regional connectivity.

For example, we provide transit for movement of trade between Bangladesh and Bhutan, and Bangladesh and Nepal. In addition, when the Chinese Prime Minister visited India earlier this year, India and China agreed to set up a Study Group to examine the viability of an economic corridor between China, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and India. So in a bilateral and sub-regional context, initiatives have already started.

Pankaj Saran is India’s High Commissioner to Bangladesh since March 2012. He has previously served in Indian missions in Moscow, Washington D.C., Cairo and India’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations in Geneva.

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

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