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Disquiet on the eastern front

India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s much-anticipated visit is the first official engagement between Bangladesh and the newly-elected Narendra Modi government in Delhi. This comes in the wake of much speculation that Bangladesh premier Sheikh Hasina’s conspicuous absence at Modi’s swearing-in was a calculated snub, and that Modi himself would be visiting Bangladesh to cement ties.

The Bangladeshi PM did not attend Modi’s swearing-in ceremony because of a prior commitment in Japan, but equally, she did little to reschedule that, indirectly letting it be known that her government would not bend over backwards to accommodate Modi’s sense of regional self-importance, especially since of late, Indian hegemonic intentions have grown to become a bone of contention.

It is no secret that the Indian National Congress and the Awami League (AL) are thick as thieves. In fact, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that they are mirror images of each other and enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship that stretches back to at least the birth of Bangladesh in 1971, if not much earlier.

However, despite such commonality and comradeship, the Congress gave little back in return for the unrestrained cooperation it received from Sheikh Hasina during the last five years, making the asymmetries of power between India and Bangladesh abundantly clear.

Hence, Hasina’s tepid response to the new Indian leadership is understandable, but is unlikely to undermine the need for bilateral cooperation between the two neighbours. C.Raja Mohan, contributing editor of the Indian Express, who visited Dhaka shortly after Modi’s win, recently wrote, “The UPA government badly let down Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League, and reinforced the traditional scepticism in Dhaka that Delhi is not a reliable partner. Optimists in Dhaka nonetheless believe that the Modi government is capable of finishing what Manmohan Singh started’’.

Dhaka will continue seeking a strong and stable relationship with India; but it could employ a change in tack to reflect Dhaka’s growing impatience with Delhi’s cavalier attitude towards Bangladesh.

According to Major General Muniruzzaman, President of the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies, it will be naive of the Hasina government to see this bilateral relationship as business as usual. “Bangladesh will have to recalibrate its relationship with India. It is a new government, with a completely different ideology and agenda. It may speak the same language, but will be saying different things”.

The visa regime is a case in point. In March, the UPA government had issued a statement saying Bangladesh would be on the list of countries eligible for the new visa-on-arrival system being rolled out in October. But Modi’s government has categorically left Bangladesh out. To be fair, the UPA only paid lip service and did nothing to ease visa restrictions during its term in office.

More important is the use of lethal weapons on the border. There have been a number of deaths, the most horrifying being that of a 14-year-old girl named Felani. India’s BSF left her body hanging on the barbed wire fence for hours while her family was prevented from retrieving it.

Border killings have led to considerable tensions between the two countries and the Bangladeshi Foreign Ministry had indicated that this would be raised during the visit. The UPA government had promised border patrols with non-lethal weapons. This was seen as a step forward. But this too remained in the realm of lip service and the border killings continued.

Less than a month into its term, the Modi government has scrapped the idea of non-lethal weapons, and said that border guards were justified in killing illegal immigrants. This has cost India a tremendous amount of goodwill.

According to the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies, the Bangladesh government is expected to ask why the pre-election rhetoric in the Indian states of West Bengal and Assam focused so heavily on illegal immigration, given that Bangladesh disputes the figures being thrown around, and is also concerned about the implications of a ‘pushback.’ Of further concern are allegations that Hindus are severely persecuted in Bangladesh.

Border killings and the election rhetoric reflect a degree of hostility that ill-suits the relationship based on trust and cooperation that Bangladesh and India currently enjoy. There are diplomatic channels to deal such problems, if indeed there is a problem.

Water sharing is another major issue. The two countries share Fifty-three rivers, of which the Teesta has become the focal point, due to the construction of barrages on the Indian side that deprive western Bangladesh of adequate water. Once again, Indian good intentions failed to translate into action under the previous government in Delhi. Given that there is no love lost between the BJP and Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress government in West Bengal, which blocked the signing of a water-sharing agreement in 2010, Bangladesh will hope to get something concrete out of Swaraj’s visit.  A positive outcome here will significantly improve ties between the two countries, but most importantly it will tell Hasina, and Bangladesh, that Modi is a man it can do business with.

A number of other issues will also be on the agenda. The exchange of enclaves is a pointlessly perennial problem that should be resolved equitably, keeping the residents of the enclaves in mind. A land boundary agreement has been signed but not ratified by India, probably because the exchange of enclaves leaves Bangladesh with more territory to gain than India. Holding up the process only reconfirms Bangladesh’s suspicions that India is unwilling to seek genuine solutions to bilateral issues.

The question of trade and transit may also be raised, and Bangladesh may once again insist on access to Bhutan and Nepal so that the land-locked Himalayan countries can utilise Bangladesh’s ports. Bangladesh has maintained that this should come in exchange of transit facilities for India to its north eastern states, through Bangladeshi territory. It may also want greater access to Indian markets as the balance of trade is absurdly in India’s favour.

Sushma Swaraj is almost certain to raise the issue of terrorism and separatist camps that have recently been discovered. Sixty-five separatist camps, possibly belonging to the National Liberation Front of Tripura and the All-Tripura Tiger Force, have been found in Bangladesh. This is alarming both countries.

The Awami League government helped snuff out the Assam liberation movement by dismantling their bases in Bangladesh and arresting leaders like Anup Chetia. It would thus be unfair and essentially untrue if Delhi were to view the existence of these latest separatist camps as a deliberate harbouring of terrorists, instead of simply a failure of detection. Other terrorism-related issues also need to be discussed: both countries share a concern about militant Islamism. Bangladesh is currently engaged in a struggle against it, and would want an assurance that there will not be an influx of radical Muslims from India.

In this connection, the question of extradition may also be raised. A number of Bangladeshi criminals are currently in India and sending them back to face justice will demonstrate goodwill.

Bangladesh is likely to ask Swaraj to clarify a number of such issues, and will likely table a range of demands aimed at increasing cooperation and connectivity between the two countries. Many of these will also address matters of sovereignty and trade.

A right-wing Hindu government in India is no doubt a challenging scenario for a weaker, Muslim majority neighbour like Bangladesh. Fear and prejudices, on both sides, may influence the dynamic.

There should be a demonstrable willingness on Bangladesh’s part to work with any government in Delhi, regardless of their leanings, so long as Bangladesh’s strategic concerns are addressed sincerely. The challenge for Sushma Swaraj, therefore, will be to prove that her government is a more reliable partner than its predecessor, and that India’s interests in regional integration are not intended to undermine the sovereignty of its neighbours.

Zeeshan Khan is based in Bangladesh and is a journalist with the Dhaka Tribune. He writes on socio-political issues, history and governance.

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