Modi’s Dhaka visit raises new hopes

Peace and stability in Bangladesh is vital for India to improve connectivity with the North Eastern states and with East Asia, as envisaged in the Act East Policy. Mr Modi’s two day visit to the Bangladeshi capital, which begins on 6th June, is important for the multifarious issues which shall be on the table with our largest trading partner in South Asia.

The Political situation in Bangladesh

Having learnt the lessons from the tragic death of her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Sheikh Hasina has adopted a cautious, but effective approach in dealing with the fundamentalist and anti-India forces in her country. The public outcry for trial and execution of war criminals that erupted in the form of Shahbag movement bounced her back to power in January 2014, in an election which was boycotted by the opposition and therefore criticized for its lack of legitimacy. However, Sheikh Hasina has been firm about not resigning under pressure and has been cautious that the country should not slip into the hands of military or an unruly opposition. After the notorious war criminal Abdul Quader Mollah (talked about as ‘the butcher of Mirpur’), was hanged, Ms Hasina has had to face a season of political protests fuelled by religious fundamentalists, who have resorted to brutal targeting of the regime and free speech mentors, as the bloggers Avijit Roy and Ananta Bijoy Das, who were hacked to death in broad daylight. To maintain the secular credentials of her government, Ms Hasina got Justice Surendra Kumar Sinha from minority Hindu community appointed as Chief Justice and has continued to support a positive relationship with India (a stand often used to criticise her in domestic politics). Her actions prompted the Mr Modi to say “Bangabandhu founded Bangladesh and his daughter Sheikh Hasina saved it.”

What is at the table for discussion?

The bilateral visit is an opportune moment to talk about several regional issues- terrorism and religious extremism in the eastern part of South Asia, sharing of Teesta waters, finalizing the Land Boundary Agreement, illegal immigration, revitalizing SAARC and other regional forums and possibilities of cooperation on economic and socio-cultural fronts. A number of proposed agreements like cooperation in coastal shipping, prevention of human trafficking, motor vehicle agreement, enhancing power supply on the newly opened power-grid connection (the 100 MW from the Palatana project in Tripura), implementation of Dhaka-Shillong-Guwahati bus service, apart from increasing the frequency of Dhaka-Kolkata Maitree Express are on agenda for discussion.

Areas of bilateral cooperation

India and Bangladesh share 4096.7 km land border (of which 1116.2 km is riverine) and 289.7 km of maritime border. The contentious border issue is close to being resolved- with the long awaited Land Boundary Agreement ratified by the Indian Parliament last month and the maritime boundary settled earlier last year in a settlement by an international tribunal, which was honoured by both sides (notable since some initial resentments were being shown in India). While total fencing of border is difficult, with these agreements on border delineation, systems for better border management to check the problems of illegal migration, human and drug trafficking, shipment of contraband goods and weapons can be put in place. There are plans for opening four border haats along Meghalaya-Bangladesh border, apart from two existing along the border with Mizoram and one along Tripura border. Construction of border haat Kamlasagar (in Tripura)-Tarapur Kashba is in progress.

Sharing of Teesta waters still remains to be resolved. Given its high emotive appeal, sensitivities of the people of West Bengal have to be considered. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee accompanying Mr Modi to Dhaka is a start. That she has agreed to be a part of PM’s delegation this time is a perceptible change as she had earlier declined to be part of former PM Manmohan Singh team on visit to Dhaka in 2011. The issue of water sharing is a tedious one. There are 54 rivers flowing from India to Bangladesh and the joint river commission of the two countries is exploring the possibilities of water sharing.

Other prickly issues include that of illegal immigration. India had raised this issue especially in the context of such migration from Bangladesh to the northeastern states (particularly Assam) causing a demographic change in the areas affected. PM Modi’s party, BJP, has always taken a tough stand on illegal migration and also on smuggling of cattle across the border. Bangladesh is likely to seek India’s aid in resolving the Rohingyas issue- Dhaka denies them citizenship and Myanmar is trying to push them out to Bangladesh.

Energy cooperation can also be explored further with India developing hydro-power in the north-eastern states and harnessing natural gas needs through a pipeline from gas rich regions of Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Economic cooperation can be a win-win situation, and Bangladesh has offered space for Indian industries in its Special Economic Zone. New Delhi has offered financial assistance in tune of $200 million grant for development projects. Bangladesh has allowed India to use its territory and infrastructure to ferry 10,000 tonne foodgrains to Tripura. Bangladesh which proposes to build a deep sea port can be a partner with India in ship building.

Bangladesh is the first Muslim majority country that PM Modi has is visiting, before he embarks on his tour to West Asian and Central Asian countries in the coming months. If he wins the hearts of Bangladeshis, it will strengthen not only his neighbourhood first policy, but also his agenda for sub-regional cooperation within SAARC (mandated under the SAARC Charter) and revitalise his Act East Policy. Keeping in view the difficulties in taking the SAARC agenda forward owing to issues with Pakistan, India can catalyze cooperation within SAARC by taking Bangladesh into confidence.

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