A good start

Print edition : July 25, 2014

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina welcomes India's External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, in Dhaka on June 26. Photo: AP

THE visit to Bangladesh by India’s new External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, came amid speculation that the change of regime in India may see a slowdown in the progress made in the relations between the two countries in the past five years. In the event, at the end of the visit from June 25 to 27, Sushma Swaraj was able to send the message that Delhi-Dhaka ties would continue to flourish.

In the past five years, the two countries have witnessed a whole range of engagements, including the signing of a host of important accords to boost trade and cooperation. For the first time, Bangladesh met India’s vital security concern vis-a-vis the north-eastern region.

Nevertheless, several issues remain unresolved, including the signing of the Teesta water-sharing treaty and the ratification of the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA), mainly on the exchange of enclaves.

Many analysts say Sushma Swaraj left Dhaka with the satisfaction of having made a “good start” . “The visit was extremely satisfying and fulfilling,” said Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin.

Sushma Swaraj assured Bangladesh that her government was “actively considering” the issue of the ratification of the LBA, which, Dhaka believes, has not happened so far because of India’s domestic political dynamics. Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmud Ali, quoting his counterpart, said Sushma Swaraj assured him that the deal would be signed “soon”.

On the tricky Teesta water-sharing issue, officials in Dhaka said Sushma Swaraj told Mahmud Ali and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina that the Narendra Modi government was “trying to reach a consensus” on the issue. Sushma Swaraj had talked to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee before her Dhaka visit.

One of the main outcomes of the visit was India agreeing to ease its visa regime. It has offered five–year, multiple-entry tourist visas for Bangladeshis who are in the 65-plus and under-13 age categories. This, analysts say, will play a positive role in expanding people-to-people contacts.

The two countries have also agreed to start a new bus service from Dhaka to Shillong and Guwahati, increase the frequency of the Moitree Express train running between Dhaka and Kolkata, and convert Bangladesh’s Agartala visa office into a full-fledged Deputy High Commission.

India has agreed to supply 100 megawatt of power from Tripura’s Palatana power plant to Bangladesh. This will be in addition to the 50 MW power it supplies through an inter-state grid. The two countries also discussed security, trade, border issues and counterterrorism. The Indian side raised the issue of “illegal immigration” from Bangladesh, which was highlighted during the election campaign in India.

Bangladesh reiterated its assurance that it would not allow anyone to use its territory for terrorist activities against India. Sushma Swaraj expressed gratitude for the cooperation India received from Bangladesh in combating trans-boundary crime, insurgency and terrorism.

The visit also projected the new Indian government’s stand “to engage and partner” with Bangladesh. During the deliberations, the focus was mainly on “connectivity”—people-to-people contact, energy cooperation, transport and exchange of ideas. It was repeatedly said that the new government in New Delhi intended to give “a fresh impetus” to bilateral relations. The talks with the Bangladesh leaders were “constructive, productive, fruitful and successful”, said the Indian spokesman.

Sushma Swaraj, in a lecture on India-Bangladesh relations, categorically stated that the new dispensation in India wanted to “continue and further strengthen our cooperation so as to ensure a long-lasting, safe, secure and peaceful neighbourhood”. She also observed that a “comprehensive and equitable partnership with Bangladesh is essential for a stable, secure and prosperous South Asia”. India also assured Bangladesh that it would address its “concerns” and emphasised that it was the Modi government’s desire that the two countries “flourish together as two equal partners”. Sushma Swaraj acknowledged that “a great deal” had been achieved in the relations in the last few years and said the Modi government would continue to build on the “momentum”.

Sushma Swaraj, referring to the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war, said “we shed blood together”, and added that “history and geography have destined us to live together”.

Sheikh Hasina emphasised regional peace and stability and unified action against poverty, which she said was “the principal enemy of South Asia”. Hasina promised zero tolerance on terrorism and militancy and also asked the Indian External Affairs Minister to extradite Bangladeshi criminals hiding in India and halt border deaths.

Sushma Swaraj handed over an invitation from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Sheikh Hasina, which she has accepted. In the letter, Modi wrote that for India, Bangladesh was “not merely a neighbour, but a nation with which we share history, culture, civilisation and enduring links between people”. The visiting Indian Minister called on President Abdul Hamid and Leader of the Opposition Begum Raushan Ershad. Bangladesh National Party (BNP) chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia, during her meeting with Sushma Swaraj, reportedly complained to her about “lack of democracy” in Bangladesh.

The BNP and its allies, which boycotted the January 5 elections, maintain that the Hasina government is “unelected and undemocratic”. However, Sushma Swaraj told Begum Khaleda that New Delhi wanted to emphasise the people-to-people relationship instead of favouring any particular party or government in Bangladesh.

The alarming reality of Bangladesh’s politics is that the country has become polarised on two distinct lines: the “pro-liberation” secularists and the “re-surfaced Islamists”. The latter have accumulated enough strength to challenge the achievements of 1971 when the people, irrespective of their religious beliefs, fought for independence from Pakistan. Compromising its somewhat moderate image, the BNP is increasingly becoming dependent on the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Islamist party which had violently opposed independence.

India and Bangladesh share a 3,909-kilometre border, globally the fifth longest. The shared geography and history are good reasons for them to live together, maintaining good-neighbourly ties.

Haroon Habib

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