Bangladesh Prime Minister SheikhHasina’s four-day state visit, from October 3 to October 6, during which seven agreements were signed, has been described as successful by both sides. The two countries have enjoyed a long period of bonhomie in bilateral ties ever since Sheikh Hasina returned to power in 2009. Most bilateral disputes have been settled amicably, including those relating to land and maritime boundaries. Issues relating to water-sharing, still hanging fire, figured prominently in the bilateral talks held in New Delhi. There are 54 rivers the two countries share but only one water-sharing treaty relating to the waters of the Ganga has been signed so far.
The signing of a treaty on the Teesta waters is still in abeyance after West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s last-minute objections scuttled the signing of an agreement in 2011. On assuming power in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi assured the Bangladesh government that the deal would be initialled before his first term expired. However, Mamata Banerjee remains unwilling to be a party to the deal. The lack of progress on this front, however, did not stop the two sides from signing an agreement under which India will be able to draw 1.82 cusecs of water from the Feni river, which flows into Bangladesh from Tripura.
India also agreed to establish a coastal surveillance system in Bangladesh by installing 24 radar systems. This will help India keep an eye on maritime activity along the Bangladesh coastline. The two sides agreed to expedite a study on the prospects of entering into a bilateral Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA).
A memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed to facilitate the use of the Chittagong and Mongla ports in Bangladesh for movement of goods to and from India. Bangladesh will also start exporting liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) to India for the first time. This has caused some consternation within Bangladesh, with the opposition alleging that Bangladesh will export natural gas produced within the country. Sheikh Hasina has since clarified that the LPG to be exported to India is not from gas fields in Bangladesh but a by-product of the country’s crude oil imports.
As for the coastal surveillance system, India has installed similar surveillance networks in neighbouring countries such as Sri Lanka, and the Maldives and Seychelles, as a safeguard against sea-borne terror attacks. The main purpose, however, is to keep a close watch on the movement of Chinese naval ships and submarines in the Indian Ocean. The United States, India and Japan, which view China’s growing naval footprint in the region with suspicion, have formed a de facto military alliance against a rising China.
The smaller countries in the region such as Bangladesh have tried to balance ties between the two big regional powers, China and India. Bangladesh, despite its comparatively small size, is the country with the eighth biggest population in the world. With the region’s fastest growing economy, Bangladesh will get the status of a developing country by 2024.
Since 2015, China has emerged as Bangladesh’s top trading partner, displacing India from the position. Bangladesh is also a member of China’s Belt Road Initiative (BRI). Because of this, increased Chinese funding for infrastructure development has poured into the country. Agreements for investments and loans worth more than $24 billion were signed when President Xi Jinping visited Bangladesh in 2016. India is in no position to compete; it could only announce a loan of $5 billion for Bangladesh in 2017.
Bangladesh, which has a robust defence relationship with China, is the second biggest importer of Chinese weaponry after Pakistan. The delivery of two Chinese submarines to Bangladesh in 2017 had rattled the authorities in New Delhi. A former head of the Indian Navy, Admiral Arun Prakash, went to the extent of stating that it was part of Beijing’s strategy of “encircling India with its client states”. Sheikh Hasina has gone out of her way to allay India’s apprehensions. Speaking at a World Economic Forum meeting in Dalian during her visit to China earlier this year, she said relations between New Delhi and Dhaka were “organic”. The two countries, she said, “have shed blood together” in the fight for independence.
Her latest visit to India has come after the Indian government unilaterally changed the status of Kashmir and pledged to go full steam ahead with the implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Dhaka views the NRC as a barely disguised policy of driving “illegal” residents, most of them of Bangladeshi origin, out of the country. Currently, 1.9 million people in Assam have been excluded from the NRC.
Home Minister Amit Shah, while campaigning in Haryana in the second week of October, reiterated that those without the necessary papers to prove their citizenship would be sent back to their country of origin by 2024. He has also announced that the NRC would be introduced in other Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled States such as Uttar Pradesh and then gradually all over the country. He has explicitly stated that non-Muslims have nothing to fear, making it clear that the NRC has been created only to target the largest minority in the country.
On the “Rohingya” issue, which is a highly emotive one in Bangladesh, the Indian government had initially chosen to side with the military-backed government of Myanmar and gloss over the genocidal acts of Myanmar’s army. In the last election, the BJP made an issue of the alleged danger posed to India’s security by the comparatively few Rohingya refugees in the country. More than a million Rohingya are currently living in dire conditions in refugee camps in Bangladesh.
During her visits to Japan and China in May and June, the Rohingya issue was on top of Sheikh Hasina’s agenda. Dhaka wants New Delhi, Tokyo and Beijing to exert pressure on the Myanmar government jointly to resolve the crisis. For reasons of their own, the three governments have not exerted themselves diplomatically on the issue so far. Dhaka has reason to feel let down by its close allies and the international community on the issue.
Yet the Indian government has finally had to take into account Bangladesh’s principled stand on the issue. Sheikh Hasina has requested the Modi government to use its good offices to persuade the Myanmar government to take back the Rohingya, most of whom hail from the Rakhine state in Myanmar. The joint statement issued during Sheikh Hasina’s visit said that Modi “appreciated Bangladesh’s generosity in sheltering and providing humanitarian assistance to the forcibly displaced persons from the Rakhine state of Myanmar”. This was the Indian government’s first open acknowledgement that the Rohingya were driven out from their homeland against their will.
Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque told the media in New Delhi that Sheikh Hasina had raised the NRC issue during her talks with Modi. He also made it a point to mention that the Bangladesh Prime Minister had raised the issue when the two leaders met on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meet in New York, where she said that the NRC had become an issue of “great concern” for her government. He added that Modi had given an assurance that the ongoing NRC process was a purely internal matter that was mandated by the Indian judiciary and that the government of Bangladesh “had nothing to worry about”. The Bangladesh government seems to be giving the Indian government the benefit of the doubt. Shahidul Haque said that the relationship between the two countries was currently “best of the best”. Modi also said the two nations were enjoying a “golden period” in their relationship. Yet the Bangladeshi side does not seem fully convinced about the Modi government’s bona fides on the NRC. “At the same time, we are keeping our eyes open”, Shahidul Haque said. “I think that we should not make a crisis out of nothing at this stage and we should be able to wait and see.”
Speaking at the Indo-Bangladesh Business Forum during her visit, Sheikh Hasina talked about the critical issues facing the subcontinent and seemed to warn of the dangers posed by the politics of majoritarianism. “We must move beyond the majority-minority mindset…. Pluralism has been our strength. So, we should be able to celebrate South Asia’s diversities in religion, ethnicity and language,” she said. The allusion clearly was to the rise of religious fundamentalism in the region. India, unfortunately, is no longer an exception. Sheikh Hasina, too, for that matter, has been riding roughshod over the opposition, with the Indian government’s tacit support.
All the same, the current Indian government’s blatantly anti-Muslim stance is making life difficult for the ruling Awami League in domestic politics. Opposition parties are openly questioning the rationale behind Dhaka’s special relationship with New Delhi at a time when Bangladeshis are viewed with suspicion and derision in India. An engineering college student in Dhaka was killed, allegedly by members of the Awami League’s youth wing, for criticising the agreements that Sheikh Hasina signed in New Delhi. The Feni river deal and the use of the ports of Mongla and Chittagong by India have in particular stoked a controversy in Bangladesh.