Dynamism in India-Bangladesh relations will be crucial to success of India’s ‘Act East’ policy

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by Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra 13 July 2019

As New Delhi has made its ‘Act East’ stride clear by inviting the member-states of BIMSTEC (the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony after the BJP-led government was reelected to power this year, significance of Bangladesh has risen further because the South Asian country located on the cusp of South and Southeast Asia figures prominently in India’s eastward march. Thus, success of India’s act east policy would largely hinge on the country’s forging of successful ties with Bangladesh.

Location of Bangladesh – bound by India to the north, east and west makes it better connected to India in terms of rail, road, waterways, sea and air compared to any other neighbor. Due to its location as a bridge between South and Southeast Asia, Bangladesh has been a lynchpin to India’s sub-regional initiatives such as BIMSTEC, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal Initiative (BBIN) and Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar initiative (BCIM).

Bangladesh is India’s largest trade partner in South Asia and bilateral trade between the two countries was estimated to be $9.3 billion in 2017-18 which is expected to surge further once the countries work out infrastructural and duty-related issues. However, the Indian concerns would remain as Bangladesh as a developing country has been naturally attracted to China’s deep pockets and the South Asian country not only became a partner in the Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI) but turned out to be a robust trade partner surpassing India. Former Commerce and Industry Minister of India, Suresh Prabhu proposed Bangladesh to consider negotiating a free trade agreement to facilitate seamless flows of goods, services and investment. India has also ensured duty-free access of Bangladeshi goods to Indian market which has led to an increase of Bangladesh ready-made garments exports to India as well as an increase in Indian investment. India continues to be one of the major development partners of Bangladesh by extending three lines of credit worth a total of $8 billion since 2010. There is not  only collaboration in the power sector with joint ventures in thermal power projects and Bangladesh imports 1160 MW of power from India each year substantiating deeper Indian engagement with the country in the energy sector. However, contributing to India’s concerns, China is emerging as a competitor in the energy sector as well to meet the developing country’s increasing energy requirements. India would still need to play a crucial role in facilitating and strengthening trade and investment ties further if it wishes its leading role within BIMSTEC is accepted much as the Chinese influence under the BRI. The economic lifeline of South Asian countries is defined by agriculture and trade of agro-based products which make their economies more competitive rather than complementary in nature. They look to the US, European countries and other industrially-developed countries for their trade. India will have to strive to rectify this trend by looking for and developing areas where the economies of the region would complement. Thus, India needs to lead efforts at developing understanding among the countries of the region including Bangladesh if it has to make sub-regional initiatives successful.
India must underline the significance of migration, people-to-people contacts, geographical advantage and historical and cultural ties with the South Asian countries which provide it a clear edge over China. According to a World Bank report, around five million South Asian migrant workers in India sent more than $7.5 billion in remittances back to their home countries in 2014, while just twenty thousand workers in China sent $107 million including to India. In the case of Bangladesh, remittances from India inject the Bangladeshi economy with more than $4 billion, nearly eight times the value of the $557 million in Bangladeshi goods imported by India in 2014. Migration and people-to-people contacts make India’s relations with other South Asian countries more organic than their relations with China. Therefore, India needs to maintain and cultivate these ties without being bogged down by the Chinese sway in the region.    

It is noteworthy that the bilateral relationship has been strengthened after the visit of Indian Prime Minister Modi to Bangladesh in 2015 which has been followed up by crucial developments indicating the countries’ willingness to forge relations ahead which included resolution of long pending land and maritime boundaries. Contentious territorial issues have been resolved through discussions and the two countries signed the India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement in 2015 which resulted in the exchange of 162 enclaves with Bangladesh receiving 111 of them (encompassing around 17,000 acres of land), while India receiving 51 (covering around 7,000 acres of land).

Cooperation in the area of security has been forged with the signing of bilateral agreements pertaining to mutual legal assistance, transfer of prisoners, countering terrorism and organized crime, and the circulation of fake currency. Manifold dialogue mechanisms have been instituted to kick off and maintain bilateral dialogue and discussions in the areas of relevance to both countries.  

While India and Bangladesh share a 4,000km long border and Indian states in the Northeast are crucial to New Delhi’s act-east policy because they share a long border of 1,880 kilometers with Bangladesh passing through difficult terrains, illegal-trafficking, ethnic conflicts, occasional infiltration and smuggling of fake currency across the border impose challenges as to how to manage them in order to turn these areas into constructive connecting-link in the overall act-east policy. Sheikh Hasina government’s iron-fisted approach against insurgency and continued assurance that no anti-India activity would be allowed on Bangladeshi soil is a positive development. However, two countries must strengthen their cooperation in order to turn the border areas into viable units within the Act-east framework.

Tourism is an area which can forge people-to-people contacts and place the relationship on a strong pedestal. According to India Tourism Statistics 2018 published by the Ministry of Tourism of the Indian government, India received 10.04 million foreign tourists in the year 2017 of which Bangladesh accounted for 21% with 2.16 million tourists. It has been estimated that India hosts more tourists from Bangladesh than the total number of tourists arriving from all Western European countries. The organic links between the two countries have been facilitated by regular train and bus services running between the countries. Passenger trains such as Maitree Express which runs four days a week between Kolkata and Dhaka and Bandhan Express which runs once a week between Khulna and Kolkata bind the two countries in terms of people-to-people contacts. This apart, direct bus services between Dhaka and Kolkata, Dhaka and Agartala, Kolkata, Dhaka and Agartala, and Dhaka, Shillong and Guwahati and non-stop flights between the major cities of India and Bangladesh intertwine the two countries more organically than between any other neighbors in South Asia.

These transportation facilities would be the prime-movers of India’s act-east policy. For instance, Akhaura-Agartala rail project is designed to provide a fillip to development and economy of eastern Bangladesh and north eastern India. Even while the Indian government has shared the major portion of the project financially, it would provide impetus to India’s eastward stride in the tong-term and distance between major cities such as Dhaka and Kolkata has been slashed by 1100 km. Construction of 1320 MW Rampal coal-fired power plant, training of Bangladeshi officials as well as Bangladeshi judicial officers in India further cement ties between the countries. The Prime Ministers of both countries jointly inaugurated the rehabilitation of Kulaura-Shahbazpur section of railway line which will provide direct rail connectivity to Karimganj district of Assam and other north eastern states. Further, Indian Assistant High Commission office has been opened in Sylhet intending to facilitate faster development of visa to the people of Sylhet and adjoining areas and open new opportunities for promotion of trade, commerce and tourism between Sylhet and Northeast India. Providing a stimulus to the people-to-people contacts, the Indian High Commission in Dhaka confirms that the travelers from Bangladesh who previously had to confine their visits to West Bengal are now allowed to go to the Indian northeast, Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Jammu and Kashmir. The Indian government has also lifted restrictions for Bangladeshis from visiting Sikkim and Ladakh.

India needs to tread a cautious path

Bangladesh relied on China’s military assistance in its drive to modernize its defence. India should not look at Bangladeshi economic and military ties with China as a source of major concern. While New Delhi must appreciate the Bangladeshi desire to maintain balance between India and China, it must at the same time make attempts at arousing confidence in Dhaka that India would continue to contribute to development of Bangladesh and strong bilateral ties between both countries are crucial to the success of sub-regional initiatives.

It is worth-mentioning that Prime Minister Hasina on her visit to China described Dhaka’s ties with India and engagements with New Delhi as “organic” and the relationship is “beyond a few billions of dollars of trade”. On the other side, she said: “China is our partner in mega projects and economic advancements”. Repelling concerns that Chinese projects under BRI spawn debt traps, she said:  “Many people talk about the ‘debt trap’. I have a simple answer. As long as these mega projects are in our people’s interest, has the right pay off and negotiated rightly, we must not be worried”.

India must not allow bilateral concerns such as migration, water-sharing problem, infiltration and illegal trafficking degenerating into anti-Bangladeshi rhetoric. This may disturb the delicate balance that Bangladesh wishes to maintain between India and China. India must be cautious of the Chinese strategic designs within Bangladesh. For instance, Bangladeshi port of Chittagong is a considered crucial part of China’s Maritime Silk Route. Bangladesh also cancelled a port that China proposed to build at Sonadia, on the south-eastern corner of Bangladesh, which if completed would have brought the Chinese presence close to India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands. So long as New Delhi shares the development and security concerns of Bangladesh and sustains the historical and cultural ties without hurting the sentiments of people and leaders of Bangladesh, the chance of the South Asian country slipping into Chinese sphere of influence is unlikely. The historical bonding and Sheikh Hasina government’s perception of India has been shaped by the fact that India’s military assistance was not only instrumental in liberating East Pakistan from Pakistan proper, New Delhi was first to recognize Bangladesh as an independent sovereign country.

However, certain intricate political issues must be handled by India carefully to keep the warmth of relations. New Delhi must maintain its independence in foreign policy making and manage the nuances of bilateral relations without being tied down by local pressures. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee remarked that India and Bangladesh governments should resolve the long-standing issue of sharing waters of the Atreyee river. She said the flow of the Atreyee water into India had been artificially restricted on the Bangladesh side and was creating problems for the people of the of South Dinajpur district. Similarly, Mamata’s opposition to sharing of Teesta waters has been evident. India needs to consider that Bangladesh being the downstream riparian state must be allowed a fair share of the Teesta waters in the dry season and India must ensure that Bangladesh receives water which can be spared throughout the year. The leaders of both countries must explain to each other their position on the issue and must not show intransigence if workable solutions can be arrived at.  India’s reticence on the issue of human rights violations in Myanmar and its abstaining from voting on a UN resolution that aimed at holding Naypyitaw reponsible for human rights violations must not have gone down well in Dhaka which expected New Delhi to pressure Myanmar to repatriate Rohingya refugees. However, Bangladesh did not allow the dissatisfaction to affect bilateral relations and India tried to ameliorate Bangladeshi concerns making a quick response to the humanitarian crisis through assistance. India needs to walk a cautious path on this issue as well. 

Rhetoric arousing suspicion and fear such as illegal Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants would be expelled with the implementation of the National Registry of Citizens (NRC) nationwide once NRC was mooted in Assam could be hazardous to the bilateral relations. The two countries must help each other understand the intricacies of policies which could have an impact on any one of them. Adequate attention must be paid to the emotions and sensitivities of the people on each side.