Modi’s Visit to Bangladesh and South Asian Perspectives


Romance scored an undeniable victory over reality as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi left Bangladesh on June 7 with his mission amply fulfilled so far as India was concerned. However, on the other hand, the captivating siren notes of engaging friendship and high hopes threatened to subside into whimpering hopelessness for Bangladesh in the longer run.

The temptation is strong to compare the two-day weekend visit of the Indian Premier to that of his predecessor Manmohan Singh in November 2011. The Manmohan visit also raised high hopes of settling the Land Boundary Agreement deciding the fate of Bangladeshi enclaves in India and Indian enclaves within Bangladesh. The enclaves were the unfortunate and almost inhuman legacy of the partition of the subcontinent as British colonial rule retreated in 1947.

The Manmohan visit also held out bright prospects—until the last moment—of the resolution of sharing the waters of the Teesta and Feni rivers. It also was almost certain to draw up agreements on transit and connectivity between the two states and other neighbors.

As it transpired, the two most important issues, although apparently independent of each other, that of sharing Teesta and Feni waters and transit remained unresolved. Mamata Banerjee’s last minute stand against the proposed formula of water sharing stalled the Teesta agreement and, as what seems to be the fallout, obstructed the finalization of transit arrangements. Although the leaders of both countries presented a brave face and held out hopes of resolving the issues in the near future, there was little doubt that for the time being, in 2011, hopes of further cementing the friendly ties had been dashed to the ground.

The Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, the architect of the season of renewal of Indo-Bangla friendship, justifiably lamented the “unfair” critics’ stress on the failures. She pointed out that these skeptics shied away from extolling the successes achieved by the visit of the Indian premier to Bangladesh in 2011. Among these are the agreements, in principle on the exchange of enclaves, an unresolved matter that since the departure of the British from the sub-continent in 1947, had virtually imprisoned thousands of enclave-dwellers in subhuman existence; duty-free entry of 46 Bangladeshi products into India; demarcation of hitherto undemarcated portion of the Indo-Bangladesh border; and exchange of land under adverse possession. In addition, an understanding was reached on import of Indian electricity into Bangladesh and educational and cultural exchanges.

That was then, in 2011; but what happened now, i.e. in June 2015, with Modi’s visit? On the surface everything seems to denote stunning success in resolving hitherto unresolved bilateral issues. Only the thorny issue of sharing of the waters of the Teesta and Feni rivers remained yet unsolved. The matter of the other 54 common rivers save the Ganges cast doubts and suspicion about settlement in the foreseeable future. Yet, the Teesta and Feni water sharing issue was visibly the insurmountable barrier which left the Manmohan Singh mission in 2011 incomplete.

Mr. Modi was more successful. There was no immediate relenting on the Teesta water sharing on India’s part despite the inexplicable presence during part of Mr. Modi’s visit, of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. This time charmed by the promise of a new era of friendly relationship with neighbors under the leadership of Modi, Bangladesh apparently decided to put the water sharing issue aside and go ahead with other major bilateral agreements. No wonder then that a critical analysis of the Chinese news agency Xinhua remarked sardonically, “Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrapped-up his two-day maiden state visit to Dhaka leaving behind a ‘Thirsty Bangladesh’.”

Nevertheless, Prime Minister Modi enumerated the following as highlights of his hectic official program: “We launched two bus services that will connect our citizens more easily and our two nations more closely. We were privileged to have with us the Chief Minister of West Bengal. As our economies get more integrated and our people better connected, our nations will become more prosperous. It will also open new economic doors for India’s Northeast. And, it will enable our two countries to integrate South Asia and connect it with the dynamic East.

“Our two nations have a settled boundary. Our Parliament’s approval of Land Boundary Agreement reflects the consensus in India on relations with Bangladesh. We accepted the settlement of the maritime boundary last year.

“We have renewed existing trade and transport agreements. We have added new dimensions to our economic ties. The coastal shipping agreement will boost bilateral trade. The Indian Economic Zone will promote Indian investments in Bangladesh.

“I am conscious of the huge trade imbalance, despite duty free and quota free access to Bangladesh in India on all but 25 items. …. I will also try to make trade smoother and easier, including at the border. The agreement on standards and testing is a step in that direction. Power supply from India to Bangladesh will grow from 500 MW to 1100 MW within two years. The 1320 MW Rampal Power Project is making progress in accordance with your laws and regulation.

“Bangladesh’s decision to allow transit of power equipment and food-grain to the Northeast echoes the strength of your human values and our shared economic opportunities. Connectivity by road, rail, rivers, sea, transmission lines, petroleum pipelines and digital links will increase. We are pleased to extend another line of credit of 2 billion US dollars to support infrastructure and other development activities in Bangladesh. As the three agreements on human trafficking, fake Indian currency and maritime safety show, our security cooperation is growing.”

Additionally, Modi gave a public assurance, “We can reach a fair solution on the Teesta and Feni rivers.” An MoU was also signed on the blue economy and maritime cooperation in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, as well as on the use of Chittagong and Mongla ports.

Tricky issues were covered in the Bangladesh-India joint declaration after the visit thus: “The Coordinated Border Management Plan (CBMP) for better border management …. would enhance cooperation between the border guarding forces of the two countries, and enable them to manage the identified vulnerable areas with a view to preventing criminal activities, irregular movement, acts of violence and loss of lives along the border areas…Both sides welcomed the finalization of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for allowing usage of Indian border roads for construction and maintenance of Border out Posts (BoPs) of Border Guards Bangladesh as well as use of Indian medical facilities in difficult areas in the border area by Bangladeshi personnel, who are deployed in the vicinity. The two Prime Ministers directed the concerned authorities that the number of deaths at the border must be brought down to zero…Deliberations are underway involving all (Indian) stakeholders with regard to conclusion of the Interim Agreements on sharing of waters of Teesta and Feni as soon as possible. The two Prime Ministers noted that discussions on various aspects relating to sharing of waters of the Manu, Muhuri, Khowai, Gumti, Dharla and Dudhkumar rivers were taking place at technical levels under the Joint River Commission (JRC).”

The two Prime Ministers recalled Article-2 of the Framework Agreement on Cooperation for Development of 2011 and reiterated “their commitment to address the issue of water resources management of common rivers including water sharing, in a holistic manner through common basin management…Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Bhutan are also examining the possibility of using multimodal transport to meet their commercial as well as tourist needs.”

The list of the achievements of the Modi visit to Bangladesh appears to be long and impressive. It is evidently an articulation of promising possibilities of the season of neighborly friendship so jealously renewed by Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina. The cordial inter-nation fraternity also seems to successfully cross the political divide both in India and Bangladesh. The ruling and opposition parties in the Indian parliament united in massive support to ratify the Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, on the other hand, the major opposition party BNP so long viewed as unfavorably disposed towards India vowed on the eve of the Modi’s visit that it never has and nor will nurture an anti-Indian stance.

As the Economist of London observed: “Most startling feature of Mr. Modi’s weekend visit was the tame conduct of Bangladesh’s political opposition. Despite uncertainty hinted by government quarters of premier Modi meeting the opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia, a meeting was indeed held. It is believed that Begum Zia stressed the need of restoring real democracy in Bangladesh in her deliberations with the leader of the largest functioning democracy in the world. A major part of the intelligentsia and civil society elites were also effusive in their admiration for Mr. Modi’s impressive address at a function of the Dhaka University. The dissenting elite seemed to be in a visible minority. Modi’s tune of untarnished Indo-Bangladesh friendship seems to be spellbinding. This was, however, in sad contrast to the reported depth of distrust among the Bangladeshi people at large. As a dissident Bangladeshi commentator remarked, ‘Ordinary Bangladeshis did not mince their words to express their deep distrust of India’s involvement in power games in Bangladesh, cultural invasions, border killings and beggaring Bangladesh by deprivation of flows in common rivers’.”

Regardless of comments and dissidence, the immense hopes of enduring neighborly friendship between Bangladesh and India generated by Modi’s maiden visit to Dhaka cannot be underestimated. The barriers on the way to the realization of hopes are many and difficult. The distrust of India’s inclination to act as the regional hegemon gives rise to suspicions about the eventual results of Indian transit through Bangladesh. It also raises skepticism about the positive results of Indo-Bangladesh cooperation in security and economic spheres.

Dazzling as the success of the Modi visit may seem to be, it should not be viewed in isolation. One should not lose sight of the total scenario of inter-state relationship in the South Asian region. The painful failures, though hopefully temporary, of settling the issue of sharing of waters of the Teesta and Feni rivers represents only the tip of the iceberg. Beyond and behind the failures lies the vast landscape, or seascape if you like, of the nature of the entities concerned and their interrelationship as shaped by centuries of distant and decades of immediate past history.

One may as well note what the former Indian High Commissioner to Dhaka Krishnan Srinivasan (during the early 1990s) wrote in his ‘Jamdani Revolution’ (Academic Press and Publishers Library, Dhaka, Second Impression, 2009). “…Both India and Bangladesh continue the fiction that while India and Pakistan are known to be enemies, India and Bangladesh enjoy friendly relations – or rather would do if some few irritants were removed. But in fact the relationship is complicated by, and indeed rooted in, domestic tensions for which it becomes both a surrogate and a paradigm. It transcends inter-governmental activity; it is nothing less than a post-partition battle for men’s minds. Neither the events of 1947 nor 1971 have resolved this matter in East Bengal. The protagonists are Indian secularism on the one hand and Pakistani conformism on the other. Arrayed behind each are, on the one hand, the liberals, those who believe their existence as ethnic Bengalis is more important than the faith they practice, and the separatists and obscurantist devout, on the other, clinging despite all the evidence to the contrary to the notion of the solidarity of the Islamic ummah, and for whom the break with the Hindu majority of 1947 was more significant than the liberation from Pakistan in 1971.”

He further states, “…It behooves India to be supportive to Bangladesh’s economic and political progress. I have seen little of that; too much of my time has passed bewailing New Delhi’s insensitivity or indifference. Government circles place much store on support to the secular elements of 1971 vintage and the Hindus. But neither issue is absolutely central to India’s long-term interests. Settlement of Bangladesh’s grievances, which cut across party lines, would be to India’s advantage since none of these problems are a dagger at India’s heart by any manner or means. But the political will and attention span have been lacking in New Delhi even when the bureaucracy has been willing to give a shove in the right direction – which has not always been the case.”

Or as a Bangladeshi analyst clearly stated: “The inter-state relations in South Asia appear highly paradoxical when viewed in the context of today’s global politics. The region appears to be prepared neither to take the advantages offered by the recent changes in international arena nor to face the challenges posed by them. The conflict scenario in South Asia remains almost unaffected. Contrary to expectations, both intra and inter-state conflicts have become more intractable. In the context of today’s world when cooperation among regional countries is most crucial, South Asia has given regional cooperation within the framework of SAARC at best a low-key position.”

The Indian concept of “strategic indivisibility of the subcontinent” and India’s role behavior as an apex-power in the regional hierarchy seem to have contributed to the largely static political scenario in South Asia. The Indo-Pakistan conflict has assumed a “status quo character” while the conflicts marking the relationship of India with smaller neighbors such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal, have assumed “difficult dimensions.”

The preoccupation of the ruling elites of South Asian countries with outdated conflicts hangs round their necks as many dead albatross. It reflects the tragedy of their inadequate exercises at nation-building. It is a testimony to the uneven development of their sub-national groups. It is a measure also of past failures of their development strategies that they borrowed from the capitalist West or the now-defunct socialist Soviet Union without realistic adaptation to their own socio-economic contexts. During the last decade, however, new and realistic adjustments of economic development policies by courageous liberalization measures by India and some of its neighbors have resulted in encouraging growth and progress.

The political arena, however, continued to suffer from “inertia of rest”. The intra-mural failures of the ruling elites at political development through institution-building for resolution of the internal “center-periphery” conflicts were and still are transformed into external conflicts. This has led to further regional instability. Thus, insurgencies in some Indian states become regional problems. Militant elements in Assam, Nagaland or Mizoram on the warpath against the Indian central authority spill over into Bangladesh and Myanmar. Some unhappy minor ethnic entities of Bangladesh seek elusive patronage and succor in the sympathy and help of some quarters in India.

Political development seems to have been inadequate in South Asia. The states comprising the region have failed to fully cope with politico-ethnic and cultural demands of their peoples. In consequence, the core of the development process, human development, has suffered the most. There have been some admirable successes but the speed and spread has been much less than desirable. There are historic reasons for this failure. A major factor that led to South Asia’s lack of expected success to cope with the present is its persistent preoccupation with the dead past.

The changes in the world’s North “are likely to intensify the common problems faced by the countries of South Asia in the context of their development process. These problems are epitomized in the relentless erosion in terms of trade, increased restrictions on their exports in the industrially advanced countries, insufficient transfer of resources (to South Asian countries), rising imbalance in their external payments and growing burden of external debts for many of these countries.”

Despite several advantages, such as a common civilizational heritage, shared history and potential integrative eco-systems, South Asian countries remained unable to meaningfully and effectively cooperate in economic activities, trade and industry for development, centered round and resulting in human development. In spite of the SAARC, the situation does not seem to have registered any significant improvement. Even on the bilateral plane the record is less than satisfactory. The obstacles on the way of economic and business cooperation between India and Bangladesh even at the present friendly times illustrate these unfortunate trends.

Similar disabilities mark the political sphere. For too long these inabilities have been sought to be explained in terms of external influence and intrusion. In South Asia, superpower rivalry, intensified, complicated and distorted by other extra-regional forces, have been pinpointed as the root-cause of the politico-economic barriers within the area – barriers which drained the essence of the region’s vitality and energy and turned it into a graveyard of development efforts.

The major features of this complex phenomenon that goes beyond politics and subordinates considerations of human and economic development are reflected in the persistent matrices of mistrust and distrust between India and its neighbors. As the noted Indian writer and journalist Pran Chopra observed: “…far from facilitating regional cooperation, the overhang of history has cast a shadow upon South Asia, creating a fog of mistrust in which the problems of the centrality of India and the disparity between India and its neighbors loom even larger than life.”

The world in the north has changed. The Asia-Pacific region (meaning the East and Southeast Asian nations) has changed. But South Asia seems unable to change fast and move forward rapidly. It remains, politically and economically, a captive of the unhappy part of its past. Yet until even three or four centuries ago it was one of the most prosperous regions of the world. That three-millennium long proud and prosperous past may still inspire the leaders and peoples of this part of the world to move in tandem for a better future. In order to succeed, the efforts to achieve such a bright future must be spearheaded by the opinion leaders of the South Asian countries.

This realistic realization and consequent concerted action can secure the ramparts of the South Asian states. Secure in their well-governed democracies these countries can move in unison toward a better future forged by cooperation. Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina have signed framework agreements of greater and enduring bilateral cooperation. For such agreements—bilateral or multilateral—to be meaningful and lasting an effective framework of similar mindsets need to be in place in the countries of South Asia.