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Ties between India and Bangladesh, South Asia’s closest neighbours, are up for consolidation as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visits New Delhi. She is scheduled to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi on October 5. India sees the visit as importnt in that ven before its commentment, Modi has urged Bangladesh “not to worry” over the delicate issue of immigtants in India’s northestern corner.

Veteran diplomat, Ambassador Tariq Karim, who was High Commissioner to New Delhi for five crucial years, tkes an overview of the bilateral reltions and what Djhaka expects from the visit.    

Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina has landed in New Delhi for talks with the Indian leadership.  After attending the India Economic Summit of the World Economic Forum in New Delhi on October 4, Sheikh Hasina will have bilateral talks with Prime Minister Modi on October 5.   

Her last official visit to New Delhi took place in April 2017, while Mr. Modi had visited Bangladesh in May 2015. So, at this point on the eve of her visit, it would be pertinent to take stock of where Bangladesh-India bilateral relations stand today. 

Since Sheikh Hasina’s game changing visit to India in January 2010, Bangladesh-India have been reconfigured phenomenally in qualitative and substantive terms. The two countries amicably resolved, completely, their long festering land boundary dispute and equally long troubling maritime border dispute; trade has registered a quantum jump, with Bangladesh exports to India having crossed the psychological USD one billion mark; India has extended over USD 8 billion line of credit to Bangladesh, of which USD 200 million of the first tranche was converted to outright grant, while most of the rest will feed into massive infrastructure development projects, restoring historical connectivity that had been closed following Partition in 1947, and power projects for strengthening energy security in Bangladesh. 

Significantly, the two Prime Ministers enjoy excellent personal rapport.  If India today has one good friend standing steadfastly by its side in her often-troubled neighborhood, it is Bangladesh.  So, what could go wrong? Several things.

What could still inject jarring tones and notes into this narrative of bonhomie are matters of public perception and mismatched expectations, more on Bangladesh side than India’s perhaps (but that could well be a matter of hyper-sensitivity on the part of one and relative absence of it in the other!). For starters, the unresolved matter of Teesta water sharing is galling for Bangladeshis across the political divide (an MOU was inked by the Water Resources Secretaries of India and Bangladesh in December 2010, but never got to being signed subsequently by the respective Ministers because of obstruction by the government of West Bengal). Since September 2011, this matter has kept growing to larger-than-life proportions and continued to dominate the narrative, both loud and whispered, of nay-sayers in Bangladesh skeptical of India’s intentions and opposed to seeing any good coming from bilateral relations being strengthened further.  Bangladesh, also stood disappointed when India appeared to back away from having accepted, in 2010, the principle of addressing questions of shared rivers on basin-wide basis (that is, graduating from rigid bilateralism to including Nepal in talks on the Ganges and Bhutan in talks on Brahmaputra). 

The launching of the BBIN process has almost lurched to jarring halt with the BBIN MVA, inked in May 2015, still remaining completely unratified; therefore, even though Bangladesh, India and Nepal have completed ratification, completed trial runs along identified routes and agreed to the SOPs to govern movement of passenger and cargo traffic, they are unable to operationalize until Bhutan completes ratification. There is another unintended consequence from this stalling of the BBIN MVA (Motor Vehicles Agreement) – increasingly, (and I grant irrationally) people are beginning to view BBIN MVA as a ploy engineered by India to ensure achievement of its long cherished goals of transit and transshipment facilities through Bangladesh; now that that is happening bilaterally, mischievous people feel India is not pushed if Bhutan stymies the process from completion.  Both Bangladesh and India would do well by working together in assuaging whatever fears Bhutan may have and assure that while ratifying the quadrilateral agreement, it need not operationalize it until it feels reasonably comfortable doing so. 

This stalling of the BBIN MVA effectively stymied progress on other ambitious goals set by the BBIN JWG as far back as 2016: like working towards an integrated railways connectivity sub-regionally, and an integrated sub-regional waterway; and energy and digital connectivities.  Bhutan, in the meantime has resorted to relying on multi-modal transportation of bulk cargo (stones) along waterways from Dhubri To Bangladeshi ports, saving time, costs, and great wear and tear on Bangladesh’s fragile roadways.  

However, addressing issues related to common rivers as shared commons (basins) still appears a far cry, because of perceived (and incomprehensible to Bangladeshis) reluctance on India’s part. Similarly, India’s long silence on Bangladesh’s desire to build a Ganges Barrage within Bangladesh perplexed Bangladeshis.  It has now, after years of internal debate within Bangladesh, been added to the very top of the agenda in Bangladesh’s Delta Plan, an ambitious blueprint that perhaps the ruling party will hope to be its defining legacy (and continuation) in power in future. At the very least Bangladeshis, whether in or out of government, will hope there will be no feet-dragging by India. 

But in the meantime, a couple of other issues have catapulted to the fore in the last three years, and are likely to severely damage the fabric of bilateral relations if not addressed meaningfully, and quickly. Foremost among these is the problem of the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar now guests, perforce, in Bangladesh. This refugee crisis is evocative of why 10 million Bangladeshis fled the genocidal onslaught by a brutalizing Pakistani army in East Pakistan in 1971 and sought sanctuary in India. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the people of Bangladesh, not unmindful of their own previous crisis and India’s generous treatment, opened their arms to give the traumatized Rohingyas refuge inside Bangladesh. India and China were both perceived as having stabbed Bangladesh in the back. Public perception of India and China’s unhelpful stand continues to fester and grow, more so against India than China which played its PR cards far more skillfully than India. India’s seemingly knee-jerk response in favour of Myanmar (that militated against Bangladesh), reportedly in response to Myanmar’s allegations of Islamic terrorists ARSA attacking and killing Myanmarese police (which some intel experts have suspected could well have been carried out by Myanmar’s own agencies to justify their contemplated actions) was viewed locally by a broad swathe of Bangladeshis as being Pavlovian in nature responding to key-words “Islamic terrorists.  Over the last over two years (since after the Rohingya influx took place) frustration with Myanmar’s flagrant obduracy, and continued support (apparently so) by China and India has deepened resentment against India and begun to evoke some questioning of China as well (but China still has a better image than India’s!) There is no TV channel, or media outlet that does not feature a discussion of this subject on a continuing basis, and frankly the net fall-out is toxic for Bangladesh-India relations. 

The second issue is that of the NRC conundrum in Assam, and some fairly incendiary remarks on the general question of illegal migrants (or termites, as unfortunately described) by India’s present Home Minister, that has raised decibel level in questioning Indian intentions towards the Muslim Bengalis delisted as citizens by the NRC and speculation on their likely fate. The ramifications of this widening groundswell of public apprehension was taken seriously enough by the government inducing Sheikh Hasina to take up the matter personally with Mr. Modi at New York, reportedly for the first time at this level. Despite soothing noises made by Mr. Modi, the sense of disquiet remains. In all likelihood, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will raise it officially too at the formal official talks, if for nothing else than to formally inject the sense of apprehension felt by her people into the Indian records (and to convey to her own people that she was not silent!).

Unfortunately, an entirely internal phenomenon inside India has served to deepen this sense of disquiet and skepticism of overall Indian attitude and intentions towards Muslims within India and its neighborhood – the recent actions relating to Jammu and Kashmir.  Bangladeshis till now had paid scant attention to matters relating to Kashmir. They had long felt when part of Pakistan in East Pakistan that they were being used by Pakistan as a convenient cat’s paw. In 1971, Bangladeshis kicked in the teeth the infamous “2-Nations” thesis as basis for state formation and walked away from Pakistan to form their own nation state.  In Bangladesh, the abrogation of Article 370 has suddenly become a topic of heated discussions in drawing rooms, media and other gatherings. Coming as it does in the wake of widely reported media stories of lynching of Muslims on the cow-slaughter ban issue across several states of India, Bangladeshi hearts are suddenly bleeding and their ears welling with tears at the plight of Muslims in India, and many see India, appears to be revalidating robustly the 2-Nations thesis it had always decried so robustly hitherto for seventy years.

All politics is local is an oft repeated truism, but in South Asia with its bitter Partition Legacy, the line of distinction between Local and regional is very blurred and fuzzy.  Sheikh Hasina is perhaps the most astute politician that Bangladesh has produced to date, and a true inheritor of the mantle of her illustrious and revered father and Father of Bangladesh, the Late Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. As a politician, like her father, she has her finger (and instincts) honed to the pulse of her people.  She cannot remain undisturbed by this latest development. 

India and its leaders would do well to remember that despite Partition, some strands or remnants of the umbilical cord of the torn apart parts remain still attached to the main body.  The neo-Westphalian states in South Asia that were birthed so violently in the post-Colonial Disorder that emerged after World War-II, while having uneasy to hostile relations with each other, still resonate and react to what is happening in the others today, for good or bad.

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