Manmohan Singh's visit to Dhaka has the potential to infuse fresh dynamism into the multi-faceted relationship between India and Bangladesh.
The Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, will be in Dhaka on September 6, as part of a two-day official visit to Bangladesh, to cement the historic ties that were initiated by his Bangladeshi counterpart, Sheikh Hasina, during her visit to New Delhi in January 2010.
It would perhaps be no exaggeration to say that the two countries, with a few hundred kilometres of common border, have embarked on a new journey to rejuvenate their ties — as was seen when India, under Indira Gandhi, extended unequivocal support to Bangladesh's independence.
The official mood in Dhaka over Dr. Singh's visit is positive. Senior Cabinet colleagues of Sheikh Hasina, including her top advisers, hope the visit will yield tangible results, resolving most of the outstanding issues that have remained unresolved for decades.
The Bangladesh Nationalist Party, main Opposition, traditionally opposed to India-related issues and, now, the recently signed deals with India, including the agreement on transit, has welcomed Dr. Singh's visit too. However, the party and its fundamentalist allies have kept the door open for cynicism. The BNP's position was made known by the former Prime Minister and party chairperson, Khaleda Zia, who demanded that all deals, including those on transit and water-sharing, be made public first.
It is true that many would not like to accept that India and Bangladesh share a relationship based on their common culture, heritage and history. But the general thinking across Bangladesh is that the relationship should see a realistic transformation, to breathe hope into millions in the impoverished country.
Following Sheikh Hasina's visit to New Delhi some 18 months ago, the two countries have witnessed a paradigm shift in their relations. The essence of the new awakening, as all right-thinking people know, is to promote peaceful coexistence and achieve a shared progress. A section of politicians may not agree with this, but the reality that the two countries share a geographical proximity of 4,156 km, cultural and historic bonding and must, therefore, go for greater economic and social interaction for mutual benefit cannot be wished away. Therefore, it is time to go for a peace offensive — both in terms of people's interaction and economic transaction to help integrate the economies and provide larger markets to each other. A strong political will to translate these moves into action is also imperative.
A negative attitude towards neighbours has always proved counterproductive. However, the general perception in Bangladesh is that, as a big economy and the world's largest democracy, India should be more generous towards its neighbour which is a weak economy and a fragile democracy. The overwhelming majority see Dr. Singh's visit as a historic opportunity to rebuild a relationship that could be a model for other South Asian countries.
The two countries have some long-pending issues that need to be resolved. There is a strong indication that the crucial issues of water-sharing from rivers Teesta and Feni, lands in adverse possession and the problem of enclaves, including the demarcation of 6.5 km of land boundary, will be settled. The two countries, for the first time after 1947, recently signed the boundary strip maps to settle disputes along the border. The cross-border trade has got a boost with the opening of new land ports and building of a new immigration building and truck terminal at India's Petrapole port bordering West Bengal.
Effective steps have also been taken to reduce the huge gaps in bilateral trade. Trade and investment have increased substantially. India has decided to invest more in Bangladesh while the Bangladeshi entrepreneurs, too, are keen on investing in India.
For the first time after 1947, the two countries, during Dr. Singh's visit, may decide the fate of 111 Indian and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves, where people have been living virtually as non-state citizens for decades. The opening of ‘Border Haats' is another pragmatic step that will benefit the poor along the borders. There is a strong indication that Dr. Singh will announce a 24-hour access to inhabitants of Bangladesh's Dahagram and Angorpota enclaves, fulfilling the Indira-Mujib land boundary agreement of 1974.
Transit, not corridor, for India is essentially an economic issue. However, thanks to a section of politicians and their backers, the issue has assumed a political dimension. But the country's business communities, independent think tanks and civil society are strongly of the view that initiating a regional connectivity through transit would be a landmark step which will not only demonstrate good neighbourliness but also improve the livelihood of millions.
An eminent South Asian expert, Gowher Rizvi, also the International Affairs Adviser to Sheikh Hasina, explains that a transit between the two countries will require no new agreement as the facility has existed since 1947. Interrupted by the 1965 India-Pakistan war, the transit resumed through the Indira-Mujib treaty, he asserts. The two countries now need to sign a protocol for its operation. While rail and waterways are the first priority for transit, Bangladesh will have to develop its roads to open up the land transit, and also determine a fee for the facility. On the other hand, the transit is not bilateral — it is a regional arrangement involving India, Nepal and Bhutan.
India and Bangladesh have witnessed a flurry of high-profile visits in recent months. Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna, Home Minister P. Chidambaram, Commerce Minister Anand Sharma and National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon visited Dhaka, while New Delhi received Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni, Mr. Rizvi and Economic Affairs Adviser Masihur Rahman. They talked mainly about the implementation of the 51-point joint communiqué, regarded as Magna Carta by both sides, issued during Sheikh Hasina's visit in 2010.
During Dr. Singh's visit, the two countries are set to sign a framework agreement on a number of issues, including water-sharing, trade, investment, culture and education. The implementation of projects under the $1 billion LOC from India, to be spent mainly on roads and the railway sector, are of high priority. The cooperation in the power sector, including grid connectivity, supply of up to 500 MW of power from India, including 250 MW at a preferential rate, and Bangladesh's request to set up a high technology joint venture thermal power plant of 1320 MW capacity, is also progressing well.
Besides allowing India's Over Dimensional Cargos (ODCs) to move through the country to Tripura to set up a power plant there, Bangladesh has taken a very strong position against India's northeast insurgents. As a lower riparian country, Bangladesh has asked for a water-sharing deal that covers all 54 common rivers. Therefore, to make Dr. Singh's visit a watershed in bilateral relations, many observers hope, the Indian Prime Minister will make substantial announcements.
The history of the divided subcontinent has been a history of distrust and suspicion. 1971 was an exception, and it lasted only a few years — till 1975 — when Bangladesh's founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated. Therefore, a bold but realistic approach from both sides is expected for the durability of the measures.
One of the major issues that have caused immense ill-will is the killing of Bangladesh citizens by the BSF. New Delhi recently gave strict orders against any further civilian deaths along the border. If this position is maintained strictly, it will have a positive impact. Barring exceptions, the reality is that a majority of cross-border intruders are the abject poor who deserve a humanitarian approach.
Dr. Singh's will be a bilateral visit to Bangladesh in 12 years since Atal Bihari Vajpayee came to Dhaka to inaugurate the Dhaka-Kolkata bus service in 1999. West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu accompanied Mr. Vajpayee. Dr. Singh will be accompanied by Chief Ministers of five States bordering Bangladesh, including Mamata Banerjee. The Manmohan-Hasina summit, close observers say, has all the potential to infuse a fresh dynamism into the multi-faceted and multi-dimensional relationship.
South Asia has been a tense region since the Partition of India. The prolonged Kashmir dispute has had an adverse impact. The war in Afghanistan and the growing instability in Pakistan make the region more volatile. Therefore, moves to bring people closer need to be welcomed. India and Bangladesh cannot afford to miss the historic opportunity to be part of a new future.
(The writer is a Bangladeshi author and journalist. His email: firstname.lastname@example.org)