India should do all it can to resolve contentious issues with Bangladesh in order to strengthen the hands of the secular Sheikh Hasina government

Among all our neighbours, the nation whose birth is indelibly linked to India is Bangladesh. That this nation, uniquely in the Islamic world, is struggling to be a modern secular state, has always acknowledged India’s support for its independence from Pakistan and now looks forward to developing an all encompassing positive relationship with us is inexplicably underplayed in this country.

Economic & political linkages

For long, India has looked at the West as the centre of gravity of its strategic interests, but to little avail. Our much heralded ‘Look East Policy,’ though initiated in 1993 by the late Narasimha Rao when he was Prime Minister, has only received some impetus. Bangladesh is a natural pillar of this policy, be as it can a ‘bridge’ to economic and political linkages with South East Asia and beyond. A friendly Bangladesh that ensures no anti-India terror or insurgent activities can be carried out from its soil unlike in the past will substantially assist India in handling security problems in some of its restive north-east States. Importantly, a ‘neutral’ Bangladesh also ensures containment of an assertive China in this region, including along the strategic sea-lanes of the Bay of Bengal.

Since Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League came to power five years ago, there has been tremendous goodwill for India in Bangladesh. In December, she faces a bitter general election in which her adversaries are the congenitally anti-India Islamic fundamentalists. That India has a stake in the victory of secular forces in Bangladesh is a factor it can disregard only at its peril.

It is accepted by all that Sheikh Hasina has largely delivered on Indian security concerns by cracking down on terrorism directed against India from Bangladeshi soil. Additionally, the current government is doing its utmost to keep Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh, represented by the likes of Harkat-al-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI), the recently banned political outfit Jamaat-e-Islami, others like Hefajat-e-Islam, Jagrata Muslim Janata, and HUJI-B whose links to al Qaeda are well known, at bay at some cost to the Awami League rank and file.

It must also be noted that when India’s President Pranab Mukherjee recently visited Bangladesh, the other prime ministerial aspirant in Dhaka, Begum Khaleda Zia, whose Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is known to encourage anti-India sentiments and has traditionally colluded with fundamentalists in the past, did not bother to meet him. Electoral battle-lines between the two parties in Bangladesh are also drawn over their regional priorities.

Unfortunately, there exist many contentious issues between the two countries, primarily in the division of common river waters. Not surprising considering we share 54 trans-boundary rivers, big and small! In 1996, the sharing of the Ganga waters was successfully agreed upon between the two nations. However, the major area of dispute has been India’s construction and operation of the Farakka Barrage to increase water supply to the river Hooghly. Bangladesh complains that it does not get a fair share of the water in the dry season and some of its areas get flooded when India releases excess waters during the monsoons. In addition, the sharing of the waters of the Teesta river is being vehemently opposed by India’s West Bengal government though many Indian security and water experts in that State empathise with Bangladesh’s stand. The sluggish execution of the Tipaimukh hydroelectric project on the Barak River in Bangladesh is another problem area. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has, however, graciously offered a reasonable partnership stake in this project to Bangladesh.

Then, there is the land corridor that India wants through Bangladesh, to connect West Bengal to the north-eastern States. Right now, the only land connection between these two parts of India is the 20 to 25 km wide Siliguri corridor (also known as India’s Chicken Neck). It appears that Bangladesh will grant this only after it gets its demand of water requirements. Importantly, its internal political situation has to ease enough for Dhaka to make such a concession to India.

India’s other concern is the issue of the continuing huge influx of undocumented Bangladesh migrants through a 4000 km-long porous international border, and despite a crackdown by the Sheikh Hasina government, the continuing presence of anti-India forces across the border. Problems like trade imbalances and tariff barriers between the two nations are easily surmountable and India providing some business incentives recently to Bangladesh have been appreciated.

One other issue that could have been solved, but has been allowed to fester, is India’s inability to ratify the protocol to the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) of 1974 with Bangladesh. Under this, 161 adversely held small enclaves are to be exchanged by the two countries; 7,100 acres of land will be transferred to India and nearly 17,000 acres go to Bangladesh. The Union Cabinet had in February 2013 approved the draft LBA Bill for introduction in the monsoon session of Parliament for ratification of the swap deal. However, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and the BJP have strongly opposed this deal much to the discomfiture of the Centre and annoyance of the Bangladesh government.

Legitimate demand

Overall, India has to consider if West Bengal, under Ms Banerjee, is unnecessarily spoiling the relationship between the two nations by putting spokes in New Delhi’s efforts to address Bangladesh’s legitimate demands. If this continues, India risks missing the larger picture. Even West Bengal economists lament that their government’s failure to view the big picture and ‘putting politics before development’ has prevented the State from becoming India’s gateway to South East Asia and the Far East as a whole. That the Centre could have taken more efforts to bring the West Bengal Chief Minister on board prior to the Prime Minister’s Bangladesh visit is another story.

Addressing a dialogue organised recently by two think tanks of the two nations in New Delhi, Bangladesh High Commissioner to India Tariq Karim succinctly pointed out that “India’s growth is Bangladesh’s growth because Bangladesh can grow only when India grows.” He reminded his Indian audience of President Pranab Mukherjee’s observation that the “agenda for the future for both the countries has to be sub-regional.”

India-Bangladesh relations have more than an academic strategic content. In the long run, India’s national interests primarily lie towards and beyond its eastern flanks to South East Asia and the new geographical and strategic construct namely Indo-Pacific Asia. India thus needs to strengthen the various regional groupings in this region like the ASEAN and the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation). Importantly, by pragmatically reaching out to Bangladesh now, it will be able to strengthen the secular democratic forces in Islamic Bangladesh to our east — an imperative which must always be borne in our strategic formulations, for let us never forget that towards our western flank violent Islamic fundamentalism is on an alarming ascendant.

(Lt Gen Davar was India’s first Chief of the Defence Intelligence Agency and Deputy Chief of the Integrated Defence Staff)

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