A prosperous Bangladesh is in India’s interest, and will benefit its north-east States

Union External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid’s upcoming visit to Bangladesh on February 16-17 is significant on several counts.

It will be his first visit since assuming office in 2012, and comes weeks after the two countries signed an extradition treaty. While there, he is expected to chair a meeting of the India Bangladesh Joint Consultative Commission and review the gamut of the relationship.

The visit gains further significance in the light of the violence in 2012 between tribals and Muslims in Assam, which is rooted in the issue of illegal migration from Bangladesh. Bangladesh is crucial to India’s “Look East” policy as New Delhi seeks to foster closer cooperation with its neighbours to bring about economic development and prosperity in its long-neglected north-east region. Further, India’s foreign policy has a growing regional perspective, of which Bangladesh is an important component.

The visit could also lay the groundwork for a landmark visit by President Pranab Mukherjee to Dhaka in March.

The relationship has been a priority for both the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government and the Awami League government in Bangladesh, with a host of high-level visits in the past two years. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited New Delhi in January 2010. Under her regime, Bangladesh has also handed over key United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) militants in its territory to India.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh paid a historic visit to Dhaka in September 2011. The visit, the first by an Indian leader in 12 years, resulted in the signing of a crucial boundary swap agreement allowing about 50 Bangladeshi enclaves inside India to be integrated within Bangladesh and about 100 Indian areas inside Bangladesh to become a part of India. Other agreements included promoting trade, investment and economic cooperation; boosting regional connectivity and people-to-people contacts; transmission and distribution of electricity; promotion of educational and cultural cooperation and environmental protection among others.

Findings from a youth summit

In this context, a relevant development took place in Guwahati on February 1 in the form of the “Maitree Summit,” a track-II dialogue between India and Bangladesh. The summit gains significance on account of some of its important observations and recommendations.

Organised by the Youth Forum on Foreign Policy (YFFP), a Delhi-based think tank and the British Deputy High Commission in Kolkata, the dialogue brought together Indian and Bangladeshi speakers from academia, media, business and politics and held out the promise of stronger cooperation between the two neighbours.

The broad message was the need for India and Bangladesh to cooperate in as many areas as possible including the development of infrastructure, labour and skills, mitigating environmental disasters and diplomacy.

Joint academic cooperation as a means to address issues complicating the India-Bangladesh relationship could focus on research on illegal migration, the enclaves, arms proliferation, drug trafficking, transition rights, water-sharing, terrorism and fundamentalism.

Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi made a strong pitch for boosting trade, cultural and transport links between north-east India and Bangladesh as it would benefit the entire region. He also alluded to the common destiny of the two regions — Assam and Bangladesh face climate change, floods, soil erosion, a porous border and smuggling — and called for joint efforts to tackle them. The future of north-east India also depended on relationships with neighbours such as Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar.

The Bangladeshi delegates expressed disappointment over the failure to reach an agreement regarding the sharing of Teesta waters when Dr. Singh visited in 2011. There was also a sense that Bangladesh sought an equal standing in its relationship with India. While acknowledging that Dhaka needs New Delhi, it was pointed out that China and Myanmar were also helping Bangladesh in several areas. It was also in India’s interests to see a stable and prosperous Bangladesh because of the inextricable ties between the two countries.

A survey conducted by YFFP in January showed that young Indians did not appear to give much importance to their immediate neighbours, other than China and Pakistan. Only three per cent of the respondents felt Bangladesh is important while 43 per cent said relations with the United States are the most significant, followed by China and Pakistan.

While the summit stressed the importance of people-to-people contacts in enhancing India-Bangladesh ties, the survey points to the need for more young people to be involved in such contacts.

(Gaurav Gogoi is co-founder, Youth Forum on Foreign Policy. Urvashi Sarkar and Pratyush N. are freelance journalists)