Northeast, gateway to Bangladesh ties

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina, interact during the the former's visit to Dhaka in September 2011.  

Debates over achievements apart, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Bangladesh, on September 6 and 7, deserves a special mention as he was accompanied by a delegation that included the Chief Ministers of four bordering Indian states — Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya and Mizoram. This has endorsed the significance these States have in the context of growing relations between Dhaka and New Delhi.

The visit was a historic opportunity to open doors, mend fences, and reach out to each other realising the genuine needs of either side. Sadly, the hope was not fully met. While the two countries signed 10 agreements, protocols and memorandums of understanding (MoU), they failed to conclude a few important accords, for which both Dhaka and New Delhi had waited. However, the visit did not go in vain since both countries had felt the need to address pending issues quickly, resolving the political will which they had achieved when Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited India in January 2010.

The presence of the Chief Ministers — Tarun Gogoi of Assam, Manik Sarkar of Tripura, Mukul Sangma of Meghalaya and Lal Thanhawla of Mizoram — gave the visit a new dimension, as it had direct ramifications for much desired trade and connectivity that India needs to connect its landlocked States — some 2,62,230 sq.km. and about five crore people — through Bangladesh.

For the northeast, access to Bangladesh's Chittagong port, 75 km from Tripura, and gateway, was of importance. This has also a direct bearing on India's much talked about “Look East” policy.

During their interactions with government, business and civil society leaders, the Chief Ministers sought increased trade, investment and connectivity. They offered joint venture industrial projects and promotion of tourism. The failure to sign a “letter of exchange” — the transit deal — did frustrate them, but they were in unison pursuing their common goal — connectivity.

Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FBCCI) president A.K. Azad requested clearance for and movement of goods, and acceptance of certificates issued by the designated national bodies to speed up trade with the northeast.

The geographical proximity between Bangladesh and the northeast should be beneficial to both. Mr. Sarkar asked Bangladeshi businessmen to utilise resources in the northeast, to set up agro-based industries and gas-based units like a fertilizer factory. “Tripura is a potential hub of trade with Bangladesh in the entire northeast India,” he said in an earlier interview. Bangladeshi products have a competitive advantage due to lower transportation costs. He also said once a proposed power plant is commissioned, Tripura could supply 100 MW to power-starved Bangladesh if an accord was negotiated with India.

Mr. Sangma is of the view that Bangladesh and the northeast have “a lot of potentialities and concerns” and must try to engage in fruitful cooperation. Mr. Gogoi said, “We want connectivity of not only roads and infrastructure…. we want connectivity of minds.”

All the Chief Ministers laid stress on improving Bangladesh's relations with the “Seven Sisters” in all sectors and proposed an increase of land ports. They also wanted cooperation in health, education and environment.

They praised the resolve of the Sheikh Hasina government to act against separatists and insurgents. The government, despite strong political adversaries who often term those insurgents “freedom fighters,” has decisively responded to New Delhi's request in this issue. Mr. Gogoi thanked Bangladesh for taking steps against the separatist United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA).

Although there is no official bar, there are demands in a number of bordering States for Bangladeshi TV channels. There was an assurance of ensuring their telecast. Talks were also held on offering package tours to promote bilateral tourism.

Despite a shadow of controversy around the visit because of the Teesta deal, the Prime Ministers did not detract from their commitment to furthering the bilateral relationship.

For the Hasina government, postponement of the Teesta water sharing accord came as an embarrassment. Maybe, more so for India. The Bangladesh media said it was “a big let-down” for Bangladesh.

Another question addressed was the long-standing border issue including 6.5 km of undemarcated land boundary in three sectors — Daikhata-56 (West Bengal), Muhuri River-Belonia (Tripura) and Dumabari (Assam) — and land of adverse possessions — which were a source of conflict. The status of 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh and 51 Bangladesh enclaves in India was addressed.

These deals will not only end border skirmishes but also help improve trade with Bangladesh across West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram. The residents of Bangladesh's Dahagram and Angarpota enclaves have already started enjoying their right to round-the-clock movement through the Teen Bigha corridor.

Experts are of the view that increased trade and investment will not only benefit the northeast but also help Bangladesh's economy grow faster, creating jobs and higher income which will eventually deter illegal migrants, a concern India has repeatedly raised. Higher income in Bangladesh will also foster political and social stability, and likely subdue all forms of potential extremism.

The political opposition has claimed that the Hasina government has provided the “corridor” facility to India although it did not gain Bangladesh's just share of rivers. Bangladeshi Nationalist Party leader Khaleda Zia told her loyalists: “This government must be uprooted.” Joined by Islamist radicals, they have announced plans to “dislodge” Sheikh Hasina for her alleged “surrendering” of national interests to India.

The last 40 years of history stipulate that there are varying aspects of criticism of Dhaka-New Delhi relations. While the first group is those who did not forgive India for assisting Bangladesh in achieving independence from Pakistan, the second section considered the “Indian bogey” political capital. And, of course, there is the third section which has a fear or doubt about Bangladesh getting its rightful share or equal treatment from India. This concern, right or perceived, must not be overlooked.

India has its own priorities and domestic compulsions, but for Bangladesh, which is a fragile democracy and a weak economy and which is threatened by Islamists, the lingering irritations may have political implications, say analysts.

India and Bangladesh signed a framework agreement on bilateral cooperation, in which a commitment has been made for cooperation in trade, connectivity and water resources. They also adopted a 65-point joint declaration reaffirming their positions against terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, and reiterating the assurance that their territories would not be allowed for any inimical activity.

Referring to the presence of the Chief Ministers, Dr. Singh termed it “a special moment,” adding “it is a demonstration of our collective will to shape a better future for ourselves.” He was also right in saying that there are few countries whose destinies are so interlinked.

There was also the resolve to preserve the memory of Bangladesh freedom fighters. New Delhi is to enhance scholarships for their heirs to pursue higher studies in India. Dhaka has also requested facilitation for setting up memorial plaques and visits of family members to the identified graves of freedom fighters buried along the border in Tripura, Meghalaya, Assam and West Bengal. These States, which were the sanctuary of Bangladesh liberation fighters, also sheltered 10 million refuges during the liberation war in 1971.

The building of a durable Bangladesh-India relationship cannot be judged by one trip. The political leadership will have to show prudence to overcome the challenges that may bedevil the relations in the future by taking quick and appropriate measures. Geography and history are for India and Bangladesh to be together.

( The writer, based in Dhaka, is a journalist and author. He is at hh1971@gmail.com)

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