NEW DELHI

Reconfiguring Bangladesh-India Relations



At the time when the offer of this assignment as High Commissioner of Bangladesh to India was made to me in mid-2009, I was working in Track II on how to improve relations with India and how to promote sub-regional cooperation in the region. When I accepted this onerous responsibility, I knew fully well that while the position offered a unique opportunity of translating my vision for the region, or at least some aspects of it into reality, the challenges would also be formidable. I came to New Delhi in August 2009 and one thing followed the next. Come March 2013, where do we find Bangladesh-India relations?

Security issues

India’s main concern had always been its perception that Bangladesh had, wittingly or otherwise, been providing safe haven for or even abetting, elements of various militant groups from the North-east Indian states who were actively pursuing anti-India activities using Bangladesh as a launching pad. However, the ‘Mohajote’ (Grand Coalition) government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina considered these same elements as also being inimical to Bangladesh’s own security concerns and detrimental to its overall societal development.

The new Government in Bangladesh assured India, in clear, categorical and unambiguous terms that Bangladesh would not allow its territory to be used by any one for carrying out activities inimical to India’s security concerns, and enunciated policy of zero-tolerance towards any terrorist activity conducted in or launched from Bangladesh.

The sincerity of that commitment, made in the very early days of the government, has since been more than palpably demonstrated. It has been deeply appreciated by one and all in India. Security concerns do not cast any cloud over our growing relations. Notably, within the overall security rubric, the Home Ministers of the two countries signed an Extradition Treaty in Dhaka in January 2013. Earlier, during the landmark game-changing visit of the Bangladesh Prime Minister to India in January 2010, the two countries had signed an Agreement on Mutual Legal Assistance on Criminal Matters, another Agreement on Transfer of Sentenced Persons, and an Agreement on Combating International Terrorism, Organized Crime and Illicit Drug Trafficking.

Boundaries

India’s largest boundary is not with Pakistan or with China; it’s with Bangladesh – 4096 kilometers, somewhat tortuously (and insensitively) defined by Sir Cyril Radcliffe on the paper map he was given to draw the partition lines across India in 1947.

Along with this line that cut through the heart of communities (and at some places, incongruously, across what had once been homes), the border drawn by Radcliffe also left some strange land-holdings called enclaves (territory notionally belonging to one side but totally surrounded by the territory of the other), with India having 111 such enclaves in Bangladesh, and Bangladesh having 55 in India; and Adversely Possessed Lands (APLs) – land that had been habitually used for cultivation or other agrarian activities by people of a community who suddenly found a fence drawn across it and they being technically in wrongful possession of it by virtue of the Radcliffe “award”.

In 2009, there were still 6.5 kilometers of demarcated border. The problem of the enclaves had become more complicated, by virtue of increasing populations since 1947 – some 50,000 people on both sides were virtually “stateless”.

Effectively, the question of territory became increasingly irrelevant in the face of the denial of basic human rights and governance benefits to these people – coupled with forced cessation of traditional seasonal economic activities that used to define them prior to the Partition of 1947.

In 1974, the Indira-Mujib accord on land boundaries had sought to resolve the legacy left behind by the Radcliffe Award, but this remained largely unaddressed after the assassination in 1975 of Bangladesh’s Father of the Nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Operationalizing the provisions of the Land boundary Agreement of 1974 became a priority agenda item for me.

In the new atmosphere of trust emanating from having satisfactorily addressed hitherto vexing security-related issues, both sides were also able, together, to resolve all boundary related issues amicably and to their mutual satisfaction, and to this effect signed the Protocol to the LBA of 1974 on September 6, 2011 in Dhaka in the presence of the two Prime Ministers.

However, “straightening” of the border line, that involves each country absorbing de jure the enclaves with their respective populations that they had hitherto held hostage de facto, and accepting the Radcliffe line largely (with minor modifications in the APLs), as well as finally signing off on all strip maps relating to the finally demarcated border, also requires constitutional ratification in Parliament by both sides.

In Bangladesh, it is a relatively simple procedure, and has been done. But it still remains to be ratified by the Indian Parliament. In terms of managing the border, the job of the two forces guarding it from either side is primarily to maintain the inviolability and integrity of the zero-line on the border. Both sides now need their district administrations to manage activities along the border within the parameters of their respective legal systems. This requires that different units of the district administration (dealing with customs, immigration, narcotics, anti-terrorism, trafficking of all types of contraband, etc) should have periodic meetings at regular intervals with their counterparts on the other side of the border. The Home Ministers of both countries, therefore, has so decided to reactivate a practice that had for long been discontinued. With this more holistic approach to border management, our borders henceforth will become a shining and outstandingly commendable border of peace, tranquility and friendship rather than otherwise. Another related but left-over problem from earlier times was the Tin Bigha corridor issue, which involved allowing unfettered access of Bangladeshis in the Dahagram-Angarpota territories of Bangladesh to the Bangladesh mainland around the clock from the previous very restrictive arrangement. Simple traffic management principles were applied to a “problem” that need never have become a problem and 24-hour access by citizens of both sides to their respective territories is now available since it was initiated in 2011.

Waters

In 1995, the sharing of the Ganges water had become the one issue which virtually held hostage forward movement on all other areas. With the election of the Awami League-led coalition to power and forming the government in June, 1996, the two sides were able to very speedily arrive at a 30-year Treaty on Ganges Water sharing within six months, on December 12, 1996. Resolving amicably the festering Ganga issue opened the space for also successfully resolving the cross-border insurgency problem with the signing of the Chittagong Hill Tracts accord in December 1997.

This time, Sheikh Hasina’s government took on the task of arriving at an interim accord on the Teesta River (that flows from Sikkim, across West Bengal into Bangladesh).

The two sides did arrive at an agreed draft in early 2011 for an interim sharing agreement for fifteen years that was initialed by the senior officials (Secretaries of the respective Water Resources ministries) of the two sides, but it is still awaiting final signature pending the Union government arriving at a satisfactory understanding on the issue with the government of West Bengal. Bangladesh and India share 54 rivers between them, and so far we have been able to resolve only the sharing of waters of one river (Ganges) and arrive at an agreed draft interim agreement on a second (Teesta). But our approach to addressing our waters issues has graduated from piecemeal and individually addressing questions of sharing of river waters to managing them basin wise. This stems from the realization that while, rhetorically, “sharing” connotes a division of these fluid assets, “managing” connotes common ownership involving optimal management and use of a common resource.

This change of the rhetoric, immediately, impacts the way we look at the issue, psychologically shifting the focus away from contentious division of resources to cooperatively optimizing management and use of available waters, which then bind us together rather than dividing us against each other. With real-time sharing of flood data, fruits have started to be borne already.

The proposed Tipaimukh hydro-electric dam in Manipur on the Barak river that we share was another festering irritant, governed by deep-seated mistrust, India’s assurance of no-harm and offer to Bangladesh to become a share-holder in the project notwithstanding.

A sub-committee under the Joint Rivers Commission has been formed to study and look into all aspects of this proposed project. Should the experts come to a consensus conclusion on it, next steps would be contemplated.

Trade and connectivity

The hugely yawning trade gap has been always a rankling matter for Bangladeshis. When I came here, Indian formal exports to Bangladesh amounted to about US$4 billion (with an additional US$4 billion of “informal” exports to Bangladesh), while Bangladesh’s total exports to India was around US$350 million. During Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Bangladesh in September 2011, he announced removal of 46 textile items from India’s negative list which was hugely appreciated by Bangladesh. Soon after, at the SAARC summit in Male, India went the extra mile and announced virtually all but 25 items being removed from the SAFTA Sensitive list in respect of the LDC countries. Already Bangladeshi exports to India have crossed the US$ 500 million mark, and may even reach the magical one billion figure in the foreseeable future. The positive effect of this far-sighted decision on the Bangladeshi psyche is incalculable.

To revive traditional community trading that used to exist prior to the 1947 Partition, Bangladesh and India has also started ‘ Border Haats ’, initially on a pilot basis – in the Meghalaya and Tripura sectors. These haats are not only helping to convert former “informal” trade into formal trade now, but more importantly serve the most useful function of expanding the spaces of mutual trust and comfort with each other.

Any expansion of trade would automatically involve operationalization of carriageways to facilitate movement of goods and services across, as well as meaningfully linking, our respective territories. For the first time in recent history, Bangladesh has offered itself as a bridge as well as tele-communication hub, linking the Northeast with mainland India, linking South Asia with Southeast Asia and beyond, and opening up the vast potentials of trade and economic interlocution that still remain untapped. We have offered the use of Chittagong and Mongla ports for use by India and landlocked Nepal and Bhutan to facilitate trade; the construction of Akhaura-Agartala rail linkage is well underway, while the resuscitation of several other dormant but long atrophied rail links are under discussion. The Maitree passenger train service between Dhaka and Kolkata has already been under operation for the last several years, and reviving some other historically popular routes (like Khulna-Kolkata) and opening new ones (between Agartala in Tripura and Ramgarh in Chittagong) is under contemplation.

Bus services have been in operation between Calcutta and Agartala via Dhaka from the time of Sheikh Hasina’s first term in office (1996-2001). A similar service between Guwahati-Shillong-Sylhet-Dhaka is currently under discussion.

New ports-of-calls have been added in our Inland Water Transport and Transit agreement, and additional ports are under consideration. A coastal shipping agreement is under discussion, linking ports across our long but contiguously shared coastline on the Bay of Bengal. Work is well underway to putting in place the infrastructure and supporting hardware needed to concretize that shared vision and transform it into reality. Most of the US$ 1 billion Line of Credit ($200 million of which was converted into outright grant) is being used towards fulfillment of this grand design.

When completed, one could well envisage a continuation of these connectivities to eventually heralding the revival of the ancient Silk Route that had once connected Asia with Europe. Trade connectivity is inextricably intertwined and linked with increasing people-to-people connectivity. Towards that end, the two countries have, in January 2013, signed the Revised Travel Agreement that vastly eases travel restrictions that had hitherto existed and had virtually held our peoples “boundary-locked”. Five years multiple entry business and investors visa, visa on arrival to diplomatic and official passport holders, two-years multiple entry educational visas to students (renewable on annual basis thereafter), long term multiple entry visa for medical treatment with accompanying attendants, and three months multiple entry tourist visas are some of the prominent features of this new RTA.

During the visit of the Prime Minister of India to Bangladesh in September 2011, a comprehensive ‘Framework Agreement on Cooperation for Development’ that outlines the shared vision for durable and long-term cooperation to achieve mutual peace, prosperity and stability was signed by the two sides. In terms of this remarkable document, the two sides agreed to set up a Joint working Group on Trade and Connectivity to look into all aspects of trade and related connectivity issues with a view to addressing them jointly. During the visit of Indian External Affairs Minister to Dhaka in February 2013, the formation of this JWG was announced. The first meeting of this group is likely to be held in a few weeks time.

A most remarkable development was the resounding reaffirmation of the deep cultural connectivity that had historically existed between the peoples of our two countries through jointly celebrating the Sesquicentennial birth anniversary of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, the ninetieth anniversary of Bangladesh’s national poet Kazi Nazrul Islam’s iconic work “ Bidrohi ” (the Rebel) and the 120{+t}{+h}birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda.

Energy and Power

For the first time, Bangladesh will be purchasing 500 MW of power from India. Purchasing power also requires that both countries need to connect their respective power grids.

This too is underway, and everything should be in place to allow power to flow by middle of this year. We have also set up a Joint Working group on power cooperation to explore avenues for joint production as well as more such power exchanges – bringing to table sources such as Sikkim, Meghalaya and Tripura. In principle, Bangladesh has also agreed to linking our respective grids in our east (with Tripura) and more importantly in our north (with Meghalaya-Assam). The northern grid holds the most exciting possibilities for both sides.

It will finally enable India to concretizing plans to tap into the vast potentials of hydro-power in Arunachal Pradesh (estimated at between 50,000 MW_90,000 MW) and also evacuate it economically across Bangladesh. In return, Bangladesh has requested to obtain a meaningful portion of the power so produced (whether jointly or otherwise). Almost all or most of all that was narrated above was virtually unthinkable just a few years ago. Sub-Regionalism :

Expanding from bilateral cooperation to sub-regional cooperation on water management and hydro-energy harvesting has been one of the most remarkable outcomes of this new relationship between Bangladesh and India, enunciated in the Framework Agreement of September 2011.

This new paradigm envisages Bangladesh convening two sets of tri-nation meetings (the Ganges basin with Bangladesh-India-Nepal; and the Brahmaputra basin with Bangladesh-India-Bhutan), first at technical/senior officials’ level, to be followed at higher political level.



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