Modi’s Dhaka visit raises hopes for better cooperation
by Ashok B Sharma on 06 Jun 2015 0 Comment

Peace and stability in Bangladesh is vital for India which needs effective connectivity not only to its own north-eastern region but also to South-East Asia. A sense of satisfaction emanates from the fact that both economies are growing at faster rates transcending internal problems – India at over 7% and Bangladesh at over 6%. But the growth needs to be sustained in the long run and move into the area of double-digit. Dhaka is India’s largest trading partner in South Asia. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has set forth a vision of a middle-income, technologically advanced and knowledge-based country by 2021 and a developed country by 2041.


Having learnt the lessons from the tragic death of her father Sheikh Mujib-ur Rahman, Sheikh Hasina has adopted a cautious, but effective approach in dealing with the fundamentalists and anti-India forces in her country. The public outcry for trial and execution of war criminals that erupted in the form of Shahbag movement bounced her back to power in January 2014. She was cautious that the country should not slip into the hands of the military and hence refused to have elections conducted under a caretaker government. The Opposition boycotted the general elections and subsequent mayoral elections. This invited some unjustified criticism about the fairness of the polls, but here Sheikh Hasina needs to project to the world about the competence and impartiality of her country’s Election Commission. Her actions prompted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to acclaim, “Bangabandhu founded Bangladesh and his daughter Sheikh Hasina saved it”.


The noted war criminal, Abdul Quader Mollah, ‘butcher of Mirpur’, was hanged and Sheikh Hasina had to face a season of political protests fuelled by religious fundamentalists from the beginning of the year. After she contained these protests, the fundamentalist groups began to target bloggers who were expressing free opinion, even hacking some to death. But Sheikh Hasina is undeterred in her mission to give Bangladesh a secular ethos. She got Justice Surendra Kumar Sinha from the minority Hindu community appointed as Chief Justice. She is determined that the soil of Bangladesh would not be used for any act of terror against India.


For Prime Minister Modi there is no more opportune moment to resolve the issue of terrorism in the eastern part of South Asia than the present one – when he embarks on a two-day visit to Bangladesh on June 6. He has done well to get the long awaited Land Boundary Agreement ratified by the Indian Parliament – unanimously – before his visit. The maritime boundary between the two countries stands resolved – thanks to the settlement by the international body and India honouring the award despite some initial resentment at home.


Sharing of Teesta waters remains to be settled and will take some time as Mr Modi intends to address the sensitivities of the people of West Bengal. But the West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee accompanying the Indian Prime Minister on his visit to Dhaka lends some hope for its implementation in the near future. Ms Banerjee was earlier on a visit to Dhaka at the invitation of Sheikh Hasina. That she has agreed to be a part of the Prime Minister’s delegation this time is a perceptible change as she had earlier declined to join former PM Manmohan Singh during his visit to Dhaka in 2011. In international diplomacy, it takes time to resolve sensitive issues. If the land boundary issue took 41 years to resolve after the Indira-Mujib accord of 1974, there is hope that the Teesta issue will be resolved in the near future. There are 54 rivers flowing from India to Bangladesh and the joint river commission of the two countries is exploring the possibilities of water sharing.


The Bangladesh Prime Minister is likely derive strength to project India as the most friendly neighbour as a number of proposed agreements like cooperation in coastal shipping, prevention of human trafficking in women and children, motor vehicle agreement, enhancing power supply on the newly opened power-grid connection between both countries by 100 MW from the Palatana project in Tripura, implementation of Dhaka-Shillong-Guwahati bus service, apart from increasing the frequency of Dhaka-Kolkata Maitree Express are on agenda for discussion and signing. With Mamata Banerjee on board, the people on both sides of the border will feel a sense of coming closer.


However, some contentious issues need to be tackled. India had raised the issue of illegal migration from Bangladesh to its northeastern states, particularly Assam, which are complaining of demographic change. The Indira Gandhi-Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman pact marked March 25, 1971 as the cut-off point, while local groups like All Assam Students Union and others demanded that the cut-off date should be 1951. During his poll campaign last year, Mr Modi had assured that he would push back the illegal migrants if he comes to power. The BJP has long clamoured for a tough stand on illegal migration and smuggling of cattle across the border. These issues call for serious talks between the two parties.


Bangladesh may seek Modi’s help in resolving the issue of the Rohingyas, who have been declared stateless people in Myanmar, despite being settled there for over a century. Dhaka claims that they are not their people, while Myanmar is trying to push them into Bangladesh.


India and Bangladesh share a 4096.7 km-long land border, of which 1116.2 km is riverine. They share 289.7 km of maritime border. Total fencing is a difficult task. Now with the implementation of land boundary agreement and maritime boundary settlement, it is time for better border management to check problems of illegal migration, human and drug trafficking, shipment of contraband goods and weapons. Borders should rather become a bridge for cooperation between the two countries.


There are plans for opening four border haats along the Meghalaya-Bangladesh border, apart from the two existing along the border with Mizoram and one along the Tripura border. Construction of border haat Kamlasagar (in Tripura)-Tarapur Kashba is in progress. Bangladesh has allowed India to use its territory and infrastructure to ferry 10,000 tonne foodgrains to Tripura. All old rail, road and port connectivity that existed during colonial rule need to be re-opened. Bangladesh proposes to build a deep sea port and can partner with India in ship-building.


Energy cooperation can also be explored further with India supplying more hydro-power generated in its north-eastern states and New Delhi can meet its natural gas needs from Bangladesh and Myanmar via a pipeline. Bangladesh has offered space for Indian industries in its Special Economic Zone and New Delhi has offered Rs 60 core for small development projects, $200 million grant for development projects and has raised the training slots for Bangladeshi students.


Bangladesh is the first Muslim majority country that Prime Minister Modi is visiting before he embarks on his tour to West Asian and Central Asian countries in his second year in office. If he wins the hearts of Bangladeshis, it will strengthen his neighbourhood first policy and his agenda for sub-regional cooperation within SAARC and revitalise his Act East Policy. Sub-regional cooperation in South Asia is mandated under Article VII of the SAARC Charter. Keeping in view the difficulties in taking the SAARC agenda forward owing to problems created by Pakistan, India can catalyze sub-regional cooperation within SAARC and the BIMSTEC route. Bangladesh in this case assumes strategic importance.    

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