Sunday, November 13, 2011

India-Bangladesh: Historical Crossroads

SANCHITA BHATTACHARYA

DESPITE INDIA’S extraordinary support to the cause of Bangladeshi independence in 1971, relations between the two countries quickly soured after Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s assassination in August 1975. Indeed, Indian assessments of successive regimes in Bangladesh grew steadily more pessimistic, with some commentators (inaccurately) characterizing the country as the “next Afghanistan”, as trends in radicalization and terrorism escalated, and Bangladeshi state institutions became more and more embroiled in the wider enterprise of Islamist extremism, even as relationships with Pakistan’s disruptive external intelligence and military establishment deepened.

All this has, however, changed dramatically, and vastly beyond most expectations, since Sheikh Hasina sweeping electoral victory and the establishment of a majority Awami League (AL) regime at Dhaka in January 2009. With remarkable transformations in the domestic scenario, Dhaka has also sought to repair relations with Delhi, and the two countries have launched a number of initiatives that may herald a new era of mutual cooperation to address a wide range of outstanding issues, including terrorism, illegal immigration, border disputes, water sharing, transit and energy resources. There have been numerous exchanges, negotiations and meetings of high officials between the two countries since early 2010, now culminating in the official visit of Indian Prime Minister (PM) Manmohan Singh to Bangladesh, scheduled for September 6-7, 2011. Significantly, Manmohan Singh will be the first Indian PM to visit Bangladesh in 12 years, after then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Dhaka in 1999.

Terrorism has been a point of major friction in Indo-Bangladesh relations over the past years. Since 2010, however, Bangladesh has recognized that Pakistan-based Islamist terrorist outfits had formed a strong nexus with extremists operating in Bangladesh, and were acting across the border in India, even as they came to constitute a major threat to internal security in Bangladesh as well. Moreover, a large number of indigenous militant organizations operating in India’s troubled Northeast had long secured safe haven on Bangladeshi (and, even earlier, East Pakistani) soil, keeping a number of insurgencies artificially alive in this troubled region. In combination, these linkages had contributed to a large measure of extremist violence in India, traces of which still persist. For instance, the emergence of Abdullah Khan and Jalaluddin Mullah alias Babu Bhai of the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B), as key suspects in the Mumbai serial blasts of July 13, 2011 (13/7), underlines the threat of extremism that abides within the two countries.

Nevertheless, things have changed tremendously for the better since the AL-led Government took charge on January 6, 2009. Prime Minister commitment to wipe out all patterns of terrorism and militancy in Bangladesh has resulted in the decimation of the Islamist extremist terrorist leadership within the country , even as a majority of top militant leaders of the outfits operating in India’s Northeast have been arrested and handed over to Indian authorities. On January 11, 2010, Prime Minister Hasina, during a visit to India, had discussed ways in which the two countries could cooperate to check the menace of terrorism, and an Agreement on Combating International Terrorism was signed by Prime Ministers Hasina and Manmohan Singh. It was noted that security remained a priority for both countries, as terrorists, insurgents and criminals respected no boundaries, and both leaders reiterated the assurance that the territory of either country would not be allowed for activities inimical to the other, and that their respective territory would not be used for training, sanctuary and other operations by domestic or foreign terrorist, militant and insurgent organizations and their operatives.

More recently, in the run-up to Manmohan Singh’s proposed Dhaka visit, Hasina declared, on August 10, 2011: “My Government is always against terrorism. We won't allow any space to the terrorists, we won't allow an inch of land of the country to be used for terrorism. Terrorists have no borders they are the problems of the whole world. We all have to fight against terrorism in a united form as it is not possible to eradicate this problem by solo effort.” On July 30, 2011, Indian Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram, acknowledging Bangladeshi cooperation in combating terrorism, declared, during his visit to Dhaka, "I have on record on numerous occasions appreciated the splendid cooperation of Bangladesh to combat terrorism.”

While the effort to combat terrorism has secured much attention, Indo-Bangladesh cooperation on a wide range of other outstanding issues has also quietly expanded. With regard to border management, P. Chidambaram laid the foundation of an INR 1.72 Billion integrated check post along the border (in West Bengal) on August 27, 2011, which would boost trade between India and Bangladesh. Chidambaram and his Bangladeshi counterpart Sahara Khatun had earlier signed a Comprehensive Border Management deal on July 30. The deal constitutes a major initiative in the transformation of the India-Bangladesh border from a 4,156 kilometre long zone of conflict, terrorism, crime, smuggling and human trafficking, into a peaceful barrier punctuated by numerous trade corridors.
Dhaka and New Delhi have also initialized the process of demarcation of enclaves. According to official records, there are 111 Indian enclaves, covering some 17,000 acres, inside Bangladesh; while Bangladesh has 51 enclaves, covering about 7,000 acres in India. With regard to the ‘adverse possession’ of these enclaves, the big call that will have to be taken by politicians on both sides of the border is the future of the 30,000-40,000 inhabitants of these territories. Significantly, it is expected that a series of border-related agreements will be finalized during PM Manmohan Singh’s Dhaka visit in September.

The fractious security interface between India and Bangladesh was also historically worsened by a wide range of other contentious issues. Among the most urgent of these, particularly from the Bangladesh perspective, has been water sharing. The unevenness of economic, political, and military power, and the lack of economic incentives, has allowed India to neglect the issue of water sharing, even while the problem of water resources has remained sensitive and politically charged in Bangladesh. The crisis in Bangladesh has been compounded by a frequent recurrence of drought years, causing environmental and socio-economic problems, as well as a growing sense of helplessness and anger, all of which have hardened public opinion in Bangladesh. The plan to sign a treaty on the sharing of Teesta River waters during PM Manmohan Singh’s scheduled visit to Dhaka will be a concrete step forward, even as the sharing of waters of a number of other rivers comes under active and accelerated discussion.

On the other hand, India’s desire for the economic development of its insurgency-afflicted Northeast region is inextricably linked with the issue of transit through Bangladesh. Previous regimes in Bangladesh have blocked India’s requests for transit facilities on the grounds that India may abuse these for military purposes, in case of a war with China, dragging Bangladesh into such future hostilities; that transit was the only ‘leverage’ Dhaka had against its gigantic neighbour, and this should be exploited as a bargaining chip; and, further, that Bangladesh should seek to hold India’s Northeast as a captive market for its own goods, rather than providing the Indian mainland’s producers access to this region. While these arguments have had significant resonance in Dhaka in the past, they have little grounds in rational policy or Bangladeshi interests of state. Thus, Indian External Affairs Minister S .M. Krishna, on July 8, 2011, clarified, “There is nothing to be feared by giving this transit. Transit is only for peaceful purposes”. Moreover, far from damaging the Bangladesh economy, transit arrangements would enormously augment the country’s infrastructure, even as they opened out possibilities of trade on both sides of the Bangladesh border, both with the Indian Northeast and the mainland. Accepting the enormous mutual potential benefits of a transit agreement, Dhaka, on July 7, 2011, agreed in principle to the idea of a wider Asian Highway, after signing the Business and Investment Promotion Agreement with India.

Another area of potential cooperation that will go a long way towards smoothening and deepening relations between the two countries is the energy sector. Bangladesh’s demand for natural gas and electricity has already outstripped available supplies. Agreements with India can open up energy trade and facilitate new investments in the energy sector for Bangladesh. On July 26, 2010, for instance, the two countries signed a 35-year landmark Electricity Transmission Deal under which India will eventually export up to 250 MW of power to Bangladesh from the end of 2012. In addition, a proposed 1320 MW power plant will transfer back the excess power generated to India through transmission links to be set up by the Power Grid Corporation of India Limited. Ongoing bilateral talks indicate the willingness of the two countries to secure enduring relations in the energy sector. However, effective implementation and sustained cooperation at the regional level is also required to ensure long term energy security.

A much wider range of cooperative agreements is currently under discussion, and these have the potential of cementing relations between Dhaka and New Delhi, with inevitable and positive impact on the internal security in both countries. For Prime Minister Hasina and her Government, however, the related decisions have not been easy, and will remain fraught with political risk, with strident criticism from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led Opposition. There have been repeated accusations of a ‘sell out’ to the ‘regional hegemony’. The BNP Chairman and opposition leader Khaleda Zia, on October 26, 2010, hinted at the growing and allegedly deleterious Indian role in the country, stating, “Frequency of movement by vultures has increased in Bangladesh and this movement must be stopped and vultures must be resisted unitedly.” Zia also claimed that Bangladesh had received no benefits from various agreements with India, and that the present Government was compromising national interests: “Our lands are taken away, innocent people are killed along the borders, but the present Government is afraid to protest.” On August 14, 2011, she demanded that the Government must make public all deals to be signed with India during Manmohan Singh's visit to Bangladesh, asserting, further, that her alliance would back the deals only “if they go in favour of Bangladesh. Otherwise, we will wage a tough movement to protest…. taking people with us."

Developments since 2009 have brought Bangladesh-India relations to a historical crossroads, and much of the bitterness of the past could easily be removed through a measure of generosity, flexibility and pragmatism on both sides. It remains to be seen if Prime Minister Singh’s visit to Dhaka will fulfil the broadening promise and expectations of the past two years.

First published in SOUTH ASIA INTELLIGENCE REVIEW, Weekly Assessments and Briefings
Volume 10, No. 8, August 29, 2011

Sanchita Bhattacharya is Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management