A decade of Bangladesh-India relations: 2009-2019

M Serajul Islam | Published: 00:00, Nov 05,2019


The prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s official visit to New Delhi in October 3–6 2019 completed a decade of Bangladesh-India relations with her leading the country. She said while concluding the visit, first, that entire Bangladesh had expected that India would conclude the Teesta deal pending since September 2011 that it did not; and, second, that Bangladesh had given more to India than it had received in the past decade. Everyone in Bangladesh agreed with the prime minister. She, thus, flagged diplomatically that she was not pleased with the outcome of her visit and so was the country.

Hasina’s disappointment notwithstanding, she has conducted relations with India ever since assuming office in January 2009 till date with a vision where she never for a moment have forgot Indian assistance for Bangladesh’s war of liberation. Her vision also acknowledged that geopolitical realities had made it indispensable for Bangladesh to have sustainable and friendly relations with India where Indian apathy just on Bangladesh’s need of an equitable share of the 54 rivers she shared with her could turn the country to a desert.

Hasina’s vision for mutually beneficial Bangladesh-India relations started taking shape when the Awami League assumed office in 1996, 21 years after it had lost it in August 1975 although she did not express it in the 1996–2001 term in the manner she did in 2009. In the 1996–2001 term, she convinced New Delhi to conclude the Ganges water sharing accord that had been stalled for more than two decades and with its help, concluded the very important Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord with the separatists in the hills. Her desire to reach water-sharing accords on the other commonly shared rivers to take Bangladesh-India relations to a new level of excellence was stalled as her party lost power to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party in 2001.

Hasina did not lose a single day on regaining power in January 2009 to put to shape her vision of bringing about a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations. Thus, she announced on her first day in office for the 2009–2014 term that her government would not allow the secessionist/terrorist groups of the Indian north-eastern provinces — the Seven Sisters — to use Bangladesh’s territory for their terrorist activities. Soon thereafter, she also agreed to give India land transit and allowed it to call it ‘connectivity’ to connect its mainland to its fragile north-east through Bangladesh. Hasina was aware, as were the Indians, that the two concessions were Bangladesh’s only cards for leveraging New Delhi that the latter wanted desperately from Bangladesh.

Hasina, however, did not link those priceless concessions to water-sharing deals, long overdue trade concessions and the demarcation of land boundary that India had kept pending since Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had signed with Indira Gandhi the Border Agreement in 1974. New Delhi was, however, well aware that Hasina’s concessions left it with no choice but to move forward with Bangladesh’s expectations. Thus, New Delhi agreed to discuss the sharing of the water of the Teesta following Hasina’s very successful state visit to India in early 2010. The Teesta deal, amidst great hopes in Bangladesh, was ready for signing during the state visit of the Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh to Dhaka in September 2011.

The way the Teesta was taken off the table at the proverbial eleventh hour during that visit was the first major shock for prime minister Sheikh Hasina and her vision of sustainable Bangladesh-India relations. India gave her merely the assurance that the Teesta deal would be handed over to Bangladesh ‘soon’ without any time frame. That put paid to her hopes of arriving with India comprehensive water-sharing accords on the commonly shared rivers and move ahead to build mutually beneficial and sustainable relations with India in the spirit the two countries had come together in 1971 convinced that for Bangladesh, water-sharing must be at the core of such a relationship.

New Delhi’s explanation for withdrawing the Teesta deal was wishy-washy at best. It stated that water was a provincial subject under the Indian constitution and that there was little it could do to override West Bengal’s objection to giving Bangladesh the Teesta deal. The same Indian constitution, however, also gave the centre the power of the purse that the provinces could dare challenge only at their peril. Further, the centre also had the constitutional power for international agreements without consulting the provinces. New Delhi made no serious attempts to exercise those massive constitutional powers because the Congress needed the support of the Trinamool Congress for holding power at the centre.

New Delhi, however, relented on trade. It allowed Bangladeshi exports access on a wide number of items that it had held up since the South Asian countries had signed SAPTA or the South Asia Preferential Trading Agreement in 1993 under which Bangladesh had lowered tariff on a large number of Indian exports but India had failed to do so. New Delhi, meanwhile, renamed ‘land transit’ that Bangladesh had granted to encourage and motivate it towards sustainable bilateral relations as ‘connectivity’ and under it sold a huge promise to Bangladesh that it would make Bangladesh the regional connectivity hub of fabulous economic development comprising Bangladesh, eastern/north-eastern India, Bhutan and Nepal that would bring it so much wealth that it would be ‘ashamed’ to ask India for any transit fees.

New Delhi, thus, gave Bangladesh soft loans or lines of credit believing that the promise of fabulous wealth from connectivity would make Bangladesh beholden to India and not think too much of the great concessions that it had made or expecting reciprocity on water sharing issues or India’s failure to deliver on its other promises. Thus, India gave Bangladesh LOC I worth $862 million during the Congress rule and LOC II worth $ 2.5 and LOC III worth $4.5 billion when the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power. India also gave Bangladesh its fourth LOC worth $500 million in April this year but that was for strategic reasons.

The projects under the three LOCs were mostly for land and rail connectivity to allow India to take the full advantage of land transit/connectivity under which Bangladesh had also given India permission to use the ports of Chittagong and Mongla. Meanwhile, although New Delhi was fully occupied with land transit or connectivity, it nevertheless fulfilled its part of the long-standing border issues, in particular the final demarcation of the land boundary, and handed to Bangladesh the Teen Bigha corridor that had for long remained as an embarrassing issue in Bangladesh-India relations.

New Delhi’s vision of bilateral relations was, thus, primarily different from Sheikh Hasina’s who was unafraid to take major political risks. New Delhi believed that its interests came first most of the time. It, thus, never made any unilateral concessions like Sheikh Hasina did. Further, New Delhi under the Congress believed that its relations with Bangladesh were always better served by the Awami League. Thus, the Congress government treated the Bangladesh elections in 2014 like it was backing itself in a provincial election. The Indian foreign secretary Sushmita Singh came to Dhaka just before the elections to openly announce New Delhi’s support for the Awam League. She met HM Ershad and arm-twisted him to ensure that the Jatiya Party would contest so that the elections would be acceptable internationally with the BNP boycotting it.

The BJP too wanted India’s relations with Bangladesh to be party-based on the Bangladesh side rather than country-to-country and people-to-people and preferred to deal with the Awami League in power. There was, however, a minor hiccup in those perceptions in Bangladesh-Indian relations during the change from the Congress to the BJP in 2014. Sheikh Hasina, unsure whether the BJP would back her government like the Congress, went to Beijing in June 2014 to seek assurance from China that it would support the 2014 elections against international pressure. Bangladesh signed with China on that visit of its prime minister projects worth over $40 billion with a few strategic in content. Sushma Swaraj visited Dhaka immediately after Sheikh Hasina returned from China and Narendra Modi visited Dhaka in 2015. They convinced the AL government that India would back Bangladesh as the Congress-led government had done to bring Bangladesh back from the China road much to the dismay of the Chinese.

The BJP government, nevertheless, brought about a major change in India’s approach to conducting relations with Bangladesh thereafter. It offered Bangladesh two major credit lines, LOC II and LOC III, to assure Dhaka that it was behind Bangladesh as the Congress had been. Thereafter, however, New Delhi drew the line on the sand on India-Bangladesh relations. New Delhi said in private and public to the Bangladesh ruling party to ensure that the 2018 elections would be free, fair and participatory. Sushma Swaraj told journalists during her visit to Dhaka in November 2017 that it was the duty of the Bangladesh government to bring the BNP to the 2018 polls.

That was not good news for the Awami League that was in real danger politically and needed New Delhi behind it to hold another election like 2014. The BJP-led government, however, was not inclined to do so. It believed that the Awami League had too much at stake to lose power and would return to power by whatever means was necessary. New Delhi further believed that India would not be blamed for again bringing the Awami League to power, aware that such a role in 2014 had made India extremely unpopular in Bangladesh for which it was unable to take advantage of land transit/connectivity for which both agreements of the Bangladesh government and the infrastructure were ready.

The BJP, meanwhile, became involved in the Indian elections. It also preferred to be in denial of the distance that had grown between New Delhi and Dhaka most palpably evident in the much lesser number of high-level visits between the two capitals compared with the period under the Congress leading to Bangladesh elections in 2014. Nevertheless, Narendra Modi sent Sheikh Hasina an extremely warm message of felicitations and promised to work with her to take Bangladesh-India relations to a new level of excellence apparently unaware about the news that was about to come from Dhaka.

There were no exchanges between the two capitals for a week thereafter. New Delhi found out to its dismay when the new Bangladesh cabinet was announced on January 7 that of the 27 ministers that were dropped, a large number were overly friendly towards India. India was so comfortable with the ministers that were dropped that she did not have to ask them to work for her interests; those ministers obliged on their own. That was the first signal for New Delhi that ‘something was rotten in the state of Denmark’, in other words, in Bangladesh-India relations.

The next big signal came when Sheikh Hasina visited China in early July after Narendra Modi had led the BJP to a landslide victory. The joint declaration that emerged from the visit flagged for New Delhi once more that the economic relations between Dhaka and Beijing with which it was comfortable were again headed towards unchartered water. It realised from the joint declaration that Bangladesh had given China many projects worth in billions of US dollars which were not just of economic nature. New Delhi, thus, realised to its dismay and concern that the AL government had not listened to its advice to hold a free, fair and inclusive national election and that instead, meantime, moved much deeper in its relations with China whose contents were both economic and strategic.

New Delhi expressed its dismay and concerns unambiguously, this time, unlike in 2014, without going to Dhaka but by inviting Sheikh Hasina to New Delhi instead. New Delhi invited her to India in October 3–6 but did not give her visit the status of a state visit that was accorded to her when she had visited India in 2010, under the Congress, and in 2017, under the BJP. That underlined to not just the Awami League government but the entire Bangladesh, irrespective of the political divide in the country that the warmth of Bangladesh-India bilateral relations as far as India was concerned had become a matter of the past. The message reached Bangladeshis in the comfort of their homes when they saw a minister of state receiving their prime minister at the airport in place of Narendra Modi without any of the other pomp and grandeur of a state visit.

India did not leave simply to protocol matters to express her mood on the state of relations with Bangladesh. It made it evident in the joint statement. It again deferred the Teesta deal to the realm of uncertainty assuring Dhaka that it would be given ‘soon’. New Delhi requested Dhaka instead for the water of the River Feni for drinking purposes of an Indian town that Sheikh Hasina graciously allowed, no doubt, to flag for India her disappointment over the Teesta deal. The other issues in the 53-point joint statement favoured India mostly with two underlining the fact that Bangladesh-India relations were entering dangerous waters.

1. The memorandum of understanding for a coastal surveillance system that would allow India to monitor the territorial waters of Bangladesh by establishing radars inside Bangladesh.

2. Early implementation of the Indian line of credit that included the last LOC worth $500 million for the purchase of arms from India.

Strategic experts concluded that the memorandum of understanding on surveillance, if implemented, would be the most intrusive interference ever into the sovereignty of Bangladesh. Bangladesh agreed to such a blatant intrusion perhaps to appease New Delhi for the sub-base that Bangladesh had reportedly given China for the maintenance of the submarines that it had earlier bought from Beijing. The request to Bangladesh to buy Indian arms with $500 million suggested that New Delhi would like to enter into a relationship with the Bangladesh army — a major political power broker in Bangladesh — that was hitherto buying almost all its arms and military supplies from China.

India did not raise the National Register of Citizens issue during the visit that it had recently introduced in Bangladesh-India relations as a new and dangerously contentious issue. New Delhi claimed that millions had been identified in Assam as ‘illegal Bangladeshis’ under the NRC and there were many more in other Indian provinces, in particular in West Bengal, that it would like to push into Bangladesh. The Bangladesh foreign minister after the meeting between Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi in New York recently stated that the Indian prime minister had assured Sheikh Hasina of not worrying about the NRC and that at their New Delhi summit further assurance would come.

The way some BJP leaders abused Bangladesh on the media before Sheikh Hasina’s visit and following, it added further to the growing perception in Bangladesh that New Delhi was unhappy with Bangladesh, perhaps, because it had entered with China into a strategic-economic partnership instead of leaving it as an economic relationship only. The Indian home minister called allegedly illegal Bangladeshis in India as ‘termites’ that India would like to forcibly drown, millions of them, in the Bay of Bengal. Many believed in that unbelievable statement a desire to indulge in ‘ethnic cleansing.’

There has been nothing inappropriate in Bangladesh-China relations for New Delhi to be unhappy. Bangladesh is an independent and sovereign state like India. Sheikh Hasina acted well within her rights. And it was New Delhi that should be on the defensive because it has failed to match on a whole range of concessions that Sheikh Hasina had given for building sustainable and mutually beneficial relations. Indian betrayal on promises made it imperative for Sheikh Hasina to seek closer relations with China with which Bangladesh enjoyed historically excellent relations on a bipartisan basis.

Bangladesh-India relations are at present at best although both countries need each other for economic and geopolitical reasons as well as factors of history and culture. Nevertheless, the future of these important bilateral relations depends primarily on India for which it should make genuine efforts to fulfil the promises that it had made to Bangladesh but failed to keep. New Delhi should keep in mind that such failures would soon leave very few in Bangladesh friendly towards India. India has brought the relations to a position where even its most ardent supporters and admirers find that they are unable to support it any more.

The leader of a group that in the past supported India without any questions made two statements most recently that India should consider seriously if it valued its relations with Bangladesh. It said in one statement that India treated Bangladesh only as a market. Its other statement was more dangerous that the Indians treated Bangladesh as the Pakistanis had treated it before 1971. If such committed India-backers were pushed to such depths of despair, then New Delhi would have to do a great deal because the ball for the betterment of Bangladesh-India relations is at present squarely in the Indian court.

Postscript: Prime minister Sheikh Hasina is on the right track on Bangladesh-India relations. She would, however, need the mandarins of her foreign ministry to rise to her level. She cannot afford to have them trivialising Bangladesh-India relations that are at the core of Bangladesh’s foreign policy as ‘a relationship of a husband and a wife’ and at the same time remain oblivious of the fact that foreign affairs moved to the centre stage in Bangladesh’s politics, as it had in 1971. Unfortunately, Bangladesh today is not united as a nation as it was during its war of liberation in 1971.


M Serajul Islam is a former career ambassador.

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