Most people view India’s Prime Minister, Dr Man Mohan Singh as an ardent supporter of regional cooperation. During the past seven years or so his administration has attempted to reach out to a number of neighbours including the most recalcitrant Pakistan. Where India has been most successful is however Bangladesh. Here with a favourable Awami League government in power for the last two and half years, there has been considerable improvement in relations. The most visible impact was Dhaka ejecting leaders of India’s top militant groups operating in the North East. There was danger however of all this suffering a set back, due to some very unstatesmanlike remarks by Dr Man Mohan Singh in an Editor’s meet in Delhi which were later typified as, “off the record,” and removed from the official website.
The remarks sought to paint a quarter of the population of the country swearing by the right wing political party Jamiat-ul-Islami and thus anti-Indian who was also being dictated terms by the Pakistani intelligence agency the ISI. Even more strangely he is reported to have stated that the situation can change any time in Bangladesh.
Despite these undiplomatic remarks the matured approach shown by the leadership in Bangladesh is encouraging. Even opposition leader of Bangladesh National Party (BNP), Begum Khaleda Zia, who is not known to be very friendly towards India played down the issue during the visit of the Indian External Affairs Minister Mr S M Krishna to Dhaka. The ruling party the Awami League did not even mention the same, thereby indicating a genuine willingness to engage India with an open mind.
This led to positive developments and signing of important agreements such as promotion and protection of investments which will encourage Indian businessmen to invest in the country as it protects them from nationalization arbitrarily by the Bangladesh government.
There are many issues however such as allegations of killing of Bangladeshi civilians by Indian BSF and an interim agreement on water sharing of the common rivers Teesta and Feni which may take some time to resolve but should not be beyond the scope of negotiations. The Indian leadership would have to build upon this goodwill on all fronts and marginalize extremist sentiment which appears to have lowered against India in Dhaka. The proposed visit of India’s Prime Minister in September will be seminal and could prove to be a turning point in case India is willing to make some major compromises in mutual interest.
The stage for these developments was set with the visit of India’s outgoing Foreign Secretary; Ms Nirupama Rao in Dhaka. She highlighted the progress in Indo Bangladesh relations at the Joint Press meet. Projects under the $ 1 billion LOC from India was a high priority to include Railway infrastructure and purchase of buses for Dhaka city which have been concurred and will be implemented. Cooperation in the power sector, including grid connectivity, supply of upto 500 MW of power from India, including 250 MW of power at a preferential rate and Bangladesh request for setting up of a high technology joint venture thermal power plant of 1320 MW capacity is progressing well. The annual duty free quota for export of Bangladeshi garments to India has been raised from 8 to 10 million pieces. Both sides are working on several projects to improve trade infrastructure and connectivity. Bangladesh exports to India have, according to Indian figures, increased by 52% in the first nine months of 2010-11.
On the issue of boundary, the Joint Boundary Working Group (JBWG) last met in November 2010, and on water issues, Bangladesh Water Resources Secretary held talks in Delhi in June to discuss interim water sharing of Teesta and Feni rivers. The land issue is complicated. Indo Bangladesh border ironically is India’s longest at 4156 kms. Settling the same will involve India partaking 10,000 acres. This comprises of 3,000 acres of land that Bangladesh has inside India, 51 enclaves (7,000 acres of land) and 6.5 kilometres of un-demarcated border, while India has around 3,500 acres of land and 111 enclaves (17,000 acres of land) adversely possessed inside Bangladesh. The exchange of enclaves will lead to loss of Indian enclaves in Panchagarh, Lalmonirhat, Kurigram and Nilphamari districts of Bangladesh. Bangladeshi enclaves are in Cooch Behar district West Bengal. Of the 6.5 km un-demarcated border, 1.5 km is at Doykhata in Nilphamari district, 2 km at Muhurir char in Feni and 3 km at Lathitila in Moulvibazar.
Provision of transit to India may face some challenges due to pricing considerations as well as opposition from nationalist parties including principal opposition BNP. For this international norms should be a good pointer and options exercised by other nations under similar circumstances could be discussed. There is a need for overall political consensus in both the countries for a transit treaty in mutual benefit with some concessions offered to Bangladesh by India to make it more palatable.
Indian Army chief, General V K Singh was also in Bangladesh on invitation of chief of Bangladesh Army, General Mohammad Abdul Mubeen. Resetting relations between Indian and Bangladesh armed forces over a period has resulted in a number of military exchanges and the visit of the Army Chief to Bangladesh and particularly to take the salute at the passing out parade of the Bangladesh Military Academy for training officer cadets is significant. While Indo Bangladesh military relations were low key in the past, these picked up momentum after the Caretaker Government in the country took office in 2007 and was followed up by the Awami League since 2009. The cooperation has fructified in visits by major dignitaries and led to cooperation on the anti terrorism front as the Bangladesh government has acted against Indian militant groups operating in the North East.
Thus with a general agreement on improvement of relations between the two governments, issues such as water sharing of the Teesta a crucial one for Bangladesh and transit for India may be resolved compatibly. It remains to be seen how many agreements are implemented for Indian response is tardy due to bureaucratic challenges and given impact of water on agriculture there is all the more reason to worry for local agitations in the days ahead unless the Treaty is properly packaged and the people well informed.