In this episode of Worldview, we look at Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to Delhi. Are India and Bangladesh on their way to becoming ideal neighbours or can contentious issues on the boundary, minorities and Rohingya still trip them up?
This week saw the Bangladesh PM in Delhi, and she also travelled to Ajmer to offer prayers. This could also be her last visit to India before elections- due at the beginning of 2024, at the end of her third consecutive tenure as PM.
The agreements that emerged from this visit
– The two governments agreed to launch talks for a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement or CEPA, which is expected to benefit trade between both countries, about 7-15 billion dollars over 10 years- if they are able to implement it. At present a joint feasibility study has been finalised, and with Bangladesh set to come off the list of LDCs and becoming a developing country by 2026, a CEPA will accelerate bilateral trade which is at about $18 billion at present. At present Bangladesh is negotiating about 10 FTAs, has completed the PTA with Bhutan, and a few multilateral ones like SAFTA, APTA, and one with 8 developing Islamic democracies like Indonesia, Turkey, Pakistan and Malaysia
– Speaking to Indian CEOs, Sheikh Hasina stressed that trade between India and Bangladesh isn’t just bilateral, but that Bangladesh can be the route for goods to India’s northeastern states as well
– Sheikh Hasina made a particular mention of the need for more power trade- both from India, as well as from Nepal and Bhutan over the Cross Border Trade in Electricity agreements
2. Connectivity Projects that were reviewed during the visit include power plants
– 2 billion 1320 MW Maitree power plant at Khulna
.- Rail bridge that is part of the Khulna-Mongla rail project, and Khulna-Darshana
– Road construction equipment
– The two sides also concluded 2 Railway MoUs for training and capacity building with a view to ramping up rail connectivity between both countries
3. River water sharing- India and Bangladesh share 54 trans boundary rivers, and a long history of distrust over water sharing
.- 26 years after the historic Ganga water treaty was signed, and a few years after a smaller drinking water treaty on the Feni was signed, the two sides agreed to an MoU on the Kushiyara river
– They have also revived the Joint River Commission- which met this year after 12 years, and both sides hope to use this mechanism to work on other rivers as well.
However, much to the disappointment of the Bangladesh side, no movement has been recorded on the Teesta agreement.
What is the Teesta agreement about?
– The Teesta is a powerful river, a tributary of the Brahmaputra that flows from Sikkim through West Bengal into Bangladesh- with a drainage area of more than 12,000 kilometres.
– Since partition, East Pakistan as Bangladesh was known has complained about not receiving its due share of the river, which has been dammed, and in 1983, the two sides even had a partial agreement, where India would use 39% of the river and Bangladesh 36%, when talks collapsed.
– These were picked up again after the Ganga water agreement of 1996, and in 2011, the two sides finalised an agreement for India to retain 42.5% of the waters during the lean season between December and March, and Bangladesh to receive 37.5%. Just as the agreement was due to be signed between PM Manmohan Singh and PM Hasina, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee objected, and the deal has been hanging since then.
– An added problem has been one of climate change, and the fact that the Teesta runs dry for some part of the year.
– The real issue however, is a political one, where for India the Teesta has become a symbol of Centre-State conflict, where bad ties between PM Modi and CM Banerjee have exacerbated the rift over Teesta, and in Bangladesh, the Teesta is a symbol of India’s unfinished promises, where no matter what else is agreed to, the lack of a Teesta deal hurts PM Hasina politically.
Woven into it all is the history of Bangladesh-India relations, that have been forged in blood, tears and emotions.
– India’s support in the 1971 Bangladesh war of liberation, where nearly 3,000 Indian soldiers were killed, 12,000 wounded, was laid into the foundation of the country- and even during this visit, PM Hasina announced scholarships for 200 living descendents of those who died
– Four years later, when Bangladesh founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, his wife, children, a total of 20 family members were brutally assassinated by pro-Pakistan military officers, and only Sheikh Hasina and her sister survived, the Indian government invited her to stay, as she took refuge in Delhi for six years.
– She came out of her political exile, and built her party back in Bangladesh- which was under military rule at the time, a regime quite inimical to India. In addition, Bangladesh became a safe haven for terror groups and separatist forces that targetted India.
– It was only after Sheikh Hasina won power in 1996 that relations with India improved- the signing of the Ganga treaty for eg. She lost in 2001, but then won in 2009, after which she set about repaying a debt to India- ordering a full crackdown on anti-India groups in the country, and handing over more than 20 most wanted terrorists and criminals to India – including most recently ULFA leader Anup Chetia, who was handed over in 2015 after 18 years in Bangladeshi prisons- he was later acquitted and released from prison here.
– PM Hasina also ordered stricter border controls, to end India’s longest complaint of illegal migrants coming to India, which also had led to killings by Border police
– Since 2009- India and Bangladesh have had very cordial ties- growing trade, people to people ties, connectivity year on year, leading many to hail this as an ideal relationship between neighbours.
Where do the future faultlines lie?
1. China: While India has emotional bonds with Bangladesh, China has very strong economic ones- it is a member of China’s BRI with projects worth $50 billion promised, China is Bangladesh’s top trading partner, largest direct foreign investor, trade importer, and military supplier- accounting for about 72% of Bangladesh’s military hardware. These ties are always viewed with suspicion in New Delhi, although Dhaka insists the ties are separate
2. Elections: PM Hasina is going into the final year of her third consecutive tenure in power, and even though her opposition has been decimated, a fourth term is always difficult in a democracy. India’s problem that its ties with Bangladesh are linked to one party and one PM, and this can always cause problems in the future.
3. Rise of majoritarian forces in India and Bangladesh: although both India and Bangladesh are committed to secularism and equal rights for minorities, there has been a rise in attacks on Muslims in India and Hindus in Bangladesh. In contrast to India, however, PM Hasina has been at the forefront to condemn the attacks, and has made her displeasure with comments by the Indian leadership, including home minister Amit Shah’s reference to immigrants as termites, or more recent comments by the Assam Chief Minister clear to her Indian interlocutors.
4. Bangladesh is home to more than a million Rohingya refugees, and is keen to send them back safely to Myanmar. The Modi government, which has maintained good ties with the Military Junta responsible for the ethnocide of Rohingya muslims, has not pushed the issue hard enough, and also asserts it will deport all Rohingyas , regardless of safety considerations.
5. Finally, there is Teesta, and the unfinished agreements on other rivers – with global warming, floods and dry rivers all threatening Bangladesh’s massive population, this could become a thorny issue for both sides in the future.
India and Bangladesh have too much history between them to disentangle ties- the moves in the past decade to increase connectivity, trade and visits are an important reminder of how ties between India and all its neighbours can be in the ideal- the South Asia dream, that has run into trouble with Pakistan, is achievable only if Delhi and Dhaka drive it.
1. One of the best books in the recent past on the India and the Bangladesh Liberation War Chandrashekhar Dasgupta
2. And the best book to follow that history up with is Untranquil Recollections: Nation Building in Post-Liberation Bangladesh by former Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Rahman Sobhan
3. On the history of partition, a Bangladeshi perspective, 1971: A People’s History from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India by Anam Zakaria
4. Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition by Nisid Hajari
5. Sheikh Hasina has written several books about her father
-My Father My Bangladesh by Sheikh Hasina in 2021
-. Living in tears 2003
6. Coping with China-India Rivalry: South Asian Dilemmas edited by C Rajamohan and Hernaikh Shingh, out at the end of the year. Chapter on Bangladesh by Ifthekhar Ahmed Chowdhury