Modi's Dhaka Visit: Building a Bridge for Cooperation

By Ashok B Sharma

Bangladesh is likely to seek Modi’s help in resolving the Rohingyas who are declared stateless people in Myanmar. Dhaka claims that they are not their people, while Myanmar is trying to push them out to Bangladesh.

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 the economies are growing at faster rates transcending their internal problems – India at over 7 percent and Bangladesh at over 6 percent. But the growth needs to be sustained in the long run and move into 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 Mujibur Rahman, Sheikh Hasina has adopted a cautious, but effective approach in dealing with the fundamentalist 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 military and hence refused to have elections conducted under a caretaker government. The Opposition boycotted the general elections and subsequent mayoral elections. The Opposition boycott has invited some unjustified criticisms 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 the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to say ‘Bangabandhu founded Bangladesh and his daughter Sheikh Hasina saved it.’

The noted war criminal, the `butcher of Mirpur’ Abdul Quader Mollah, 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 was able to contain these protests, the fundamentalist forces began targeting bloggers who were expressing free opinion and even hacking them to death. But Sheikh Hasina is undeterred to give a secular face to Bangladesh. She got Justice Surendra Kumar Sinha from 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, nothing can be a 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 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 now remains to be implemented. It will take some time as PM 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 Shiekh Hasina. That she has agreed to be a part of PM’s delegation this time is a perceptible change as she had earlier declined to be part of former PM Manmohan Singh team on visit to Dhaka in 2011. In international diplomacy, it takes time to resolve sensitive issues. If land boundary issue could take 41 years to resolve after Indira-Mujib accord of 1974, there can be hopes for Teesta issue to 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.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who is fighting fundamentalist and anti-Indian forces in her country is likely to derive strength by projecting India as the most friendly neighbour as a number of proposed agreements such as 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 CM Mamata Banerjee on board, the people on both sides of the border will feel a sense of coming closer.

There are, however, certain contentious issues between the two countries that need to be tackled with a better sense of understanding. India had raised the issue of illegal migration from Bangladesh and its north eastern states, particularly Assam has been complaining about the demographic change caused due to illegal migration. 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. Bangladesh, however, is not agreeable to many of the contentions put up by India. PM Modi during his poll campaign last year had assured that he would push back the illegal migrants if he comes to power. PM Modi’s party, BJP, has always been clamouring to take a tough stand on illegal migration and also on smuggling of cattle across the border. These issues call for an amicable settlement between the two parties.

Bangladesh is likely to seek Modi’s help in resolving the Rohingyas who are declared stateless people in Myanmar. Dhaka claims that they are not their people, while Myanmar is trying to push them out to Bangladesh.

India and Bangladesh share 4096.7 km land border, out of which 1116.2 km is riverine. They share 289.7 km of maritime border. Total fencing of border 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 the 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 Meghalaya-Bangladesh border, apart from two existing along the border with Mizoram and one along 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 food grains to Tripura. All old rail, road and port connectivity that existed in the British colonial rule need to be re-opened. Bangladesh, which proposes to build a deep sea port, can be a 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 through 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 PM Modi has planned to visit, before he embarks on his tour to West Asian and Central Asian countries in the second year in office. If he wins the hearts of Bangladeshi, it will strengthen not only his Neighbourhood First Policy, but also 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 SAARC Charter. Keeping in view the difficulties in taking the SAARC agenda forward owing to problems created by Pakistan, India can catalyse, sub-regional cooperation within SAARC and the BIMSTEC route. Bangladesh in this case assumes strategic importance.

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