India and Bangladesh have had a strong bond since the birth of Bangladesh. India was the first country to recognise Bangladesh as a separate independent state and established diplomatic relations with it immediately after its independence in 1971. Since then they share a friendly tie and are regarded as a textbook example of a neighbourly relationship. There is much in the past and present that unites these two countries. Their relationship is anchored in a shared history, common heritage, language, cultural ties and, values of secularism and democracy. It is based on sovereignty, equality, trust, understanding and a win-win partnership.
However, in the mid-1970s, their relations worsened as Bangladesh emphasized on its Islamic identity and developed closer ties with Islamic nations. In the Cold War Era, the two nations developed different alliances which further deteriorated their bilateral relations. But with the onset of economic liberalisation in South Asia, they forged greater engagement in trade and investment. Bilateral trade grew as they became common members of SAARC, BIMSTEC and Commonwealth. Over the last decades, their partnership has elevated to the next level through investments in new and high technology areas of Civil Nuclear Energy, Space, Information Technology, Defence, etc.
Recently few issues have raised eyebrows about the future of this alliance. However, before proclaiming any conclusion about the prospects of their relationship, it is worthwhile to closely analyse the advancements that have emerged over the years.
India has been very active in the development activity in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is the largest recipient of Line of Credit (LOC) funds from India. Besides, India provides grant assistance for projects under ‘Aid to Bangladesh’. Through this, multiples soft loans are extended for infrastructure development and capacity building. In the last couple of years, their bond has been further strengthened through bilateral relations.
To promote bilateral trade, both the countries have created a CEOs forum that offers policy level inputs in various areas of trade and investment besides facilitating exchanges among business communities of both the countries. Consequently, Bangladesh has become India’s biggest trade partner in South Asia. A joint consultative commission led by the Ministry of External Affairs coordinates and oversees the implementation of initiatives taken as well as explores newer avenues for cooperation.
Cooperation in the energy sector is one of the hallmarks of India-Bangladesh relations. It has seen considerable progress in the last few years. Bangladesh currently imports about 1160 MW of power from India. Indian PSUs are working with their Bangladeshi counterparts to increase investments in natural gas and coal-fired power plants in Bangladesh. India would also set up civil nuclear reactors in Bangladesh for sharing information in the field of nuclear safety and production.
India-Bangladesh relations have usually been friendly except a few border disputes. The Indo-Bangladesh land boundary is the longest land boundary that India shares with any of its neighbours. It is porous and allows illegal migrants an easy passage. But continuous border killings of Bangladeshi civilians by Border Security Forces (BSF) have become a major area of contention. Though the officials have vowed to stop these shootings, ‘shoot-to-kill policy’ brought into play by BSF is a cause of discord between the alliance. These killings have also become a subject of a so-called ‘cyberwar’ between the hackers of two countries wherein websites of BSF, National Investigation Agency of India etc. have turned out to be victims.
Both countries have signed several agreements related to border and security cooperation. The Coordinated Border Management Plan (CBMP) signed in 2011 aims at synergizing the efforts of border forces towards checking cross-border illegal activities and maintaining peace and tranquillity along the border. India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) came into force in 2015 and the nations swapped enclaves in border regions, allowing people living there to stay or opt-out to another country.
India and Bangladesh share a historical legacy of defence cooperation and support since the Liberation War of 1971. As they are close strategic partners, various joint training exercises of Army and Navy take place between them. Besides investing in resources to deal with natural disasters and to counter-terrorism, efforts have been directed towards increasing cooperation between the Coast Guards of both the nations.
It is worth tracing the evolution of their relationship in the domain of connectivity through all modes of transport. India and Bangladesh share 54 common rivers. A bilateral Joint Rivers Committee is working since 1972 to maintain liaison between them to maximise benefits from common river systems. In the past, Bangladesh insisted that it did not receive a fair share of Ganges Waters during dry seasons and got flooded during monsoons.
To resolve this, The Ganga Water Treaty was signed in 1996, thus, allowing successful cooperation in harnessing water resources. Maritime connectivity was enhanced through the Protocol on Inland Water Trade, enabling direct movement of cargo through the river systems between the two nations. To boost connectivity by road, movement of goods was operationalised through Land Customs Stations which catered to more than 50% of bilateral trade. Apart from these, rail links are operational and there are regular bus services between the regions too.
Other areas go beyond trade and strategic partnership. The Indira Gandhi Cultural Centre in Bangladesh covers a wide gamut of cultural activities and has witnessed a steady rise in enrolments by natives of Bangladesh. About 10,000 strong Indian community is estimated to be living in Bangladesh. They are well respected and well-to-do socially and economically as a community. Moreover, in a 2014 survey, 70% of Bangladeshis expressed a favourable opinion and perception of India. This is our asset and the value of this asset is determined mainly by our investment in the relationship with our neighbour.
But look where we are merely six years down the line. The sense of camaraderie that prevailed earlier has evaporated and strong signals of regional solidarity are faint. India’s otherwise solid relationship with Bangladesh turned sour when Indian government completed NRC (National Register of Citizens), igniting popular resentment in Bangladesh over the possibility of a sudden influx of people forced out of Indian state. Bangladesh is now fearful of CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019).
Though India has assured that these are internal issues but the concern reverberates and has led to a reduction in the warmth shared by two countries. Furthermore, CAA caused waves of anxiety as it provided citizenship to persecuted religious minorities from various countries including Bangladesh, indirectly indicating the poor treatment of religious minorities in Bangladesh.
These rising tensions have set off deep disquiet in Dhaka, pushing public consensus towards China.
China’s expansionism in the region is leading to the deterioration of our relationship with our neighbours as they find a growing appeal in China’s authoritarian paradigm than India’s democratic one. As a result, almost all our neighbours now bear grudges. But Indo-Bangladesh partnership has plenty of room to grow. Therefore, at this juncture when India is losing its neighbouring countries, it is quite essential to ramp up relations with Bangladesh and build people to people relations across the border. Failing to do so would tilt Bangladesh completely towards China.
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Currently pursuing Economics (Hons.) from SRCC, Simran is an avid reader and is always on a lookout for some ‘real’ knowledge. She is a proud member of BTS Army and has an innate obsession for Sundays. She often finds herself stuck in the rat race and struggles to have a consensus between her heart and mind.