Bangla-India ties: A tangled skein

Tariq Karim

India’s biggest challenge when dealing with its immediate neighbours is, first and foremost, the sense of its sheer size that dwarfs the combined size of all the others. This huge size, in combination with the fact that India is the only country that has contiguous borders with all its neighbours, except Afghanistan (which has a somewhat dubious advantage of separation from the Indian landmass by intervening Pakistan), adds to the psychological complexity in all when viewing their respective relationships with India, as indeed it explains, not a little, India’s own behaviour with the neighbours it towers over! Viewed through this prism, size matters, for better or for worse. Let me focus on Bangladesh-India relations.

There is no gainsaying the fact that Bangladesh’s struggle for its independence from Pakistan in 1971 would have been far more prolonged, painful and bloody, or perhaps even rendered impossible without India’s support to it politically, economically, militarily and diplomatically. Yet, barely three and a half years after that defining moment, this relationship, haloed by the blood of martyrs co-mingling in the soil as they fought a common enemy, turned not only sour but became increasingly protean, with more downs than ups in the period between 1975 and 2008. Why?

Many in Bangladesh find Indian official attitude patronizing, hectoring, insensitive and largely, if not entirely, self-serving. The propensity to shift goalposts to suit their own convenience is a repetitive theme. There were honourable exceptions to this behavioural pattern, notably during the years of initial bonhomie in the early post-Liberation years; during the Deve Gowda and Inder Gujral governments and notably, in more recent times, during the UPA-2 government led by Manmohan Singh. These were the periods when remarkable events happened.

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Following the elections in Bangladesh in December 2008, a remarkable turn-around took place. Winning a landslide victory and massive mandate, Sheikh Hasina embarked on pro-active engagement with the Manmohan Singh government, which was held in great esteem and respect in Bangladesh. Within two years, Hasina addressed India’s security concerns to Delhi’s satisfaction; successfully concluded the Protocol to the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA); resolved the maritime boundary dispute by willingly referring it to arbitration under international law; got sweeping (and practically one-way) trade concessions from India; and signed the historic Framework Agreement for Cooperation and Development in September 2011, which enabled Bangladesh, together with India, to launch the dynamic initiative for sub-regional cooperation with Bhutan and Nepal, which was to become known as BBIN.

India and Bangladesh agreed upon the first post-Partition cross-border trade in power and energy cooperation, with India supplying 250 MW of power to Bangladesh (this trade has since grown exponentially) and allowing India transit of Over Dimensional Cargo of power plant equipment from Haldia to Agartala. Having broken the ice, Bangladesh persuaded India at the highest level to embark on joint venture hydropower generation in Bhutan for importing-wheeling into Bangladesh using the Indian grid.

India also agreed to discuss rivers on a regional, holistic basin-wide management basis rather than piecemeal sharing of individual rivers. This was a major shift in Indian position since 1947, enabling Bangladesh, India and Nepal to discuss the Ganges basin; and Bangladesh, Bhutan and India could similarly optimize management of available waters in the lower Brahmaputra.  

West Bengal’s intransigence on the Teesta issue and the Indian central government’s adversarial relations with that state has, however, caused growing disenchantment with India in Bangladesh. This was accentuated steadily after the Narendra Modi government came to power in 2014. The first near-casualty was the ratification of the LBA and its protocol, with the Modi government first insisting on only partial ratification (without Assam, a key component of the carefully crafted package deal).

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The next jolt came when India abruptly shifted the goal-posts on cross-border power deals in the region by insisting on strict bilateral arrangements between all interested regional parties. India would purchase power from Bhutan and sell the same to Bangladesh, under the 2016 ‘Guidelines for Cross-Border Power Trade.’ This effectively killed any chance of sub-regional power trade or energy investment taking place, reviving India’s hegemonic reputation.

It served to fuel further distrust among Bangladeshis about Indian reliability and deepened suspicions that the narrative (and initiatives and works thereunder) of sub-regional connectivity were essentially an Indian ploy to get Bangladesh to accede to long-standing Indian demands for transit and transshipment across Bangladesh to India’s land-locked Northeastern states and enable operationalization of Modi’s ‘Act East’ policy.

To these body blows to the nascent bonhomie were then added, as grist to the mill, Indian policies and actions on three significant issues that have regional fallouts. First was India’s equivocal position on Myanmar’s genocidal actions on its Rohingya nationals in Rakhine state that resulted in a mass outflow of over a million refugees into Bangladesh in August 2017. The Myanmarese regime screamed “Islamist terrorism” when Modi visited that country, to which his government’s response was Pavlovian, from a Bangladeshi viewpoint.

The subsequent actions by India on the NRC in Assam have only served to deepen anxiety and distrust about the real intentions behind what New Delhi has repeatedly asserted as being an internal matter of India.

Many Bangladeshis are convinced that this is an anti-Muslim drive by India’s present regime espousing Hindutva, and India is now increasingly viewed as jettisoning all pretensions to secularism and unabashedly embracing the redefining of the Indian state as a Hindu majoritarian Rashtra (mirroring, ironically, Pakistan’s Muslim majoritarian Islamic Republic!) The vigilante actions by Hindu revivalists over cow slaughter, Delhi’s recent actions in Kashmir, and the move to grant citizenship only to Hindus from around the region have served to feed this anxiety, pushing fears into the realm of deep-seated conviction. The Modi government’s credibility is, therefore, increasingly being tested by its acts of commission and omission when compared to the soft, inclusive and conciliatory approach to neighbours of its predecessors in power.

The shift in emphasis on various issues has also had its fallout on the various regional cooperation measures, processes and institutions, like SAARC, BBIN and BIMSTEC. Since 2014, it is clear to many observers that India is now least interested in having anything to do at all with SAARC, considered dead for all purposes.

India has demonstrated little enthusiasm to pursue the BBIN agenda and focus its energy and efforts on road, rail and water connectivity between India and Bangladesh, while letting sub-regionalism proceed at its own pace. And without BBIN and the resolution by Myanmar of the refugee crisis it has burdened Bangladesh with, India’s desire to activate BIMSTEC will not happen.

(The writer was Bangladesh High Commissioner to India until August 2019 and is a World Bank Consultant on South Asian Regional Integration)

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