Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited India from 3 to 6 October 2019. The visit followed just within few months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi formed his government at the centre for the second consecutive time. Since India and Bangladesh share a friendly relationship, the visit emphasised the special bond between the two countries.
During her visit, she participated in the India Economic Forum organised by the World Economic Forum in Delhi on 3 and 4 October. The World Economic Forum invited Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina as chief guest for the Summit. On 5 October, she met her counterpart Prime Minister Narendra Modi, President Ramnath Kovind and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar.
During the visit, top leaders of India and Bangladesh reviewed the state of the bilateral relationship, which is considered to be excellent now; they also discussed other regional issues. A 53-paragraph long joint statement was issued during the visit that highlighted the key issues discussed during the visit. The document is important as it provides a future roadmap for India-Bangladesh relations.
Notably, the statement highlighted the priority areas for strengthening cooperation between India and Bangladesh. The areas are border security and management, win-win business partnership; boosting connectivity on land, on the water, in the skies; harnessing defence cooperation; consolidating development cooperation; cross-border energy cooperation; cultural cooperation through celebration of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary (2019), birth centenary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (2020) and 50 years of Bangladesh War of Liberation ( 2021).
The immediate outcome of the visit was signing of the 7 pacts in areas including transport, connectivity, capacity building and culture. The pacts are - MoU for providing a Coastal Surveillance System; Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) on the use of Chattogram and Mongla Ports for Movement of goods to and from India; MoU on withdrawal of 1.82 cusecs of water from Feni River by India for drinking water supply scheme for Sabroom town, Tripura, India; Agreement concerning Implementation of the Lines of Credit (LoCs) committed by India to Bangladesh; MoU between the University of Hyderabad and University of Dhaka; Renewal of Cultural Exchange Programme and a MoU on Co-operation in Youth Affair. Besides, 3 projects were inaugurated. The projects are- import of Bulk LPG from Bangladesh; inauguration of Vivekananda Bhaban (student’s hostel) at Ramakrishna Mission, Dhak; inauguration of Bangladesh-India Professional Skill Development Institute (BIPSDI) at the Institution of Diploma Engineers Bangladesh (IDEB), Khulna.
The visit reasserted trust and friendship between the two countries. However, people in Bangladesh expressed resentment over the outcome of the visit since the magnitude of expectations of the visit from Bangladesh, was much bigger. People of that country opined that India, being a larger neighbour, should have given more goodies to the country. The top of their wish was an agreement on the sharing of water from River Teesta , which has been pending since 2011. The water-sharing agreement of the Teesta River could not be signed during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit after West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee declined the agreed draft.
Again, people of Bangladesh expected that India would come up with a much firmer commitment to resolving the repatriation issue of the Rohingya refugees, who have been residing in Bangladesh since 2017, following persecution in their home in Rakhine state in Myanmar. During the visit, India reiterated its stance on the need for safe and sustainable return of Rohingyas, and promised to provide larger humanitarian relief assistance for the refugees in Bangladesh.
The popular mood in Bangladesh is that such a stance is not enough. India, being a regional power and a friend, should play a greater role in convincing Myanmar to create an appropriate atmosphere for the peaceful return of the Rohingyas. Bangladesh has been urging all countries to help with the repatriation of the refugees. In July, Prime Minister Hasina visited China, the country that enjoys a friendly relationship with Myanmar, and sought help from China for Rohingya repatriation. During the visit, China promised to help but no result yielded until date.
Off late, a feeling of scepticism towards India is brewing among the people of Bangladesh. Although no particular issue could be identified for the adverse public sentiment in Bangladesh, some of the common issues highlighted are non-conclusion of the Teesta agreement, India’s approach to Rohingya and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) initiated in Assam. The NRC has raised serious concerns in Bangladesh as it is seen as an exercise to identify illegal migrants from Bangladesh to India. In Assam, around 1.9 million people have been excluded from the list and Bangladesh fears that all those people might be deported. India has promised that none will be deported to that country. Still, the people in Bangladesh are doubtful of India’s commitment. The popular resentment demands serious attention as it might affect the future growth of the relationship.
Sustaining a friendly relationship with Bangladesh is important for India not only to realise its Act East and Neighbourhood First Policy but also for peace and stability for the northeast (NE) region. The country has been India’s major partner in various regional and sub-regional initiatives like the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) sub-regional initiative.
Besides, it provides major connectivity to India’s northeast region. Also, the country’s contribution to the establishment of peace in NE India cannot be overlooked. India’s northeast (NE) region that witnessed decades of insurgency is now enjoying relative peace due to cooperation from Bangladesh. After forming government in 2009, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina acted against the insurgent groups of NE India who were running their camps there. Bangladesh’s action resulted in the arrest of many top leaders of the NE insurgent groups like Arabinda Rajkhowa, chairperson of United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and Ranjan Daimary of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB).
Deepening relationship with Bangladesh has become a necessity in the face of shifting geo-economics in the world scene that is challenging the moves of globalisation and protectionism taking centre stage. To counter its impact it will be important to develop a stronger partnership in the region. Bangladesh, with its growing economic success, provides a vital partnership in the region and with its 8 percent, growth rate is considered among the fastest-growing economies in the world.
The recent visit will be analysed in juxtaposition to Prime Minister Hasina’s visit to China that preceded the visit. Although the Chinese visit did not bring many tangible results, it did not raise any eyebrows in Bangladesh. One of the major reasons has been that China has been very clever in exhibiting tokenism like the signing of US$2 billion loan agreement which is a part of the 28 billion economic assistance promised to Bangladesh during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit in 2016; it also provided scholarships for Bangladeshi students any.
In Bangladesh, visits of any leader to India is measured through the prism of gains and losses. Hence, on such an occasion, tokenism helps to curtail the propagandas of forces who are critical of the relationship and often try to influence public opinion. It needs to be pointed out that Bangladesh’s politics is divided over its approach towards India. The opposition accuses the Awami League of favouring India and such opportunities provides an opportunity to fathom feelings of antagonism towards India.
Given the myriad complexities, the India and Bangladesh relationship demands constant nurturing. The visit highlighted the desire of the two government to progress in the relationship and helped sustain the momentum. The experiences suggest efforts should be made to address the people’s perception.
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Joyeeta Bhattacharjee (1975 2021) was Senior Fellow with ORF. She specialised in Indias neighbourhood policy the eastern arch: Bangladeshs domestic politics and foreign policy: border ...Read More +