The relationship between Bangladesh and Tripura is a long one; it is civilisational, historical, lingual, and cultural.
This article is part of the series — India–Bangladesh Relations @50: Commemorating Bilateral Ties.
If Bangladesh is India-locked, Tripura is Bangladesh-locked — goes an adage in the region. The state is girded by the neighbouring country on three sides and shares a 856-kilometre-long border, constituting 85 percent of the state’s border. The relationship between Bangladesh and Tripura is a long one; it is civilisational, historical, lingual, and cultural. From time immemorial, the people of Tripura and the neighbouring country, Bangladesh, have shared their problems and prosperity.
Tripura was once a princely state that was ruled by the Manikya kings, who had their land tenure (Zamindari) in British-ruled ‘Chakla Roshnabad,’ a paragana or a division comprising Comilla, Noakhali and Sylhet region of East Bengal. <1> A huge amount of revenue was collected, which enriched the state coffers of Tripura. The kings also incentivised the peasants of East Bengal to pursue wet rice cultivation and also exported forest products like timber and bamboo.
During the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, Tripura had sheltered refugees from the other side of the border that surpassed its own population. The state was also the war headquarters of the liberation forces, from where they launched guerrilla attacks on the Pakistani armies in different parts of the then East Pakistan. In fact, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina reiterated it while visiting the convocation programme of the Tripura University in January 2012. She recalled: “Tripura was in those days flooded with refugees, who were more than its own population. It was indeed a unique situation. Nevertheless, through the nine months of our liberation war, the people of Tripura and India stood by our side and helped selflessly the forsaken millions, giving them food, shelter and other basic necessities. Our freedom-fighters also received training and support on this side of the border, and eventually fought with our Indian friends to the final surrender of the occupation forces and liberation of Bangladesh on 16 December 1971. How can we not remember with gratitude our friends in need in Tripura and India?”
The relationship between India and her eastern neighbour Bangladesh has witnessed many ups and downs. After the tragic assassination of Bangabandhu Mujibur Rehaman on 15 August 1975 in a coup d’état, Bangladesh’s relationship with India deteriorated considerably as the regime that staged the coup and took over the reins of power was occupied by pro-Pakistani forces. Since then, the country witnessed many political upheavals and the forces that were against the spirit of the Bangladesh Liberation War were at the helm of affairs until the Awami League government, headed by Sheikh Hasina, took over as Prime Minister in 1996. Indeed, any political development on either side of the border, in one way or the other, impacts the bilateral relations of the two countries.
It is worth noting that the Northeastern region, which is connected to the mainland of India by the 22-kilometre Siliguri corridor of West Bengal, is poverty-stricken, and the region’s backwardness is exacerbated by its landlocked geography, poor infrastructure, communication bottlenecks, and abridged natural trade route. This region is also known as one of India’s conflict zones, which has witnessed insurgency, ethnic strife and displacement of people throughout history. However, the scenario started changing from the last decade of the 20th century, when India adopted a trade liberalisation policy with its neighbours and incorporated the Look East Policy (now Act East Policy) into its foreign policy.
Tripura has gotten prime attention since the Indian government declared the Northeastern Region Vision in 2008 at Agartala, the capital town of Tripura, assuring better infrastructure and better connectivity within the region and with its neighbouring countries.
Connectivity has become a buzzword in India-Bangladesh relations in recent times. While visiting Bangladesh to prepare the ground work for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the country, the Indian Foreign Minister, Dr S. Jaishankar, said that seamless connectivity between India and Bangladesh will change the entire geoeconomy of the region. The Bay of Bengal will look very different. He also mentioned that practical progress has been made on the ground such as conducting a trial run of container cargo through Chattogram Port to Agartala, adding two new protocol routes to inland waterways connecting Tripura to the national waterways, handing over 10 broad gauge (BG) locomotives, and forming a joint venture in the energy sector.
The inauguration of Maitri Setu over the Feni River by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 9 March 2021 is a landmark event between these two countries. With the completion of the two connectivity projects — the Feni bridge connecting Sabroom, Tripura with Chittagong, Bangladesh and the Agartala–Akhaura rail line — Tripura would emerge as a well-connected state from a ‘landlocked’ one. Tripura’s Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb laid the foundation stone for Tripura’s first-ever Special Economic Zone (SEZ) at Sabroom, the southernmost town of the state bordering Bangladesh. He said that with the SEZ — around 120 kilometres from Agartala — would emerge as the commercial capital of the Northeast. He said that the Ministry of Commerce and Industries in December had given the approval for the SEZ, which would be set up at Jalefa in Sabroom subdivision with an investment of INR 635 crore. The SEZ would be focused on four sectors, including agro-based processing such as food processing, rubber, bamboo, and textiles. An integrated check post would also be set up for the smooth movement of passengers and goods.
It is expected that this SEZ would make Tripura a self-reliant state and will generate around 5,000 new jobs, and that the farmers and traders would benefit from it the most. The Agartala–Akhaura (Bangladesh) railway link, expected to be completed in September this year, will connect Gangasagar in Bangladesh to Nischintapur in India (10.6 kilometres) and then connect Nischintapur to Agartala railway station (5.46 kilometres) in India. India also plans to develop an integrated checkpost and cargo handling facility at Nischintapur — the junction point of Agartala-Akhaura rail link at Tripura. The Ministry of Development of Northeastern Region is bearing the cost of laying the track on the Indian side and the Ministry of External Affairs is bearing the cost on the Bangladeshi side. The new rail link will reduce the journey time between Agartala and Kolkata by passing through Dhaka instead of Guwahati. The travel time between Agartala and Kolkata will be reduced to 10 hours from the current 31 hours as it will travel a mere 550 km instead of 1,600. India and Bangladesh currently have four operational rail links between West Bengal and Western Bangladesh — Petrapole-Benapole, Gede-Darshana, Radhikapur-Biral, and Singhabad-Rohanpur. The last two are also notified for the use of Nepalese transit traffic. The present line will not only help people from Agartala but also those from Mizoram, which is 150 kilometers away.
Tripura and Bangladesh has been recently connected through waterways. The inland waterways protocol route between the state and the neighbouring country was made operational on 5 September 2020, when Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb received a barge with a consignment of cement from Munshiganj in the neighbouring country. The 90-km long Sonamura-Daudkandi route, included in the list of Indo-Bangla protocol (IBP) routes, connects Tripura with the National Waterways of India through Bangladesh and is expected to boost trade. Presently, ships and steamers ply from Haldia in West Bengal to Daudkandi.
Tripura’s Maharaja Bir Bikram airport would be the third international airport in the landlocked Northeastern region after its new terminal is completed by this year. The Airport Authority of India (AAI) has stated that Rs 438 crore was invested to complete the project. After completion of the new project, flights between Agartala and Dhaka, as well as the other cities like Chittagong and Sylhet, would be operated. Agartala is connected through roads and bus between Dhaka–Agartala road plies every day.
After all the projects are made operational, the land-locked Tripura would be a well-connected state through roads, railways, water and by air through Bangladesh.
<1> Subir Bhaumick, Insurgent Crossfire: North-East India, South Asia Publisher, New Delhi, 1996.
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