Originally Published 2011-09-05 00:00:00 Published on Sep 05, 2011
Considering the great improvement in India's relations with Bangladesh, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, during his visit to Dhaka, should unilaterally offer to convert half of the $1 billion soft loan given to Bangladesh earlier into a grant and make the rest interest-free as a gesture of goodwill and friendship.
India-Bangladesh Relations: Forging a model for South Asian relations
It is a cardinal principle of good neighbourly relations that, differences notwithstanding, each neighbour should respect the other's interests and refrain, in particular, from actions which may cause security-related concerns to the other. In today's globalised world, in particular, honesty and candour, trust and transparency are the sine qua non of good international relations.

It was precisely the trespass of these principles by Dhaka's BNP governments that had soured India-Bangladesh relations for years. Begum Khaleda Zia, leader of the BNP, as Prime Minister of Bangladesh, was in un-abashed denial of ULFA's safe havens in her country from where they were launching terrorist attacks in Indian territory. Pakistan's ISI was also operating to infiltrate arms and terrorists into India from Bangladesh. Naturally, during Begum Zia's rule Bangladesh-India relations sank to their nadir, and bilateral problems which could have been settled years earlier remained unresolved, causing much avoidable bitterness and mistrust between the two neighbours.

India-Bangladesh relations have undergone a sea-change since Sheikh Hasina Wajid's accession to power in Dhaka in 2009. The catalyst of this salutary change was her statesman-like act to arrest and hand over to India the leaders of ULFA - "chairman" Aurobindo Rajkhowa along with key figures like Raju Baruah, Sasha Choudhury and Chitraban Hazarika. Out on bail in India, these gentlemen are now engaged in unconditional talks with the Union government. Antu Chaudang and Pradeep Chetia, Saurav and some other cadres were pushed back by Bangladeshi security forces from the border at Dawki. Anup Chetia is under detention and will in all probability be handed over to India. ULFA's "commander-in-chief", Paresh Barua, is still at large and may have escaped to China, Pakistan or Myanmar. The message has gone out that Sheikh Hasina's government will not allow Bangladesh territory to be used for anti-India activities.

Prime Minister Hasina took this transformational action as a matter of policy, well before her state visit to India in January 2010 and without bargaining for a quid pro quo from India. The action electrified New Delhi and invoked in our authorities a sense of obligation as well as responsibility to act likewise to settle, to Dhaka's satisfaction, long festering issues of sharing waters of common rivers, border management, dispute over a short stretch of the boundary, transfer of enclaves, the glaring trade imbalance and the maritime boundary dispute.

The 52-paragraph Joint Communique signed during Prime Minister Hasina's state visit in January 2010 has become the basis of a new, vastly improved and truly good neighbourly relationship between the two countries. Full implementation of the provisions of the communique will make Bangladesh-India relations a model for South-Asian relations. Even more importantly, Bangladesh, which lies at the strategic centre of two large regions of South Asia, and ASEAN will become a vibrant and prosperous hub of cultural, commercial and economic interaction between these regions with growing economies and a population of around 2 billion. It passes understanding that India's two major neighbours - Pakistan and Bangladesh - should have for so long allowed forfeiture of the enormous advantages of their geostrategic locations to unwarranted and unprofitable hostility towards India.

While Sheikh Hasina has been steadfastly implementing her part of the understandings reached in January 2010 despite the BNP's vociferous hostility, there have been complaints, in Bangladesh and in India, about the comparative lack of the requisite sense of urgency on India's part in doing its bit to implement the Joint Communique. However, in a recent visit to Bangladesh, we learnt that in intensive negotiations between the two sides at the level of ministers and senior officials in recent months, substantial progress has, in fact, been achieved in reaching agreed positions on a number of major issues, and agreements are likely to be signed during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's forthcoming visit to Dhaka.

We also found that the visit is awaited with much expectation, hope and enthusiasm. There is a palpable change in the public perception of India and because of this even the BNP, known for its traditional reservations in relation to India, has softened its stand: the party declared recently that it would not oppose deals with India if these are beneficial for the country. This is an additional reason for India, now, to go out of its way to show genuine interest in Bangladesh and resolve long-pending issues to the satisfaction of our smaller neighbour without pressing demands which might rile the Opposition - the BNP, for example, continues to oppose grant of transit facilities from mainland India to the country's Northeast. In inherently complex neighborhood negotiations, local sensitivities have to be borne in mind, and this mostly has to be on the part of the larger neighbour.

The ticklish issue of sharing the waters of the Teesta and Feni rivers, considered unsolvable till now, appears to have been sorted out. We believe agreements are also likely to be signed on transfers of enclaves inhabited by nationals of one country in the territory of the other, on the 2.4 km disputed land boundary and on cooperative border management to avoid killings of trespassers. Some further reduction in the negative list of items for trade and enhancement of the textiles quota is also on the cards, which in our view is not enough. Pakistan is a separate case, but with the rest of our South Asian neighbours we should be aiming at what Prime Minister Vajpayee had proposed a decade earlier for South Asia - "open borders and single market". We strongly recommend elimination of the negative list, removal of all customs and tariff barriers to allow free flow of goods and services between the two countries.

Fiftyfour rivers flow down from India into Bangladesh where they play a dominant role in the socio-economic life of the people. Bangladesh is bound to be impacted by the harnessing of these waters in upstream India. The needs and well-being of human beings on both sides of the border are involved. Therefore, a joint permanent machinery should be established to constantly watch the utilisation of these waters on both sides of the border and ensure equitable sharing and timely prevention of disputes.

The opposition BNP, led by Begum Zia, has made a political issue of transit facilities for India across Bangladesh territory, regardless of the fact that India has granted transit across its territory separating Nepal and Bangladesh. This is a hangover from the past and it would be impolitic to press our request on the Hasina government at this stage. As confidence and the habit of cooperation grow, and public perception of India improves further, Bangladeshis will see the benefits of exploiting the advantage of their country's geographic location not only as a bridge between India and its Northeast but also as a vital (and profitable) meeting ground between South Asia and South-East Asia.

Finally, we recommend that during his visit to Dhaka Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should, as a gesture of goodwill and friendship, unilaterally offer to convert half of the $1 billion soft loan given to Bangladesh earlier into a grant and make the rest interest-free.

(Rasgotra, a former Foreign Secretary of India, is the President of Observer Research Foundation and Dr Bhattacharjee an Associate Fellow at ORF).

Courtesy: The Tribune

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