Event ReportsPublished on Aug 23, 2014
The new political leadership in Delhi has given a ray of hope for the prospect of regional cooperation. In this regard, it is very important for India to understand how it is perceived by neighbouring countries in the South Asian region, says Bangladesh's Deputy High Commissioner Mahbub Hasan Saleh.
India should act as an elder brother to Bangladesh
Bangladesh’s Deputy High Commissioner, Mr Mahbub Hasan Saleh, has said that since the India-Bangladesh relationship was an asymmetrically balanced one given the differences in the capability of the two countries, India should act like an elder brother and not a big brother.

Delivering a talk on ’India-Bangladesh Relations: Looking Towards the Future’ at ORF Kolkata on August 23, 2014, Mr Saleh said the political establishment in both countries should move towards a cooperative mindset instead of a confrontational one.

Mr. Saleh said that India needed to equip Bangladesh to take bold decisions. He observed that the new political leadership in Delhi has given a ray of hope for the prospect of regional cooperation. In this regard, it is very important for India to understand how it is perceived by neighbouring countries in the South Asian region.

Highlighting the importance of tangible structures which people relate with, Mr Saleh spoke of the importance of Bangladesh-India ’friendship structures’ such as, India gifting a hospital or a river bridge to Bangladesh along the lines of Bangladesh-China or Bangladesh-Japan friendship structures.

Beginning his talk with the issue of security cooperation, Mr. Saleh observed that this subject had been shunned for over two decades till around 2009 when the government of Bangladesh began to take concrete steps to address the issue of cross-border infiltration of insurgent groups and terror outfits. The nature of cooperation that exists between the two countries today was unheard of even ten years ago. The establishment of nodal points along border areas and streamlining of information sharing has enabled response mechanisms that have created further scope for cooperation between India and Bangladesh. Although problems remain, Mr. Saleh strongly felt these measures have enhanced confidence in a region which is constantly held hostage to various conflicting issues. Smuggling and informal trade is another issue for the two countries. There are large numbers of people on both sides of the border who are dependent entirely on informal trade and hence addressing the issue demands careful consideration. Legal movement across the border is another issue leading to unnecessary delays during the journey. One way in which this could be sorted, he proposed, is by conducting on board customs and immigration checks in the buses and trains travelling between India and Bangladesh.

Another issue which has become contentious over the last couple of years is that of water sharing. This is an area, Mr. Saleh observed, where there is immense potential for cooperation between the two countries. Bangladesh had been willing for quite a while for formalizing the interim agreement on water sharing. But for domestic reasons India backed out at the last moment in 2011, leading to disappointment in Bangladesh. Mr. Saleh suggested that basin wide water management was a good solution to the management of water resource and that the issue should be considered as a humanitarian and human rights issue rather than an entirely political one.

In terms of economic cooperation and trade and investment, given the size of the two countries, it is natural that there could be deficit in trade. Although exports from Bangladesh to India had been increasing since 2011, it declined in 2014 due to political disturbances leading up to the elections in Bangladsh. Mr. Saleh said that joint investment should be further explored by the two countries. He maintained that the Bangladesh has an investment friendly atmosphere and mechanisms that would facilitate manufacture in Bangladesh and export to other countries thereafter, including India. This could be further explored.

Mr. Saleh also emphasized that development cooperation, which is a relatively new phenomenon in the India-Bangladesh relationship, is a welcome and encouraging move, especially the one billion line of credit issued by India to Bangladesh. The final aspect highlighted by the speaker was cooperation in the field of defence. Enhanced defence ties involving joint military exercises, more interaction among forces and increased official visits would lend to confidence building measures between the two countries.

Following the talk, the discussant, Dr. Shibashis Chatterjee, Head of Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University, observed that geo-political imperatives needed to be considered on any matter of foreign policy and in the case of relations between these two countries, it has largely remained the same. He remarked that India has not succeeded in gaining legitimacy as a leader in the South Asian region and that there was a lack of institutional mechanisms in the region which could enable a smoother framework of interactions. He felt that while it was true that India has not engaged as much as it could have in this region, it is also probably true that India can transcend the South Asian region and look beyond it when it came to economic engagement, given the inherent challenges of this region. On the issue of connectivity he pointed that land connectivity is itself a political issue and therefore there are bound to be hurdles and hence sea connectivity could be explored further. In conclusion, Dr Chatterjee mentioned that for Bangladesh-India ties to improve, the former needs to resolve its inherent crisis of identity with respect to West Bengal.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.