Event ReportsPublished on Nov 08, 2019
Tremendous change in India-Bangladesh relations since 2014

Praising the India-Bangladesh Joint Statement issued in New Delhi on 5 October 2019 as one of the best, Col R Hariharan (retd.), former Head, Military Intelligence (MI), remarked that there has been a tremendous change in India-Bangladesh relations since 2014.

Initiating an interaction at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai, Col. Hariharan provided a brief introduction to Bangladesh a review of Prime Minister Hasina’s leadership; and reflected on the salient aspects of bilateral relations with the Indian neighbour, beginning with the Joint Statement issued after talks with counterpart Narendra Modi in New Delhi, last month.

Bangladesh, with a population of 160 million (eighth most populous country in the world), has achieved 7-8 percent growth in recent times. The country will also be eligible to graduate to developing status from its Least Developed Country (LDC) status by 2024, and with a huge market. According to Col. Hariharan, despite domestic challenges, Bangladesh has leaped forward because of its pivotal geographic location, and the country’s ability to effectively leverage its location, allowing Chinese interests to progress and managing India’s desire to protect its influence.

Col. Hariharan said these positive developments are largely due to the efforts of Prime Minister Hasina who has asserted her strength to handle complex issues far better than her predecessors, including her father who was assassinated along with many other family members. After spending several years in exile, and witnessing coups and the play of social differences in society by leaders, her party and alliance won 250-plus seats of 300 in 2008 that has led to some level of stability in the country.

Ending extremism

While both PM Hasina and predecessor Khaleda Zia are credited with eliminating extreme left communist insurgents, PM Hasina disbanded the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami party and convicted Ghulam Azad for war crimes committed during the Liberation Struggle in 1971. Under her leadership, Bangladesh set up an international tribunal to investigate and prosecute suspects for the genocide committed in 1971, in which roughly 1-2 million people perished. PM Hasina prosecuted those who aided Pakistanis and massacred intellectuals. Pakistan is currently attempting to improve relations with Bangladesh, Col. Hariharan noted.

Between 2015 and 2016, there was an escalation of Jihadi violence wing on social media. In 2016, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) affiliates attacked a café in Dhaka killing 20 hostages, including 18 foreigners, triggering a strong global response. Efforts to eliminate JMB which aims to create an Islamic state have been strengthened. In this context, it is noteworthy that the Supreme Court upheld secularism as a state principle within the constitution in 2010, he indicated.

Col. Hariharan  said Bangladesh has also collaborated with neighbours to manage boundary vulnerabilities. Since its independence, Bangladesh’s boundary has not been well defined with India and Myanmar. PM Hasina has respected rulings of the Maritime Boundary Arbitrations, and positive steps have been taken with PM Singh and PM Modi to address the boundary issue. In addition, since 2017, Bangladesh has provided refuge to nearly 11 million Rohingya from Myanmar and is building homes in Cox Bazaar for them.

Such actions have resulted in a modicum of stability in Bangladesh which has concurrently positively impacted the economy. Several steps related to social empowerment, domestic economic measures and trade by PM Hasina’s government have led to 7-8 percent economic growth. For instance, the provision of concessional duty free access has allowed the export of Bangladesh garments to overtake India and China.

There has been large scale employment of women, including in the textile industry. Grameen Bank has become an international movement, and mobile banking has become popular. Bangladesh is also doing well on the Ease of Doing Business rankings. With respect to India and West Bengal, PM Hasina has strengthened mutually beneficial trade on beef, onions and hilsa fish, he said.

International concerns

The 2018 elections, however, raised some international concerns, he said. The opposition leader and former PM, Khaleda Zia, was sentenced to five years in prison for corruption, and was disqualified from contesting the elections. PM Hasina’s Awami League party retained power winning 288 of 300 seats. There were reports of violence, intimidation, and vote rigging. 17 people died. In addition, there were allegations of corruption by the Government. Despite these reports, Col. Hariharan said he believed that PM Hasina remains in a comfortable position and has strengthened the relationship with India as evidenced by the Joint Statement.

Col. Hariharan noted the salient aspects of the India-Bangladesh Joint Statement during the official visit of Prime Minister of Bangladesh to India on 5 October, 2019. He highlighted the efforts on border security and management, and how both countries are working towards a win-win partnership. These points include closer coordination between border forces to bring down the loss of civilian lives; simplifying people-people movement and entry/exit in checkpoints at Akhaura (Tripura) and Ghojadanga (West Bengal); closer cooperation against extremist and radical groups, terrorists, smugglers, smuggling of fake currency, and organized crime; a bilateral Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, discussions on Integrated Check Posts; enhancing cooperation in the area of disaster management; withdrawal of port restrictions traded through Akhaura-Agartala port; discussions on anti-dumping / anti-circumvention duties imposed on multiple products, including on just products, from Bangladesh to India; and increasing the number of Border Haats to 12.

He also pointed to other efforts such as to boost connectivity over all through the BBIN Motor Vehicles Agreement, and to strengthen railways, buses and flights connectivity; the signing and implementation of the Framework of Interim Agreement for sharing of the Teesta waters; an early start of the work on withdrawal of 1.82 cusec of water from Feni River for drinking purpose of the people of Sabroom town of Tripura; harnessing defence cooperation; consolidating development cooperation; energy cooperation; education and youth exchanges; cultural cooperation; and joint efforts to assist forcibly displaced persons from the Rakhine State of Myanmar.

Col Hariharan also recalled additional efforts not highlighted in the Joint Statement. For instance, India has agreed to train Bangladeshi bureaucrats. Bangladesh is in the process establishing a Deputy High Commission in Chennai. In her recent trip to India, PM Hasina has also indicated her willingness to invite Indian capital to Bangladesh to construct pipelines for LNG. He noted that there are several steps being taken to improve and integrate connectivity within the North East Region with neighbours such as Bangladesh and Myanmar, and extending into Thailand.

This report was written by Arjun K Bhargava, Research Associate,  Observer Research Foundation, Chennai

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