Wednesday, April 19, 2017

India and Bangladesh Revitalize their Relationship, Yet Problems Remain

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina share a laughter at a joint press conference in New Delhi on April 8, 2017. (Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images)
At a time when China has made a considerable headway in South Asia, the bilateral relationship between Bangladesh and India gets a timely boost during the Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s four-day state visit to India last week. In the presence of the prime ministers, the two countries signed as many as 22 deals that included a separate agreement on civil nuclear and defense cooperation, both a first between the two South Asian neighbors. India also agreed to offer Bangladesh a $4.5 billion line of credit on top of another $3 billion that was previously sanctioned by New Delhi.

But despite that progress, Bangladesh and India had yet to finalize the long-awaited water share treaty over a common river, Teesta, further deepening Dhaka’s frustration.

Initially scheduled in December last year, but canceled twice, Hasina’s visit created a buzz in both Bangladeshi and Indian media. Bangladeshi newspapers speculated on a possible timeframe on the Teesta water sharing treaty, while Indian media focused their attention on the soon-to-be-signed defense pact. Days before Hasina’s trip to Delhi, however, it became clear that the Teesta deal was unlikely. This, in turn, stoked hype for the Indo-Bangla defense pact.

Under the defense agreement, India will offer $500 million to help Bangladesh acquire military hardware from India. However, it is not clear what types of arms India will provide. Apart from this, two other agreements were signed aiming to boost cooperation between the two nation’s defense colleges.

Significance of a Bangladesh-India defense treaty
India wanted to sign a long-term, comprehensive defense pact with Bangladesh. Delhi was already worried about the growing multidimensional cooperation between Bangladesh and China.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Bangladesh in last October took the bilateral relationship to a new height. The next month Bangladesh’s navy received the delivery of two China-made diesel-electric submarines. Around the same time, Delhi scaled up its effort to seal a defense deal with Bangladesh. The underlying principle is not hard to guess: to counter the growing Chinese influence in Bangladesh.

A series of high-profile visits by Indian officials during the past few months in the run-up to Hasina's visit demonstrated India’s eagerness for a military pact. But Dhaka was hesitant to sign one in the fear that such a move might alienate China, the largest provider of Bangladesh’s military equipment.

A comprehensive military pact is, therefore, more important to India than it is to Bangladesh. For India, it serves two purposes. One, India wants to give the signal to Beijing that it regards South Asia as its zone of influence. Two, a defense deal would give a boost to Narendra Modi’s “Make in India” campaign that aims to transform India into a leading arms exporter. After all, India needs buyers of its indigenously-produced arms.

It turned out Bangladesh played out the scene quite tactfully. Since Bangladesh stopped short of signing a defense pact, it won’t alarm the Chinese. But for India, it is still an important beginning that has the potential to end in a formal treaty, given the bittersweet history between the two countries.

Hasina: a trusted friend to Delhi
The appropriate metaphor for India-Bangladesh relations could be a married couple that became estranged but started patching things up again. The mending of relations began when Sheikh Hasina’s government came to power in 2008. Her administration took a zero-tolerance policy against domestic extremism and those sympathetic to anti-Indian activities. Long considered a political pawn, Dhaka handed over separatist leader Anup Chetia to Delhi without much fuss. Dhaka also provided India with land and water transit facility, an outstanding request from India, to transport Indian goods over the Bangladeshi territory to India’s restive northeast region. In short, Sheikh Hasina appeared a trusted friend to Delhi.

The friendship was tested in 2014 when no major country except India backed up Hasina’s clinging to power through a highly-controversial election boycotted by the major opposition parties. The political violence before and after the election was one of the worst in Bangladesh’s history and Hasina’s government came under international criticism. But the then-Manmohan Singh’s government in Delhi stood firmly by Hasina’s claim that the election under the oversight of a political party instead of a non-partisan interim administration was crucial for Bangladesh’s democratic transition.

Bangladesh’s next election is slated for 2019. As of now, it is not certain whether 2014 will be repeated again or not. But it is certain that Hasina needs India’s political support. Therefore, she wants to maintain the rapport with Narendra Modi’s government. The good thing for Hasina is that she has been able to cut a strong image in Delhi across political parties. If it is any indication, Modi made an exception and went to the airport to receive Hasina.

An imbalanced quid pro quo?
Although the bilateral relationship between Bangladesh and India is much better than any other time, problems linger. The Teesta water share treaty is definitely a setback for future progress. Since 2008, Hasina has met with her Indian counterparts four times. Each time Teesta was postponed due to opposition from a provincial government in India. Therefore, the Hasina administration faces criticism at home that her government is giving India more than what it gets.

The growing trade deficit is also a great concern for Bangladesh. Despite Dhaka’s repeated requests, Delhi has been tardy in relaxing tariffs and non-tariff barriers and opening up the market of Indian provinces bordering Bangladesh. Another thorny issue is shooting at the border by Indian guards. The Bangladesh-India border is one of the world’s most hostile. Authorities say almost 600 people were killed by Indian border police in the past ten years. Unofficial estimates suggest it to be twice the official figure. India promised to take care of this issue, but a meaningful solution is still elusive.

As the larger neighbor, India may want to gain more from Bangladesh. Due to the same reason, Bangladesh may very well expect India to be more generous. How a balance can be achieved will give shape to the future course of the bilateral relationship. Therefore, the sooner India addresses the unresolved issues in a meaningful manner, the better for it. Perhaps, India can take a leaf from China’s playbook in this regard.

First published in Forbes magazine, April 18, 2017

Arafat Kabir, is a Forbes contributor, a Master’s candidate of political science at the Illinois State University. Email: or Tweet @ArafatKabirUpol

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