The road ahead for Indo-Bangla relations

Sanjay Kapoor | Updated on March 09, 2018 Published on April 06, 2017

The key players: Mamata Banerjee has a crucial role to play in the bilateral realationship   -  PTI

Despite a looming Chinese influence, Bangladesh wants to forge stronger ties with India in defence and water-sharing

In 2015, Home Minister Rajnath Singh promised to end cattle smuggling to Bangladesh and make beef so prohibitive that the people of that country would stop eating the meat. Few things have happened since then: cattle smuggling from India, from a high of seven lakh cows every year, has dropped to a trickle and Bangladeshis are still eating more beef than ever before, without being poorer or angrier with India.

Interestingly, as some Indians are pointing out, they don’t seem to cheer for Pakistan any more when it is playing cricket against India.

Chinese checkers

All this is a happy augury at a time when Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina comes on her first bilateral visit to India in seven years. She had postponed her programme three times on some pretext or the other causing anxiety in South Block.

What had added to the nervousness was aggressive overtures by China and the ease with which it’s President Xi Jinping, during his visit to Dhaka, had offered a credit line of $24 billion. This not only made India’s assistance of $2 billion seem pittance and created self-doubt in the minds of many in the Indian strategic establishment whether Prime Minister Hasina would fulfil her commitments.

These fears have proved to be totally misplaced in the past. PM Hasina’s advisor, HT Imam told a group of visiting Indian journalists to Dhaka last week that in 2009 her government had figured out what would be needed to forge closer ties with India.

They understood India’s prime concern was security, and began sorting out key issues. Imam said, “There has long been the influence of ISI and Pakistan sympathisers in Bangladesh. So the first thing we decided was that we must get rid of ISI bases here, and their supporters.”

India promised to help with connectivity, inland waterways and power supply, roads to connect with the north-east and other issues. Imam has said that the two leaders will take stock on what they have achieved ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Dhaka in 2015.

Defence issues

There is plenty that the two sides are working on to make this trip a success. What is furiously discussed is a defence agreement the details of which are largely unknown. And there is a reason. The Government just does not want this agreement to become an issue before PM’s visit.

There is a section in the army that does not want an agreement with India lest it undermines the country’s sovereignty and prevents them from benefiting from their growing relationship with China. The somnolent opposition party, Bangladesh National Party (BNP) has also stirred into action demanding that PM Hasina should not sign any defence pact with India.

Imam says that the agreement would not be like the kind India signed with the erstwhile Soviet Union many years ago. It may be more in the nature of a cooperation to fight an external threat or serious terror attack- the kind that have spiked in the past few months.

During the stay of this writer last week, there were two standoffs that were taking place with Islamic militants. One was in Sylhet where eight people died, and another one was not so far from the national capital. A few days earlier, a suicide bomber had blown himself up near the airport, killing a policeman.

The Islamic State had taken credit for these incidents, but the Bangladeshi government denies their presence and, instead, blames radical islamist avatars of Jamaat. The liberal and secular section of the Bangla society is deeply anxious of the violence and wants the army to smother these forces without showing any mercy.

This writer was witness to a noisy protest by Awami League’s student body, Chattra League, demanding “direct action” against the Islamist groups. Women were at the vanguard at this protest conveying amply that they had a stake in the army succeeding against machete wielding radicals. Many of them, though, have been decimated by the army in the past few months.

Hasina’s government knows the imperative of squelching this threat from the radicals before the next elections in 2018 and has used the international war crime tribunals to hang a section of Jamaat leadership involved in heinous crimes during the 1971 war of Independence.

Water woes

To sweeten the defence agreement, India is giving a $5 billion third credit line. There are 30 other agreements in education, infrastructure, films and technology that are being signed. There is also a talk about India sharing its Aadhaar experience with Bangladesh.

However, the bigger issue is the sharing of Teesta river water. Even opposition BNP wants to concentrate on this issue rather than dwell on defence or any other matter. In 2011, the then PM Manmohan Singh was all prepared to sign the river water sharing deal, but West Bengal CM, Mamata Banerjee, refused to be part of it. Bangladesh government is now hoping that after the BJP’s UP Assembly election victory, Modi would be bold enough to push through the pact in which no changes have taken place since it was put on hold in 2011.

There are also suggestions that President Pranab Mukherjee may get both the ladies, Sheikh Hasina and Mamata Banerjee, to see reason and sign the Teesta agreement. If that happens, then this State visit will have a chance to be described as a “ historic”.

The writer is the editor of HardNews

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Published on April 06, 2017
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