The minutiae of the Bangladesh-India bilateral agenda are no longer cluttered with major irritants. Having overcome the hump of history, meetings between the leadership of both nations are now routine.
Nevertheless, high-level meetings are important in order to exchange views and to focus attention on the list of ‘to do’ items in the coming years. The 7th round of the Home Minister-level confabulation, with respective delegations, took place in New Delhi on 7 August, co-chaired by Indian Home Minister Amit Shah, and his Bangladeshi counterpart Asaduzzaman Khan. Both Shah and Khan are veteran politicians and stalwarts in their respective political parties. While Shah is a first-time occupant of the Home portfolio, Khan is a second-time Home Minister and a freedom fighter, having been a member of the Mukti Bahini.
How India-Bangladesh Bilateral Ties Have Undergone Amazing Transformation
The government press release mentioned an oft-repeated line:
“…both Ministers reiterated the significance attached to the bilateral relationship which is forged in the 1971 Liberation War which goes far beyond a strategic partnership. Today, our ties are a role model for good neighbourly relations across the world. They are rooted in history, culture, language and shared values of democracy, secularism, development cooperation and countless other commonalities.”
Some may consider these lines an exercise in hyperbolae.
There is, however, no denying the fact that bilateral ties have undergone an amazing transformation over the last two decades.
The Liberation War is a bond that is shared by the generation that lived and fought through those turbulent times. The upswing began with PM Sheikh Hasina 2.0 in 2008, and continues into PM Hasina 4.0.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s strategic decisions to build bilateral ties on trust and confidence, reciprocated in equal measure by PM Manmohan Singh’s government and PM Modi 1.0 and now 2.0, has borne fruit.
That bilateral ties today are beyond strategic, is a significant comment.
Easing travel arrangements between the two countries was also on the agenda of the talks. Last year, a new agreement was signed, streamlining the visa regime.
Bangladeshis form the largest number of foreign visitors to India, for a variety of reasons that include business, medical treatment, tourism, education, family reunions.
Connectivity and infrastructure projects to ease trans-border travel have been put on the fast track. These include opening up of rail and road connectivity, as well as movement of goods and people via waterways. New air links have also been added between Dhaka and Delhi. One problem that India’s High Commission and its affiliated offices in Bangladesh face is the inability to keep up with the ever-growing demand for visas. Elements of visa-free travel for designated age groups have sought to lower the demand without much success.
Issues That Continue To Plague India-Bangladesh Ties
Beyond the positive trends are issues that still cast a shadow over the relationship. These relate to the sharing of river waters, and Bangladeshi illegal migrants in India. There are also common concerns on militants and extremists using each other’s territory, smuggling of cattle, narcotic drugs, fake Indian currency, and other criminal activities along the 4,096 km border.
Border-management issues featured prominently in the bilateral talks, focussing on strengthening cooperation between the border forces, BSF and BGB.
The main challenge is to ensure a secure and friendly border. This is no easy task.
There is apprehension in Bangladesh on the National Register of Citizens [NRC] process in Assam, a state which has seen the maximum inflow of illegal migrants from Bangladesh. The bilateral agreement recognised that any person who had migrated before March 1971 would be absorbed as Indian citizens, and those who migrated later would be identified and deported.
Bangladesh’s default position has been to deny any illegal migration.
This attitude has been seen as unhelpful and cussed. Bangladesh is, no doubt, the world’s most densely-populated country. There is a huge pressure on the land and its people who are often uprooted from their lands by rivers changing course in a deltaic land. Illegal migration has thus become a huge political problem in Assam and other north-eastern states, leading to the NRC.
Issues To Be Resolved: Bangladeshi Immigrants, NRC, Persecution Of Minorities in Bangladesh
The question of what will be their fate may worry Bangladesh, because many may choose to return. India is unlikely to push them into Bangladesh, but those declared as ineligible for Indian citizenship will lose all rights and privileges as stateless persons.
This Sword of Damocles hangs over these stateless people.
The demand for the implementation of the NRC is now being raised by other states, and the ruling BJP has been sympathetic to this demand, since illegal Bangladeshi migrants are working in many Indian states.
Estimates of illegal Bangladeshis vary between 1-2 crores all over India.
In Assam alone, around 30-40 lakhs [3-4 million] may not be included in the NRC when the list is finally announced.
Another cause for concern in India has been the increasingly strident sermonising by conservative Islamic clerics in Bangladesh.
Such speeches are encouraging communal attacks against Hindus, even under the Awami League government, believed to be secular. There seems to be a feeling that India will continue to ‘tolerate’ anti-Hindu attacks since she fully supports PM Hasina for geo-political reasons. This may turn out to be a dangerous gambit as the daily trickle of Hindu refugees continue to cross over into India.
Strategic relations with Dhaka
The Rohingya Crisis & The India-Myanmar Equation
The two sides also discussed the Rohingya refugee issue which shows no sign of being resolved soon. India has pitched in with humanitarian assistance to Bangladesh, and has also assured Bangladesh of support for the repatriation of the Rohingyas. While Myanmar has come under international pressure, it is balancing ties with China and India. Myanmar’s Army Chief General Min Aung Hlaing was in New Delhi in July this year, and met PM Modi and other Indian leaders.
The Myanmar General’s visit came soon after the US clamped travel sanctions against the General and several of his military colleagues. An agreement on defence cooperation was signed, and India has agreed to transfer a Kilo-class submarine to Myanmar. Myanmar has also bought Russian Sukhoi fighter jets. India is providing training to Myanmar’s military.
India wishes to retain leverage with the Myanmar’s military for seeking cooperation in anti-insurgency operations, and boost its Act East Policy.
The Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project, and the India-Myanmar-Thailand Tri-Lateral Highway project, are both crucial for improving connectivity from north-eastern states eastwards, and into the Bay of Bengal. India has made it clear that she will continue her engagement with Myanmar despite the clamour of the international human rights lobbies.
Myanmar’s balancing act is evident from General Hlaing’s visit to China in April this year.
An official statement released after the visit called China “an eternal friend and a strategic partner country”. Myanmar has also agreed to cooperate with China on the Belt and Road Initiative [BRI]. Myanmar, like Bangladesh, is carrying on its own balancing act between China and India.
What India & Bangladesh Must Reconcile To Save Bilateral Ties
The Rohingya crisis is a burden on Bangladesh and is a vexed issue with no easy solution on the horizon. Unlike other groups of different ethnicities, the Rohingyas were never recognised under Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law, and have been viewed as ‘outsiders’ and migrants from Bangladesh. One thing that seems to unite even the warring ethnic groups is their hostile attitude towards the Rohingyas.
India and Bangladesh have too much at stake in their bilateral ties, and have to navigate respective domestic political issues.
The growing perception in Bangladesh about a Hindutva trend in India is also adding grist to the mill, and feeding into the narrative of conservative Muslim discourse in Bangladesh. Both sides have to be conscious of this trend and find tools to deal with it.
(The author is a former Indian diplomat; formerly a Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, he has served as India’s a High Commissioner to Bangladesh and Ambassador to Thailand. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)