The “India factor” looms large in Bangladesh foreign policy as .the country is surrounded by west, east and north by India, and on the south- east it shares border (only 271 kilometre on land and river) with Myanmar.
Furthermore, India is 22 times larger in territory than that of Bangladesh. No one can refashion geography but this asymmetrical size has naturally an impact on bilateral relations.
Bangladesh-India relations are complex, sensitive and multi-dimensional. The relationship is not restricted to only between governments but exists between peoples of the two countries independently of the policies of the governments because the ties of history and culture of the two countries are so pervasive from ancient days.
It was perceived at the initial stage of independence that Bangladesh and India would not suffer from any mistrust and suspicion. For example, after the visit in India in early 1972, by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of the nation and the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, in a Joint Statement it was stated that “Bangladesh and India would live in eternal friendship as brothers” since the two countries had “an identity of ideals, outlook and values and would live in amity”.
The sentiment expressed in the communiqué was proved later to be idealistic and within a short period it had suffered a few serious bumps in bilateral relations due to failure to resolve many prickly bilateral disputes.
After the tragic assassination of Sheikh Mujib in August 1975, the country went under the military rule until December 1990. Consequently the bilateral relations took a different path and Bangladesh gradually became closer to China than to India.
In 1991 the democratically elected civilian government returned to the country and Begum Khaleda Zia from Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) became the Prime Minister.
In October 1992, Begum Zia visited India and it was hailed in India by some analyst as “the harbinger of more active and dynamic bilateral relations”. However the then Prime Minister of India failed to reciprocate the good gesture by not paying a return visit to Bangladesh. Analysts allege that by sheer inaction and neglect of India, Indo-Bangladesh relations remained stagnant.
In 2009, the installation of the Awami League government in Bangladesh and the Congress party in India to power created a congenial ambience in building a stronger bilateral architecture.
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s landmark four-day visit on 10-13th January 2010 to India created an excellent environment of mutual trust that sought to lay the foundations to a much more mature, stable and fruitful relationship with India through a - 51-paragraph Joint Statement.
After the visit, the Hasina government has moved quickly to address Delhi’s concerns on cross-border terrorism (including expelling top ULFA insurgents to India) and connectivity to the North-East.
During the fiscal year 2016-17, Bangladesh officially imported goods from India worth $6.58 billion while Bangladesh exported goods to India amounting to $ 672.40 million. Exports to India from Bangladesh have not increased due to lack of diversity of its goods and India’s non-tariff barriers. Furthermore, Bangladeshi exporters often face a serious problem because of the non-acceptance of test certificates issued by Bangladesh Laboratory for certain products like soap, Jamdani saree, RMG and food products.
Perception is very important for people. On this score, India has failed to receive a favourable opinion in Bangladesh. Border-fencing was perceived to display the unfriendly sentiment of India towards people of Bangladesh.
The border killing of Bangladeshi citizens by the “trigger-happy” BSF soldiers appears to be outrageous and is contrary to the Indo-Bangladesh joint communiqué of January 2010 (paragraph 18).
Let us examine how bilateral relations may take shape in future in the context of the “Framework Agreement on Cooperation and Development” that the Prime Ministers of Bangladesh and India signed in Dhaka on 6th September 2011. The agreement ushers in a new phase of Indo-Bangladesh relations.
In the past, India always insisted on dealing with issues with Bangladesh on bilateral basis, even when the issue needs regional cooperation. For example, for the augmentation of the waters of the Ganges under the 1977 Agreement, India rejected Bangladesh’s proposal in the 70s in engaging co-riparian Nepal, although the rivers in Nepal substantially contribute to the flow of the Ganges and that Nepal, India and Bangladesh are co-riparian nations of the Ganges. However India refused to include Nepal in the talks.
By signing the Framework Agreement, India has departed from its past stance of bilateralism and has finally agreed cooperation on sub-regional and regional level on areas such as, water, energy, food security and environmental degradation.
The Agreement consists of 12 Articles. Article I deals with promotion of trade, investment and economic cooperation through removal of progressively tariff, non-tariff barriers and facilitate trade through connectivity for bilateral and sub-regional use.
Article 2 speaks of water sharing of common rivers through exploring the possibilities of common basin management of common rivers. Article 3 deals with technical cooperation and exchange of information with respect to natural disasters.
Article 4 discusses with cooperation in energy including renewable resources.
Article 5 deals with promotion of scientific, cultural, educational and people to people exchange. Article 6 enumerates cooperation in environment protection. Article 7 speaks of sub-regional cooperation in the power sector, water resources management, and physical connectivity.
Article 8 deals with cooperation on issues relating to their national interests. Article 9 speaks of cooperation in security and reiterates that neither party shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the other. Article 10 establishes a Joint Consultative Commission for effective implementation of the Agreement and it shall meet once a year.
Article 11 deals with amendment of the Agreement by mutual consent and Article 12 states that the Agreement will come into forces on the date of the signing of the two parties ( 6th September 2011) and shall remain in force until terminated by mutual consent.. Termination of the Agreement is effected by giving notice to the other party providing “the reasons for seeking such termination” and after consultations in the Joint Consultative Commission.
While overall the Agreement is to be welcomed, however, the devils are in the details of some of its Articles, such as Articles 2, and 12 of the Agreement which are noted below.
In Article 2, India agreed only “to explore the possibilities of common basin management of common rivers” and therefore the Indian commitment is only “to explore” the possibilities of common basin management and not an agreement on common basin management of common rivers.
Article 12 deals with complicated process of termination of the Agreement. Once the party gives the notice of termination of the agreement, the parties shall hold consultations to address the reasons cited by the party in the Joint Consultative Commission. Past experience suggests that a weaker party (such as Bangladesh) always seeks termination of the Agreement.
Despite the above deficits, the Agreement on the whole opens up possibilities in cooperation on bilateral, sub-regional and regional level on areas such as, water, energy, food security and environmental safety and is to be welcomed. If the provisions of the Agreement are implemented speedily with good faith, the outcome will be mutually beneficial.
Both nations need to be mindful that the geo-political scene around South Asia is changing. Physical connectivity with South East Asian nations and China is an imperative and already a regional forum -Bangladesh, China India and Myanmar (BCIM) - has been floated for cooperation in all possible sectors and Dhaka hosted the meeting in November 2014.
The eastern region of South Asia including Bangladesh Bhutan, Nepal and northeastern states of India will flourish most when their economy is integrated to the region and the rest of the world. Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and the northeastern states of India could be constituted as a sub-regional economic group, sharing of resources for mutual benefits.
The economic advantages of the BCIM trade corridor are considerable, most notably: access to numerous markets in Southeast Asia.
The construction of industrial zones will have principally two-fold benefits. Firstly, it will lead to industrial transfer boosting industries such as processing, manufacturing and commerce logistics. Secondly, as labour costs rise in China, labour-intensive industries such as textile and agro processing would eventually be shifted out of China to South Asian region in which labour costs are much lower compared to other regions because of the economic advantages of the BCIM trade corridor are considerable, most notably: access to numerous markets in Southeast Asia, improvement of transportation infrastructure and creation of industrial zones.
The construction of industrial zones would have a twofold benefit. Firstly, it will lead to industrial transfer boosting industries such as processing, manufacturing and commerce logistics. Secondly, as labour costs rise in China, labour-intensive industries such as textile and agro processing would eventually be shifted out of China to new regions with lower labour costs. Companies operating in China will likely give priority to the trade corridor region given its established infrastructure, improved logistics and easy of access.
The sub-region could be made an engine for economic growth because there are many opportunities to explore and exploit the natural and human resources.
India is an emerging power. Majority of people in neighbouring countries looks at India, the larger and resourceful neighbor, with admiration and apprehension. Admiration is felt because the neighbour, having common bonds of history and geography, has been emerging as a global political and economic power. Apprehension emanates from stresses when neighbours are not sure of their position in the new geopolitical environment.
What India has to do is to adopt a regional policy where all its small-sized neighbours are on board for commonality of interests.
One of the biggest challenges is addressing the asymmetrical nature of the connection between our countries. One may ask whether India really needs Bangladesh as much as Bangladesh needs India. No one would have easy answers to this question.
There is a saying that one can choose friends but not neighbours. Bangladesh and India are destined to live next to each other. Therefore there is no reason why Bangladesh-India relations should not be mutually supportive and friendly as both should fight together the common enemy—demeaning levels of poverty- existing among the peoples of both countries.
Barrister Harun ur Rashid, Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.