On 17th December, one day after the Victory Day, a virtual summit was held between Hon'ble Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina and Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi. Though the meeting was not face-to-face, there was no shortage of pre-preparation or arrangements for a summit. As usual, there was no dearth in the glamour and gravity of the summit as well. Although not held on the Victory Day, the meeting was held in the month of Victory - in the Mujib Year. Moreover, according to Hon'ble Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the date of 17th December also has a special significance and connotation. Despite the official victory on December 16, she, her mother, her sister Sheikh Rehana, younger brother Sheikh Russel and the tiny 4-month-old son Joy were released from Pakistani captivity on 17th December with the help of the retired Indian Army Colonel (then Major) Ashok Tara.
As we can see, in broad terms, the meeting marks reopening of the Chilahati-Haldibari rail link after it was cut off during the 1965 Indo-Pak war nearly half a century ago, the culmination of seven Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) signed between Bangladesh and India on cooperation in various sectors including agriculture, trade and enegy and the inauguration of three development partnership projects. The MoUs signed are: cooperation in the field of Agriculture; framework of understanding on cooperation in Hydocarbon Sector; protocol on trans-boundary elephant conservation; cooperation between Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Museum, Dhaka and museum in New Delhi; framework agreement on high impact community development projects; terms of reference of India-Bangladesh CEOs Forum; and supply of Equipment and Improvement of Garbage/ Solid Waste Disposal Ground in Barishal City Corporation. The inaugurated three projects are: the Bangladesh-India Professional Skill Development Institute (BIPSDI) at the Institution of Diploma Engineers Bangladesh (IDEB), Khulna; Vivekananda Bhaban (students hostel) at Ramakrishna Mission, Dhaka; and import of bulk LPG from Bangladesh to Tripura through trucks. In keeping with India’s Neighbourhood First policy, PM Modi assured supply of Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, to be produced in India, on priority basis to Bangladesh when it is ready. He also accepted the invitation to join the golden jubilee celebrations of Bangladesh's independence next March.
Both the Prime Ministers Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi have been leading their respective countries for a long time. At the state level, the two countries have a long-standing warm relationship. Naturally, it is expected that the two countries will further accelerate the existing friendly relations by constantly opening up new areas of mutual cooperation. In the field of international relations, summit meetings play a major role in resolving many complex issues. Whenever and wherever, meetings between the heads of the states/ governments mean a lot. Everyone has a keen eye on the flow and outcome of the meeting. Long-term intensive preparations work around such meetings. Everyone hopes that the meeting of the two top leaders of the two countries will unravel many conflicting issues and open new horizons of mutual cooperation and possibilities. How meaningful has this meeting been from that consideration? Has any solution to the big issues between Bangladesh and India come out of this meeting?
Let's see, then, what are the big issues between the two countries at the moment? A major issue is the water sharing of 54 common rivers flowing between the two countries. In many of these rivers, unilateral withdrawal of water by dams upstream in the Indian part results in water crisis in Bangladesh part during the dry season. Though the impact of the Farakka Barrage on the Padma has not been resolved, there has been some relief on reaching an agreement on water sharing. The demand for an agreement to ensure that Bangladesh gets its fair share of water in the case of other rivers is long overdue. In particular, an agreement on the Teesta, another major river in the country, has been almost finalized several years back. Many were hoping that the summit meet would come up with a solution on the issue, which did not eventually materialize.
Another major issue between the two countries is border killings. It has become a stigma in the friendly relations between the two countries, which are bound by a very warm and sincere friendship with each other for a long time. According to the Ain O Salish Kendro (ASK), 25 Bangladeshis were killed at the border in the first six months of 2020 (January-June), of which 21 were killed in BSF firing. Border crossings of people living on the frontiers are more or less common across the world. Many of them cross the border only for daily life and livelihood, to go to the market or to meet their relatives on the other side of the border, by evading the eyes of the border guards. However, some people are involved in smuggling. It is pretty much expected that Border guards will take necessary measures to prevent such illegal movement. But, how necessary and acceptable can shooting be to this end? India shares borders with five other countries, including Pakistan and China. Such killings at these borders are almost zero. So, why is it happening in the case of the friendly country Bangladesh? In the past, as this time, the issue has been raised at high-level meetings and India has promised to look into it again and again. However, the question remains how far the issue has been or is being taken care of, as far as the year-to-year statistics of border killings are concerned.
The Rohingya crisis has become another big issue for Bangladesh. About 1.1 million Rohingya refugees have taken refuge in Bangladesh after being displaced from Rakhine State at various times due to state persecution by the Myanmar government. Starting in the late seventies, Rohingya refugees have been flocking to Bangladesh in several phases. The biggest flow arrived in the middle of 2017. At that time about 6 to 7 lakh Rohingya refugees entered Bangladesh. As always, Bangladesh continues to try to resolve this issue diplomatically. So far, however, there has been no apparent progress in repatriating refugees due to a lack of appropriate response from the Myanmar government. India and China, two neighboring friendly countries, have an opportunity to play an important role here. So far, however, their position appears to have been indirectly in Myanmar's favor. At first glance, it may seem as if they are in a race to see who gets closer to Myanmar. Although both countries have important geopolitical and economic interests in Bangladesh, do they seem to feel the need to take Bangladesh too seriously in this regard? Are they considering Bangladesh as a weak opponent? Or, they have assumed that, no matter what happens, Bangladesh is bound to stay with them. It may be mentioned here that in various states of India, including Assam, a conspiracy has been started to push a section of the Bengali population living there to Bangladesh under the name of The National Register of Citizens (NRC). If the repatriation of Rohingya refugees could not be ensured, these insidious quarters may feel motivated to go ahead with their plans.
Another important issue in Bangladesh-India relations is Bangladesh's huge trade deficit in its trade with India. According to the Bureau of Statistics, Bangladesh imported goods worth 7,647 million from India in 2019, while exporting goods worth 930.6 million at the same time. In other words, Bangladesh has a trade deficit of 6,717 million with India this year. (Bangla Tribune, June 26, 2020) India is a much bigger market than Bangladesh in terms of population. So, why Bangladesh is not able to do good business there? Is that because of inadequate demand for Bangladeshi products in India? Due to lack of a significant number of products to export? Due to poor marketing activities? Or, because of barriers to the free entry of Bangladeshi products? It has been alleged by business quarter time and again that various non-tariff barriers are playing a big role here. Whatever the reason, this huge trade deficit indicates that Indian goods are entering Bangladesh without hindrance, but Bangladeshi goods are not gaining similar free access to the Indian market. This issue has come up as a regular issue in Bangladesh-India talks. The statistics show that no significant progress has been made so far.
If you keep adding issues one by one in this way, the list will be longer and longer. However, broadly speaking, these may be the burning issues of the moment. Now let's take a look at what India wanted from Bangladesh. Evacuation of Indian rebel bases, if any, inside Bangladesh and the use of Bangladesh's sea- and river-ports and the road-rail-river network to facilitate short-haul cargo transit to India's northeastern states were India's main demands on Bangladesh. And almost all of these demands have been met. Although the first demand was considered as a fair demand of a country, the issue of transit facilities was not an essential necessity. Because, India has an alternative way through its own territories to go to the north eastern states. On the other hand, most of the demands of Bangladesh mentioned above are just due, not a matter of kindness.
At a turning point in the history of this country, in that very difficult moment in 1971, India stood by us with all its might. Therefore, it is well judged that our prerogative will be to further strengthen our friendship with India. That is not only for their cooperation in the war of independence, but also for being the neighboring state bordering most parts of our frontiers. You can change your house if you do not get along with your neighbor in your personal life, but there is no chance for a state to change its neighboring state. Therefore, we have to realize our fair shares while maintaining friendly relations with India. The question is, where Bangladesh is one of India's closest friends and this friendship has passed the test of time, when Bangladesh is offering India a lot of privileges beyond its fair share, why is India showing indifference in meeting Bangladesh's just demands. Is it our diplomatic failure, or India's lack of goodwill? Here, one point demands particular attention. In international relations, national interests are paramount, and there is little room for emotion. As long as you cannot negotiate from a strong position with the opponent, there is nothing to be surprised if your fair claim is ignored. You must be able to give an impression to the counterpart that persistent laxity in the payment of these fair dues can lead to a reciprocal tug of war.
That is the point. How strong is your bargaining power? Let's take an event as an example. The killing of a Nepalese citizen at the border in 2017 sparked outrage among Nepalese people, and Indian Security Adviser Ajit Doval was forced to express his condolences to Nepal's Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda. So, how can the Indian government remain indifferent even after hundreds of Bangladeshis have been killed on the border? This is where the question arises, how strongly are we able to convey our emotions and concerns to the counterpart on contentious issues?
In 1971, the Pakistani army lost to us because the nation was united. Today, as well, if we can stand united on the question of national interest, we are able to face any challenge. Bangladesh is a nation state. As the majority of the people of the country belong to the same ethnic group, it is possible to build a steel-solid unity among them again on the question of key national interests. There may be political / social differences on different issues, but when it comes to national interests, you will see everyone in the same position, regardless of party affiliation. This can be a source of strength and inspiration for us to take a strong stand in international negotiations. Therefore, we all need to launch a vigorous campaign at the same time to make the people of the country aware and motivated on basic national issues, forgetting all kinds of differences, regardless of who is in power or who is out of power.
For resolving the contentious issues, a short-term plan may be to target the possible Hasina-Modi summit again on the golden jubilee of independence next March. In addition, one or more specialized cells can be formed with vigilant, expert individuals both from public and private sectors to work on a full-time basis for solving the long-standing problems. They will work diligently to find a way out by deeply analyzing the contentious issues. In addition, the country's civil society, human rights organizations, non-governmental organizations and think-tanks can also adopt special plans on their own initiative.
Unprecedented improvements in the communication system have made the world much smaller today. World opinion and international pressure can play an important role in resolving such long-term inter-state issues. You will rarely find a country that wants to be poorly portrayed in the world. Therefore, we can actively consider sharing our grief with those who can be our sympathizers / collaborators in the world. We need to create public opinion in the international arena by raising our concerns loudly and silently as needed. Expatriate Bangladeshis scattered all over the world can also play a special role in creating public opinion on various important issues. All in all, in the face of long-pending unresolved issues, it is necessary to find and use all possible political-diplomatic, domestic-international strategies to put pressure on the counterpart, in addition to attempting to unite and invigorate the people of the country from all walks of life. Only then can a quick settlement become visible.
All the best to everyone!
Dr Mohammad Didare Alam Muhsin, Professor of Pharmacy, Jahangirnagar University.