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  • Hamsini Hariharan

The 3 T's of Indo-Bangladesh relations

This article first appeared in The New Indian Express on April 7, 2017 and can be accessed here.

Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India kicks off today. Teesta, terrorism and transit are likely to be on the agenda

"I believe the most likely eventual outcome of the struggle underway in East Pakistan is a Bengali victory and the consequent establishment of an independent Bangladesh. At the moment we possess the goodwill of the Awami League. We would be foolish to forfeit this asset ...” — Archer Blood.

April 6 marks 46 years of the infamous Blood Telegram that was sent to the US StateDepartment marking the dissent of the twenty-odd staff at the American Consulate in Dhaka. This was when the massacre of Bengali citizens in the then East Pakistan had been going on for months.

The Bangladesh of 2017 is very different from the Bangladesh of 1971.  However, Blood’s advice to the United States holds true for India currently—we do possess the goodwill of the Awami League. Relations between the Sheikh Hasina government and India have never been better. While relations with Bangladesh continue without a hiccup, they have not moved forward since the finalisation of the 2015 Land Boundary Agreement.

Newspapers rant about the Teesta Water Treaty as though the treaty is a board examination that has to be submitted in three hours. True enough, the treaty is particularly important for both the Awami League and the BJP both of whom face national elections in 2019. The treaty is particularly important for the Hasina government  (which has often been accused by critics as leaning towards India) to show that there has been genuine progress in bilateral relations.

On the Indian side, however, there are some yellow flags. The treaty is an important example of how states can play a large role in foreign policy. The Trinamool Congress possesses tremendous negotiating power because of the Constitution's provisions; no deal can be passed without its approval as it indicated in 2011 when West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee refused to accompany the then PM Manmohan Singh on his visit to Bangladesh where the treaty was to be signed. However, if we are to go by her willingness to sign the 2015 Land Boundary Agreement, she will also agree to the new treaty depending on how much the Centre provides her to make up for the losses. Banerjee needs a good deal for her state because parts of West Bengal have been facing a drought-like situation over the last year.

Terrorism, not new in South Asia, is now more pertinent than ever. While the influence of Daesh (Islamic State) is waning around the world, it declared its presence in South Asia and claimed several of the terror attacks from 2015 onwards as perpetrated by its henchmen. However, this has been vehemently denied by Hasina who instead claims that it is the home-grown Neo-Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangaldesh which is behind the attacks.

Islamic State or not, the increasing spate of terror attacks should worry all the states on the eastern border, particularly West Bengal. Bangladesh has shown that it is serious in cracking down on terrorism—the high court awarded and upheld the death penalty to those accused of killing liberal blogger Rajib Haider in 2013. Also, over the last week, it conducted its Operation Twilight during which four militants were killed by the Rapid Action Battalion in Sylhet.

Rumours abound about the defence treaty to be signed between India and Bangladesh this week. If they are to be believed, it will be a long-term defence deal that will allow for increased defence cooperation, information sharing, joint exercises, training and so on. However, India needs to figure out where it can meet Bangladesh’s security concerns, considering Bangladesh’s largest defence partner is China.

While India has supposedly proposed a $500 million line of credit to Bangladesh so that the latter can procure its arms from it, India’s own defence ecosystem is dependent on imports. However, Indian analysts know and will argue that India cannot compete with China’s much larger defence market and that this is merely the first step in the right direction.

The most important issue in contemporary Asian geopolitics is transit and connectivity. In 2016 when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Bangladesh, the smaller country agreed to join the One Belt, One Road Project (OBOR). China is already investing in a number of infrastructure projects in the country including the deep sea port at Chittagong. It is likely that these projects will now be subsumed under the OBOR project.

Bangladesh’s joining the OBOR allows for India to also wade into the project and gauge its nature. China is already touting the BCIM (Bangladesh-China-Indian- Myanmar) Economic Corridor as an integral part of OBOR that will engage the rest of South Asia. Despite India’s wariness of OBOR, it should take note that its own efforts at promoting connectivity in the region have been limited. Subregional groupings such as the BBIN (Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal), the BIMSTEC (The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) have both turned out to be multilateral initiatives and there has been little headway. As an energy-strapped country whose existing ports are overloaded, Bangladesh is keen to find new avenues for energy transit as well as investment in infrastructure.

India is a natural partner of Bangladesh. Despite the current administration’s fanfare about putting its neighbourhood first, it has only sparingly demonstrated such an intent. Both governments are looking to secure deals that will appear favourable to them in the run-up to the respective national elections in 2019.

The time is ripe for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to sign deals with Bangladesh. One can only hope he uses the opportunity well.

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