Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikha Hasina came on a four-day official visit to India in January.
One of Bangladesh’s main concerns has been getting preferential access to the huge Indian market for its more competitive exports like garments. However, the Indian state has always linked giving this to getting rights of transit across Bangladesh to India’s North East – something which has been viewed with great suspicion in Bangladesh.
During the visit, 47 items were removed from India’s negative list of imports from Bangladesh, but at the same time, India got access for the first time to the Chittagong and Mongla ports in Bangladesh. Bangladesh obtained access to Nepal and Bhutan through Indian Territory. Bangladesh has given permission to India to complete a rail link to Agartala in Tripura through Bangladesh territory.
India needs to connect the North East with the rest of the country through Bangladesh. For the peoples of the North East and West Bengal, as well as the people of Bangladesh, opening up of trade and other barriers could be mutually beneficial. For the Indian bourgeoisie, the long term development of the North East as well as engagement with the South East Asian countries demands better relations between India and Bangladesh on economic and political fronts.
The Indian state’s main concern with regard to Bangladesh has been the security factor – that is, the use of Bangladesh’s territory by insurgent forces in North East India. Under Sheikh Hasina, the Bangladesh government has already taken steps to hand over prominent ULFA leaders and cadres. This trend of cooperation on the security front was taken forward by the signing of three treaties on mutual legal assistance on criminal offences, on the transfer of sentenced persons and on combating international terrorism, organised crime and illegal drug trafficking.
On one of the most important areas of disagreement, the recurring problems of flooding during the monsoons and the stoppage of water flow faced by Bangladesh on account of it being a lower riparian state, nothing was achieved during the visit. The Indian state has never settled the water sharing issue with Bangladesh, including the issue of the letting loose of excess waters which periodically flood Bangladesh. Some official talks were held in the run up to the Bangladesh PM’s visit, but no agreements were reached. Recently, there has been an escalating dispute between the two countries on their maritime boundary as well, but this too was not resolved.
On a long-standing territorial dispute, regarding the presence of numerous “enclaves” of one country within the territory of the other, dating from the time of Partition, nothing was signed during the visit. However, in recent talks, India has agreed “in principle” to a territorial swap which will end this anomaly, involving the transfer of some 17,000 acres of land from India to Bangladesh, and about 7,000 acres in reverse. However, parliamentary approval and many other procedures need to be followed in India before this can be realised on the ground.
To sweeten the atmosphere during the visit, the Indian government announced a $1 billion line of credit for the development of Bangladesh’s road and rail infrastructure, and also signed a memorandum of understanding on power swapping, under which Bangladesh will be able to draw 250 MW of power from India.
It is well known that the Indian state has had a very troubled relationship with Bangladesh. Ever since the Indian government of Indira Gandhi acted decisively to help sever the eastern wing of Pakistan resulting in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, the Indian state has always had an interfering and condescending attitude towards this neighbouring country. This has aroused widespread resentment against India in Bangladesh.
At the same time, among the two main fiercely contending political parties in Bangladesh – the BNP led by Khaleda Zia and the Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina – the Indian state has much closer ties with Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League. Because the Awami League won with a huge majority in the last elections, and this was the first visit by the Bangladesh Prime Minister after that, her visit was watched with great interest to see if there would be any major steps towards de-freezing the India-Bangladesh relationship.
The grand reception accorded to Sheikh Hasina, and the agreements reached indicate that the Indian state is trying to take some preliminary steps in building a climate of good will with Bangladesh to achieve its strategic aim of increasing economic integration with Bangladesh as well as with Myanmar. How far this will go will depend on whether the Indian state addresses the pressing question of river waters, the maritime dispute, the terrible harassment of Bangladeshi migrant workers in India, and whether it will enable Bangladesh to benefit from trade and investments.