Sushma Swaraj in Dhaka

India-Bangladesh: Hope for a New Beginning

30 Jun, 2014    ·   4530

Harun ur Rashid analyses Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj's recent 38-hour visit to Bangladesh

The 38-hour trip of Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to Dhaka from 25 June was remarkable for various reasons. 

First, it demonstrated the priority the Narendra Modi government places on India’s relations with Bangladesh. Second, Swaraj promised to remove the obstacles in order to strengthen relations with Bangladesh – irrespective of the party in power in the country; and emphasised on people-to-people relations.  Third, Swaraj stated that the Indian government would work with the Sheikh Hasina government in Bangladesh to further strengthen relations and at the same time by meeting with the Chairperson, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) , the largest opposition party outside the parliament , she showed her prudence and sense of pragmatism. Fourth, she was found straightforward, plain-speaking, pleasant, and indeed a very likeable person.

The people of Bangladesh did not expect the first foreign visit by Swaraj to resolve pending issues with India; but they are the respective citizens’ issues because these issues – such as the Teesta Water Sharing Agreement and the Land Boundary Agreement – directly affect the people on the ground.  Her telephone call to the Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee before the visit reflected the Modi government’s keen desire to reach a consensus with the various stakeholders in India to resolve the issues.

The people of Bangladesh believe that the Modi government has an excellent opportunity to build a new era of relationship with Bangladesh – similar to what Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, did during her New Delhi visit in January 2010.

The Hasina government had cooperated in removing the threat of insurgency to India’s northeastern states by expelling the insurgents who operated out of sanctuaries in Bangladesh. She had allowed, without a transit agreement, transit facility to the India’s northeastern states – including the transportation of heavy duty equipment for ONGC Tripura Power Company’s 727 MW gas-based project located at Palatana, and the transportation of 10,000 tons of food grains for Tripura through its territory. 

However, in return, Bangladesh did not get what India has promised and this has been a severe disappointment for Bangladeshi citizens. The trust-deficit with India remains high in Bangladesh and it needs to be removed to usher in a new invigorated bilateral relationship.

The Minister laid bare some of the policies in a speech at the Bangladesh International Institute of Strategic Studies on 26 June. She expressed gratitude for the cooperation her country received from Bangladesh in combating trans-boundary crime, insurgency and terrorism. 

The Minister reportedly said democracy needed strong institutions and a culture of tolerance, inclusion and respect for differences.  She used the weighty words which have enough food for thought and meaning for all about the need of observance of democratic norms in a country.

Observers say that this statement appears to have been made in the context of non-inclusive 5 January parliamentary elections which returned the Hasina government in power for the third time. Many observers say that the statement is a stark contrast to the view held by the former Congress-led government in New Delhi regarding the 5 January elections.

On a major irritant in relations – such as the killing/abduction of Bangladeshi civilians at the Indo-Bangladesh border – she stated that India’s objective must not only be to reduce incidents along the border but also enhance peace, stability and goodwill.
Bangladesh was looking forward to the Minister’s endorsement for the proposed new economic corridor among Bangladesh-China-India- Myanmar (BCIM) in her speech but the visiting Indian Minister did not mention it.  Does that mean the Modi government has lost interest in the BCIM corridor?

Swaraj said India's development could not be complete and sustainable unless they successfully partnered with their immediate neighbours.  It is noted that the 2011 Indo-Bangladesh Framework Agreement on Cooperation and Development opened up possibilities in cooperation on bilateral, sub-regional and regional level on areas such as, water, energy, food security and environmental safety.  Furthermore, the Modi government may take initiative in constituting a sub-regional unit comprising Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and the northeastern states of India.  If their economy is integrated to the region, it could turn into hub of economic activities and when people have money into their pockets, they are happy and are not lured towards militancy or insurgency.

Bangladeshi people are hopeful that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation to the SAARC leaders for his swearing-in ceremony in New Delhi, on 26 May, will generate productive spirit of regional cooperation in which South Asia can be an economic powerhouse.

The 21st century has been described as “Asian century” because both economic and strategic weights are shifting toward Asia; and South Asia, under the new strong and imaginative leadership of India, could contribute to translating that into reality, and Bangladesh will fully cooperate with India to this end.