In a reflection of their rapidly growing ties, India and Bangladesh sealed seven agreements to expand cooperation in diverse areas, and restored a cross-border rail link which was in operation till 1965. The restoration of the Chilahati-Haldibari railway link and signing of the pacts, providing for cooperation in areas of hydrocarbons, agriculture and textiles among others, came at a virtual summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina. In his initial remarks, PM Modi said Bangladesh is a key pillar of India's “Neighbourhood First” policy and it has been a key priority for him to strengthen ties between the two countries. In her statement, PM Hasina described India as a "true friend". The ties between India and Bangladesh have witnessed an upswing in the last few years. Both sides have scaled up trade and economic engagement besides implementing a number of connectivity and infrastructure projects. In this edition of the Big Picture we will analyse the strengthening India-Bangladesh ties.
Edited Excerpts from the Debate
Key-highlights of the Summit
At the virtual summit, India and Bangladesh also sealed seven agreements to expand cooperation in diverse areas — hydrocarbons, elephant conservation, sanitation, and agriculture, and restored a cross-border rail link which was in operation till 1965.
They also jointly inaugurated a digital exhibition on Mahatma Gandhi and Bangladesh’s founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman.
The two leaders jointly inaugurated the restored Chilahati – Haldibari rail route re-linking Bangladesh with North Bengal in India.
This is the fifth of the six cross-border rail routes severed in 1965 by the then Pakistani Government, to be restored. It will resume trans-border railway connectivity between the two countries.
These connectivity projects are aimed at countering China’s growing influence in Bangladesh, which is also part of President Xi Jinping’s mega Belt and Road Initiative.
China is already implementing$10 billion worth of infrastructure projects in Bangladesh, which includes economic zones and power plants.
What are the reasons behind improved India-Bangladesh relations?
The Indo-Bangladesh relationship has seen new heights and over the recent past. The engagements have been turned for the better and have indeed improved. In 2019, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the relationship as being in its “golden era”. The reasons behind this improvement are:
Leadership in India: Leadership is the number one reason and there has been a consistent consensus in India on improving relations with our neighbours. PM Modi has moved it along and pushed it with the neighbourhood first policy.
Leadership in Bangladesh: Ever since Sheikh Hasina came to power in 2009, she has been very consistent in following up on the all the items in the agenda particularly connectivity and the realization that connectivity is the key to prosperity, development, transportation and key to getting people-to-people contact.
Economic growth of Bangladesh: Economic growth of Bangladesh has added to the impetus and it is another major factor in improving the relationship.
Bangladesh’s economic progress has been significant in the past few years.
It is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world with a steady growth rate of six percent every year for over a decade.
It has already qualified to become a middle-income country by 2021 and is confident of being capable of graduating to a developed country by 2040.
What is the strategic importance of Bangladesh for India and vice versa?
Security: As far as Bangladesh is concerned to India, it is not only important to us as neighbourhood first and act east policy. Also, the country is on the coastline and, from the security point of view, Bangladesh is very important to India.
Peace and stability in north east region: Bangladesh has been crucial in ensuring peace and stability in India’s northeast region.
Eastern seaboard: Lying some 600 miles north of the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, with the major port of Chittagong and another, Cox's Bazaar, almost bordering its neighbour Myanmar, the country is an important littoral on our eastern seaboard.
What are the irritants in the relationship?
Cross-border migration: Cross-border migration has been a persistent problem between India and Bangladesh. Despite the improvement of bilateral ties, the issue has hardly been resolved. Illegal migration from Bangladesh is a concern for India, especially in the NER.
Water issues: India and Bangladesh have 54 common rivers including Ganges and Brahmaputra, and the number is likely to increase in the future.
Increasing radicalism: The rise of radicalism in Bangladesh has required close observation since the country first experienced a surge in activities of religious militant groups like Harkatul Jihad (Huji) and Jamaatul Mujahedeen (JMB) in the early 2000s
China’s influence: Bangladesh follows an independent foreign policy and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina propagates a principle of equidistance in dealing with China and India, the two Asian giants.
India–Bangladesh relationship has progressed significantly in the past few years. However dealing with few issues between the two, need a cooperative approach. Cooperation will not only promote peace and stability in the India-Bangladesh bilateral space but will also help promote stability in the larger South Asia region.
Formerly East Pakistan, Bangladesh came into being only in 1971, when the two parts of Pakistan split after a bitter war.
Bangladesh spent 15 years under military rule and, although democracy was restored in 1990, the political scene remains volatile.
Bangladesh Liberation War
December 16, 2020 marked the 50th Vijay Diwas or Victory Day, when the Pakistan Army surrendered to the India-Bangladesh Joint Command, known as Mitra Bahini (Allied Forces).
More than 90,000 civilians and soldiers were taken as prisoners of war (PoW).
General A A K Niazi signed the Instrument of Surrender on 16 December 1971 in Dhaka, marking the formation of East Pakistan as the new nation of Bangladesh.
Pakistan also lost half of its territory with the birth of Bangladesh.
The country is situated in southern Asia in the Ganges River (Padma) delta on the Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh is bordered by Indiain west, north and east and has a short border with Myanmar (Burma) in south east.
Bangladesh is low-lying and vulnerable to flooding and cyclones. It stands to be badly affected by any rise in sea levels.
India and Bangladesh share a warm and friendly tie and regarded as a textbook example of a neighbourly relationship.
The people of India and Bangladesh share close and multi-faceted socio-cultural, religious and linguistic ties spanning centuries.
The two countries share the same values of secularism, pluralism and democracy, and the distinct honour of having their national anthem written by the same person—Kabiguru Rabindranath Tagore.
Series of recent high-level visits
In the past the few years, there have been a series of high-level visits, starting with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit in 2010 and followed by her visits in 2017 and 2019.
Indian leaders also reciprocated with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visiting Bangladesh in 2011 and his successor Prime Minister Modi visiting in 2015.
Prime Minister Modi is expected to visit Bangladesh to join the golden jubilee celebration of Bangladesh’s independence in March 2021.
Regional and sub-regional groups
Bangladesh and India have also been collaborating in various regional and sub-regional groups like
BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation)
BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal grouping).
Water sharing agreements between India and Bangladesh
India and Bangladesh signed an Agreement in 1996 and a Memorandum of Understanding in October 2019 on water sharing of the Ganges and Feni rivers, respectively.
So far, both India and Bangladesh have agreed on a draft agreement on Teesta, but a comprehensive treaty which was to be signed during Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Bangladesh in 2011 did not fructify because West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee posed an objection at the last minute on the ratio of water sharing agreed in the draft agreement.
Listed Common Rivers
Bangladesh has listed rivers which could be included in the list of common rivers located in northern Bangladesh and Meghalaya and Assam.