There is something unique about Prime Minister Modi’s Bangladesh visit. Of all of India’s South Asian neighbours, Bangladesh is one which is almost completely “India-locked.” Of its 4,413-km land boundary, just 271 km is with Myanmar, the remaining 4,142 with India. Of course, Bangladesh was part of India till its partition in 1947 and the cultural connections between Bengalis on both sides of the border run deep, considering that they share the same language and celebrate the same literature. This was also the nation that India midwifed in 1971.
Modi sings hymns with monks at Ramakrishna Mission in Dhaka on Sunday. Pic/PTI
Actually India and Bangladesh are locked into each other and this awareness is what is driving the positive trend in our ties today. The relations have had its ups and downs. Bangladesh, itself has had its ups and downs. Yet in 2015, we have a different country from the one that was once described as a “basket case”. In many social indicators today, Bangladesh is ahead of India and given its geographical location, it holds the key to the development of all of eastern India.
The immediate objective of Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Dhaka is to overcome legacy issues that still bedevil our relations as well as to lay the foundations for an era of closer economic integration between Bangladesh and India. First among these is the boundary agreement through which the two countries will iron out the minor enclaves that both sides hold across the border and which are a major source of problems between them. The second is to overcome the problems that have prevented a water sharing pact on the Teesta river. In 2011, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee torpedoed the Manmohan Singh government’s effort to strike a deal on the issue. This time she coincided her visit to Dhaka with Prime Minister Modi’s and was received as a VIP.
There was no outcome on Teesta, but the discussions and atmospherics will go a long way in getting a balanced settlement. By getting Mamata Banerjee to participate in the discussions, Modi has set an important and far reaching precedent to involve the states of the Union on foreign policy matters that have a direct connect with them. India is a huge and varied country, but our constitution ignores the importance of Indian states in foreign affairs. Thus Mizoram, Nagaland and Manipur have little say in foreign affairs issues that affect them. While states like Tamil Nadu use domestic politics to skew Indian foreign policies.
Bangladesh, a country of 166 million people is hugely important to India. If India surrounds Bangladesh, the latter effectively splits eastern India and separates the north-east from the rest of the country. The Siliguri corridor, anywhere between 14-33 km at its narrower parts, that links West Bengal to Assam, is perhaps the strategically most important geographical vulnerability of India, since its northern part also contains the Chumbi Valley, which is a part of China. Given the nature of the India-Bangladesh border, it can never be completely sealed and hence the goodwill and cooperation of the Bangladesh government is vital in matters relating to India’s security. We know the value of this cooperation in the tenure of Sheikh Hasina as the Prime Minister, precisely because we also know how India was negatively affected in the tenures of Khaleda Zia between 1991-1996 and 2001-2006.
The advantages for India are many. As of now, north-eastern states have to go around the Siliguri corridor to reach the sea port of Kolkata. The distance between Agartala and Kolkata is over 1,600 km, whereas it is just 100 km from Chittagong in Bangladesh. Not only would Bangladesh gain from the better utilisation of its ports and transport facilities, but it could gain over $1 billion in transit fees were it to encourage the movement of goods on its riverine and rail networks to India, Nepal and Bhutan. Linking up to Chinese networks in Tibet, or through the proposed Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor could give an even greater fillip to the region.
But all this requires careful diplomacy to deal with disputes such as the ones between India and Bangladesh, or India and China, or Bangladesh and Myanmar. It also requires an awareness among the states that they need to be sensitive to the security concerns of other states. Ignoring this usually leads to a blowback, as has happened in Pakistan, and to an extent in Bangladesh, where Islamists have been strengthened by Khaleda Zia’s tactic of using them to needle India.
Beyond resolving outstanding problems, Modi’s visit has led to the setting up of agreements, MoUs and protocols which will transform our relations in the future. The key issues here are connectivity and economic partnership. Bangladesh has held out against providing effective transit rights to India, but now many in the country realise that Bangladesh needs India as much as the latter needs the former. Hence the slew of MoUs to promote economic ties, transit and coastal trade, as well as bus services that will begin negating the malign consequences of partition.
Prime Minister Modi has once again returned a virtuoso performance, emphasizing the importance of Bangladesh to India, as well as emphasizing the win-win outcomes that are possible in the future.
Besides the economic and practical, he also made some important cultural gestures such as the visit to the Dhakeshwari temple and to the Ramkrishna Mission which underscored India’s concern over a problem that is largely ignored by Indians themselves and the world community the steady decline of the country’s Hindu population in the face of violence and persecution. These issues cannot and should not be ignored if we are to construct ties that are durable and mutually beneficial.
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi