Not just Looking East but Acting East

The current round of an active Indian foreign policy is undoubtedly a Modi initiative and clearly his visit to Bangladesh showed how an Act East policy can produce results. The LBA (Land Boundary Agreement) and 20 other agreements were the result of some diligent homework by both governments before the visit took place. Naturally, this success would not have been possible without the courage and vision of his host, Sheikh Hasina. As with all relationships that expect to endure, there was some give and some take. The agreements were for both countries and for us, we now seem that much closer to our northeast.

After extensive talks between the prime ministers Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina, India and Bangladesh signed the historic Land Boundary Agreement. File Pic/AFP
After extensive talks between the prime ministers Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina, India and Bangladesh signed the historic Land Boundary Agreement. File Pic/AFP

India-Bangladesh relations went into a deep trough after the assassination of Sheikh Mujib in 1975. It has taken the two countries 40 years to recover. Sheikh Mujib’s courageous daughter Sheikh Hasina fought on, against heavy odds and mostly alone, and if Bangladesh-India relations are now seeing their achhe din, she gets as much credit as Narendra Modi. Both had invested a great deal in this visit and the future should not be allowed to dissipate this mutual benefit. The other important aspect is about Sheikh Hasina’s determination in tackling radical Islamic terrorists at home and in cooperating in controlling international terrorism. There are still Islamic radicals in Dhaka who have killed four bloggers for their “un-Islamic activities”.

The LBA is a landmark agreement in both the senses of the term, but as usual our erstwhile grand old party and now a rump, the Congress, is unable to come to terms beyond some churlish remarks. The historical significance of this, an agreement that was signed by Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and Indira Gandhi, simply eludes them. Congress Party angst about improving India-Bangladesh ties is somewhat similar to the ludicrous protest today from the Pakistan Foreign Office about Indian interference in East Pakistan.

We also seem to have missed the significance of awarding Bangladesh’s Liberation War Honour to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, which was received on his behalf by Narendra Modi. The award was to India and it was Bangladesh’s way of saying thank you. As usual we either politicised this or simply did not understand the significance of a reward coming from a country where there are still many right wing elements that are opposed to this growing India-Bangladesh friendship.

Bangladesh is no small country, neither in size nor population; it has a vibrant economy that can add to India’s growth while India can be a huge market for Bangladesh products. Compared to our arid and hostile western neighbour, Bangladesh is keen to participate in this adventure of mutual economic development. It is time that we looked at Acting East as an uninterruptible and uninterrupted engagement — to borrow the expression from one of India’s best known protagonists of peace with Pakistan at all costs. This expression is more suitable as a policy prescription for India and Bangladesh. The Kolkata-Dhaka-Agartala-Guwahati connectivities make more sense than either the misnomer, Samjhauta Express, or the bus to Lahore.

The entire region from Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Bihar and West Bengal to Arunachal Pradesh will benefit through improved connectivity. India should now look and Act East in Myanmar seriously as the country has a long border with our northeast and sustained friendly relations are important for India. For decades, we have concentrated on our western borders and for many the Radcliffe Award was only about separating Lahore from Amritsar. Not many of us cared to remember that the same award had also separated Kolkata and Shillong from Dhaka. Nor do many know that Dhaka derives its name from Dhakeshwari Mandir.

The one other major step that needs to be taken is settling the sharing of river waters. While in Dhaka, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had spoken of water, air and birds needing no visas. This sounds poetic but the reality about the sharing of waters is much more prosaic and needs considerable adjustments on both sides. For this to succeed, Narendra Modi will have to work overtime in trying obtain a domestic consensus and so would Sheikh Hasina have to hard sell a proposed agreement at home. This will not be easy but this also cannot be allowed to drift and a result should be found during the terms of office of both Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi. Leaving it for later would run the risk of the agreement dying. Maybe, there will be an agreement when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visits New Delhi next.

It would be prudent, though, for both governments to beware saboteurs out to derail the process.

The writer is a former chief of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)

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