Road to Dhaka

With many new ideas on the table, the prime minister’s forthcoming Bangladesh visit may help tide over a long period of mutual suspicion and lead to a win-win situation for both countries
Hardnews Bureau Delhi

By undertaking abilateral visit to Dhaka, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would be correcting a significant wrong. For 13 years now, no Indian prime minister has paid an official visit to a neighbour with whom the country shares more than 4,000kms of border and a past that has become a casualty to competing interpretations. 

In recent years, though, Indian government has begun to diplomatically invest more time and substance to this relationship. Perhaps this growing attention toBangladesh, especially, has been helped by the change in the government there in 2008 and the return to power of an old India friend, Sheikh Hasina. Daughter of Bangabandhulate Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, Sheikh Hasina has been able to put on track a relationship that has not really taken off since Bangladesh became independent in 1971. Assassination of Mujibur Rehman and the progressive Islamisation of Bangladeshi society has also led to demonisation ofIndia. Save for brief periods when Awami League was in power, Indo-Bangladesh relations have been dogged by misgivings and mutual suspicions. Any possibility of an agreement between the two countries was shot down by vicious propaganda by Jamaat-led Islamists that raised fears about Bangladesh losing its identity under India’s hegemony. Moreover, Indian diplomatic neglect, arrogance and obsession with the West and Pakistan did not help New Delhi’s cause. 

In a recent interaction with Indian editors, Manmohan Singh inadvertently articulated this point of view when he mentioned the anti-India attitude of Jamaat-e-Islam (JeI). His remarks led to a serious damage control as there is increasing realisation now in the Indian strategic establishment that New Delhi cannot safeguard its considerable investments in Bangladesh till an attempt is made to win over hostile anti-India political parties. There is a serious attempt to tide over this problem by working on a long-term strategic plan that enjoys broad consensus in Dhaka. Manmohan Singh is expected to unveil this during his forthcoming trip. 

The urgency to cement ties with Bangladesh is also driven by reports of Chinese economic enlargement in that country.Indiais likely to put all kinds of new ideas on the table, including a sub-plan to create a growth hub comprising India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar, sustained by road and transport infrastructure. Significantly, China is not being included in this proposal, making some strategic experts see in it some kind of US-sponsored anti-China bloc. Interestingly, China had proposed something similar in 1999 through its Kunming initiative, which, however, failed to make great progress. Similarly, it is unlikely that India’s initiative would take off if it is not cognisant of the objective reality. 

Manmohan Singh would be offering a slew of goodies to Bangladesh during the visit. Sizable groundwork has been done by Foreign Minister SM Krishna and Home Minister P Chidambaram by taking care of some contentious issues that had been dogging the two countries. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee had during his visit to Dhaka given a credit line of $1 billion to Dhaka, the biggest ever given by India to anyone. The money would be used to finance infrastructure projects, including improvement of the railway network, construction of roads and bridges, and building of power plants. 

Singh would also build on the opportunities presented by Sheikh Hasina’s visit in January 2010, when long-standing issues like sharing of Teesta river waters, border demarcation and dismantling of non-tariff barriers were discussed. New trade points like Ashuganj river port andChittagongport were identified for opening. 

India and Bangladesh have a number of bilateral issues. The important unsettled issues include the ratification by India of the 1974 Land Boundary Agreement (LBA), also known as Indira-Mujib agreement. Both the countries share an international boundary of 4,156kms of which 6.5kms still remains undemarcated. A doing of Cyril Radcliffe, who apparently used a thick pen to draw the divisions, the land boundary dispute has carried on longer than anticipated. The Indira-Mujib agreement was not ratified by the Indian Parliament, and so the Tin Bigha corridor, which givesBangladeshaccess to two of its enclaves in India, Dahagram and Angarpota, could not be handed over to that country. 

Enclaves were part of the high stakes in card or chess games played centuries ago by two regional kings — Raja of Cooch Behar and Maharaja of Rangpur. The little strips of territories were created after the two rulers ran out of silver and pledged pockets of each others territory as stakes. The present enclaves are actually those territories which were either won or lost by the two.Bangladeshhas 111 Indian enclaves with an area of 7,110,02 acres and India has 51. Now both sides have agreed to swap these enclaves. A formal agreement would be signed between the two prime ministers. 

Similarly, adverse possession of territories by both sides had been a cause of tension. In 2001 there was a major confrontation between India’s Border Security Force (BSF) and the Bangladesh Rangers. These territories are to be transferred to the respective sides during this trip. 

There is also a problem of the maritime boundary — a dispute over maritime resources and clear demarcation of exclusive economic zones. How precious the continental shelf is can be gauged by the fact that in 2005-06 India made a discovery of 100 trillion cubic feet of gas, and Myanmar discovered 7 trillion cubic feet of gas around the same time. India also hit upon some oil reserves in Bay of Bengal. 

Complexity in demarcation of maritime boundary has deepened due to the rise of New Moore or SouthTalpathy Island from the Bay of Bengal after the 1970 cyclone. It has slowly grown from 2,500 sq m to 3.5km in both length and breadth, and continues to grow. Bangladesh insists that satellite pictures and international norms support its claims over the island. India, on the other hand, has established a BSF base there and has been hoisting its flag. New Delhi claims that the new island is close to its coast line. This dispute has gone for arbitration to the United Nations, but a bilateral process has been initiated as well to resolve it. 

Another nettlesome issue concerns the sharing of river water. Fifty rivers run through both countries. Recently, officials of the two countries arrived at an agreement to share the water of Teesta and Feni rivers for 15 years. Manmohan Singh is likely to sign this agreement in Dhaka. New Delhi has also refrained from doing anything to provoke Bangladesh on the Tipaimukh dam project. 

However, the biggest issue is connectivity and transit between the two countries.India intends to avail transit facilities using rail and road through Bangladesh to Northeast India, which is connected to the mainland by a thin corridor known as the Siliguri corridor or Chicken’s Neck. Movement of goods from the Northeast to rest of the country takes far longer as they are not able to go through Bangladesh. In other words, absence of transit raises the cost of goods in the Northeast. Bangladeshi nationalists, however, see the grant of transit rights to India as going against their country’s interest. This matter would come up urgently during the prime minister’s visit to Dhaka, where he is likely to state the economic gains for Bangladesh and how it can earn $1 billion in transit fees. Also, the infrastructural development that would come in its wake would generate employment and help in the integration of Bangladesh to the region’s economy. 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: SEPTEMBER 2011