The Hasina–Modi December summit
We are on the cusp of our 50th anniversary. Come March 26, 2021, it will be 50 years since Bangladesh had declared its Independence. We restate our gratefulness to our martyrs and the freedom fighters for their sacrifices. It is also fitting to recognise the contribution of India for its assistance, without whose help it might have taken longer than nine months to throw the Pakistan Army off our soil.
Over the last 50 years, Bangladesh's primary preoccupation in the diplomatic sphere has been to chart a course for a harmonious coexistence with India, which for the greater part of our independent existence has been our "only neighbour" since Bangladesh had hardly bothered to look towards its east, at Myanmar, till the Rohingya problem became a very serious security issue for Bangladesh. If foreign relationships are predicated on three concentric rings, each defining the sphere of our interests, the first two of those have been dominated, and to some extent dictated, by India.
It has been 49 years since India recognised Bangladesh on December 6, 1971, the second country do so after Bhutan, ten days before the surrender of the Pakistanis to the joint Bangladesh-India command. And it is worth taking a look at how the bilateral relationship has panned out in these years. Perhaps a look at the recent virtual summit between the two prime ministers on December 17, and at the compact reached between the two countries, would be a good starting point to examine the real state of Bangladesh-India relations. And one should mention that official and public perceptions of Bangladesh-India relations are different.
The Bangladesh-India relationship has seen many peaks and troughs in the last five decades. The peaks and troughs were directly related to whether it was the Awami League or BNP that was in power. It must be mentioned that the course of the foreign policy of the nascent state, both in terms of regional and international relationships, was defined by Bangabandhu himself. He made no secret of his intention to acquire for Bangladesh as much diplomatic space for manoeuvre as necessary by a sovereign and self-respecting nation. He asserted firmly the multiple identities of Bangladesh, which couldn't have been lost on those at home and abroad who wanted Bangladesh to be seen as only a singular construct of nationhood. He was cut out in the mould of an idealist—principles rather than realism dominated his foreign policy outlook.
Those who have followed the course of the Bangladesh–India relationship closely must not have failed to notice in recent times the oft reiteration of the excellent state of the relationship between the two countries. Constant restating of the "extraordinary" relationship, which is supposed to be on a very even keel, may convey a different impression to the more keen observers.
Indeed, in spite of the official pronouncements, our relationship had come under a degree of strain in recent times. And that was induced by both the internal and external policies of India. The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), followed immediately by the National Register of Citizenship or NRC 2019, was a major source of concern for Bangladesh. Although our official position is that these are internal matters of India, it nonetheless created flutters in the official circles. The statement of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on the CAA that, "We do not understand why they [the Indian government] did it, it was not necessary," does indeed express the country's concerns about the likely deleterious consequences of the CAA on Bangladesh. The scurrilous and snide comments about Bangladeshis by very senior BJP leaders did not help either.
Strain was also induced by Bangladesh's position on the Belt and Road Initiative and the strategic implication of China's enlarged footprint on South Asia, and indeed on a large swathe of the globe. Bangladesh's disinclination to join the US led Indo-Pacific bandwagon to counter China's influence demonstrated its resolve to not get involved in an arrangement that may well take the character of a security organisation eventually.
But nothing of these was reflected, understandably, in the 39-point joint statement released after the Hasina-Modi virtual summit, which contained platitudes and reiterations of intent and the excellent state of the mutual relationship thriving in multitude areas of cooperation. There were many substantive issues of permanent interest to both countries that have been mentioned in the document, such as Border Management and Security Cooperation (one is not sure whether the issue of terrorism really merits inclusion under this issue), and Trade Partnership for Growth (but restrictions remain on import of certain essential items from India—on December 22, Bangladesh demanded the withdrawal of a ban on seed imports from India to boost bilateral cooperation in the agricultural sector). Then there is the most strategically important issue for India, which has been more than adequately met by Bangladesh—Connectivity for Prosperity. In this regard, it appears that while there have been ample extensions of connectivity between the Indian mainland and its North-East through the Bangladesh-India connectivity programme, sub-regional connectivity is yet to come to full fruition, and the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) initiative is still waiting to be operationalised. And one would hope that Bangladesh would get the appropriate dividends it deserves by allowing the use of its facilities for transit. Bangladesh happens to be India's biggest trade partner in South Asia and we believe that not only should Bangladesh expand its export basket, but India should also liberalise its import policy vis a vis Bangladesh to offset the huge balance of trade deficit.
As far as Cooperation in Water Resources, Power and Energy is concerned, while the two leaders underscored the need for an early conclusion of the Framework of Interim Agreement on sharing of waters of six joint rivers, namely, Manu, Muhuri, Khowai, Gumti, Dharla and Dudhkumar, sharing of the Teesta waters was predictably absent. This is what the Bangladesh foreign minister had to say to The Daily Star on the question of Teesta—"You know what the barriers to signing the Teesta water-sharing agreement are. The Indian government, multiple times, has promised that they would sign the agreement after solving their internal disputes over the issue. So, there is no reason to create an embarrassing situation by raising this question repeatedly. Rather, you should pose this question to the government and media of West Bengal." So the Teesta remains on the list of promises. And the centre in India has found a good excuse in Mamata Banerjee's intransigence to shelve the Teesta water issue for the time being.
There was a single paragraph in the joint statement on forcibly displaced persons from the Rakhine state of Myanmar, but India's expressed position on the issue is in contrast to their demonstrated position on it. What other impression shall we form when India consistently abstains from voting on the Rohingya issue at the UN?
Since the time Awami League returned to power in 2009, every one of India's security and strategic concerns has been answered by Bangladesh promptly and positively. India's Bangladesh locked North-East is no longer so. Mutual cooperation in dealing with extremism and terrorism has paid dividends. But two of Bangladesh's most pressing concerns remain to be adequately addressed—Teesta water sharing and border killings (which merits a separate article). Thus, the question we are compelled to ask is, will these issues be satisfactorily addressed, and soon?
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (Retd), is a former Associate Editor of The Daily Star.