Is India still a reliable friend of Bangladesh?
December 2021 marks the golden jubilee of Bangladesh-India relations, which began with India's recognition of Bangladesh as a sovereign nation-state on December 6, 1971—just 10 days before the Liberation War ended. From the heyday of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to the current regime, the cosy relationship has traversed a long way with many ups and downs. Although India's President Ram Nath Kovind has said that Bangladesh has a "special place" in India's "neighbourhood first" policy, critics doubt, citing disputable and unresolved issues, whether India is still a dependable friend for Bangladesh. On the 50th anniversary of Dhaka-New Delhi ties, it is the need of the hour to introspect the strengths, retrospect the mistakes, acknowledge the challenges and draw a roadmap to take this relationship to new heights.
Bangladesh and India are connected by centuries of shared history, ethnolinguistic roots, common heritage, cultural affinity, and social norms. India's unprecedented support during the 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh—providing military assistance, extending shelter to 10 million refugees, etc—was the root of the bonhomie between these two countries. Over the years, the mutual respect for independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and strong political will from both sides contributed substantially to blossoming this bond. The aforementioned commonalities led the countries to have membership in different regional platforms such as Saarc, Bimstec, IORA, etc, reflecting common interest.
Bangladesh and India share a 4,096km border—the fifth-longest land border in the contemporary world, and the longest that India shares with any of its neighbours. Although many long-pending land and maritime border disputes have been resolved—e.g. the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) and exchange of 162 enclaves—the death toll of Bangladeshis on the border, because of the "shoot on sight" policy of India's Border Security Forces (BSF), has become a major stain on this bilateral engagement. According to Human Rights Watch, BSF killed nearly 1,000 Bangladeshis, mostly illegal border crossers, between 2001 to 2011, which should be the core concern for these countries to find a peaceful solution.
The thorny water-sharing issue of transboundary rivers—54 of them—remains another irritant to the Bangladesh-India ties. As a downstream country, Bangladesh wants more water from the Teesta River, which India has failed to ensure so far because of the domestic entanglement between the union government and the state government of West Bengal. They have also failed to build a framework agreement for optimal utilisation of waters from six rivers—Muhuri, Manu, Gumti, Khowai, Dudhkhumar, and Dharla. It is "water" that has become the "woe" of this bilateral relationship.
Northeast India, the prisoner of geography, is landlocked by its neighbours which is connected to India's mainland through a 22km wide "Chicken's Neck." Though Bangladesh can be used by the insurgent groups of the northeast as a "safe haven"—a major security concern for India—they have failed to do so because of Bangladesh's "zero tolerance" policy. From the perspective of neighbours' ring-fenced northeast, Bangladesh is the most important partner in India's strategic calculus. Ironically, India's controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), passed in 2019, has been criticised globally for setting religion as a basis for citizenship. Because of this act, 1.9 million migrants, half of whom were Muslims, were excluded from the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam. They may flee illegally to Bangladesh, worrying that they would otherwise be sent to detention camps, which is a matter of concern for Bangladesh.
In 2017, Bangladesh and India signed two defence deals, the first of its kind between India and any of its neighbours. Also, India extended USD 500 million worth of defence-related Line of Credit (LoC) to Bangladesh, a maiden deal for India, to procure defence equipment.
At the outset of 2021, a new controversy erupted over the delivery of AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine. Bangladesh inked an agreement for 30 million doses of vaccine with the Serum Institute of India (SII). Although India gifted 3.2 million doses as a token of friendship, failure of timely delivery of the agreed doses threw Bangladesh into a deep vaccine crisis. On the other hand, Bangladesh offered emergency medicine and medical equipment to India in response to the latter's deteriorating Covid situation. Both countries should be much more careful while making any promise, as unkept promises may cause mistrust.
Although India promised to finance USD 7.36 billion to Bangladesh under LoC since 2010, only 10.57 percent of the total committed funds have been disbursed as of April 2021. As delays in fund delivery increase development expenditure, both countries should work closely to address technical hurdles and bureaucratic tangles to expedite the fund release.
The bilateral economic ties have huge untapped possibilities, with trade potential of USD 16.4 billion. Bangladesh is the biggest trading partner of India in South Asia; on the other hand, India is the second biggest trading partner of Bangladesh. In FY2019-20, the two-way trade volume crossed the USD 10 billion landmark, where India's exports to Bangladesh were USD 8.2 billion and imports were USD 1.26 billion. This significant trade imbalance results in a huge trade deficit for Bangladesh. A Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) between these countries may create a level playing field for Bangladesh and unleash the full potential of economic engagement.
Political will for addressing non-political issues such as trade protectionism, tariff and non-tariff barriers, visa complexities, etc is needed to give the partnership a comprehensive and strategic shape. They should share intelligence on challenges affecting common interests and fight together against terrorism, insurgency, and smuggling of drugs, arms and fake currency, as shared priorities. Any bilateral dispute should be resolved peacefully on the basis of mutual respect and understanding.
Bangladesh, India's most trusted ally in South Asia, is not just another neighbour—it is one of the most important strategic partners which India cannot afford to ignore. On the other hand, Bangladesh, sharing most of its border with India, always gives indisputable importance to India in its foreign policy. As India has to go a long way to fulfil its dream of becoming a "regional power" and Bangladesh has the potential of becoming South Asia's "centre of economic gravity," both countries need each other in their journey. The past 50 years have consolidated the foundation; now, they have to use diplomatic cards and three Cs—cooperation, consolidation, and collaboration—with more maturity to achieve respective national objectives.
To navigate through the constantly changing geopolitical landscape of South Asia, Bangladesh and India should address all the scepticism to keep the decades-old friendship as stable and strong as before. In the coming days, they may face blows and bottlenecks, but the countries should not allow any feelings of antagonism to linger and any misunderstanding and mistrust to plague their ties. Reliability does not come with a lengthy relationship; rather, it comes with keeping the promises, giving support during difficult times, expressing solidarity with a common interest, and working shoulder-to-shoulder for confronting imminent challenges. The pre-emptive policy for avoiding potential pitfalls will ultimately determine where the Bangladesh-India relations will stand in the next 50 years.
Hussain Shazzad is a strategic affairs and foreign policy analyst.