In The News

Indian PM’s Bangladesh Visit to Usher in New Momentum

July 27, 2011

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s controversial off-the-cuff remarks made earlier this month on the influence of conservative Islamic groups on the Bangladesh polity, led the Indian government to announce immediately – quite contrary to diplomatic practice – his much-awaited visit to Dhaka on September 6-7. His visit was high on the agenda at the recent Dialogue on India-Bangladesh relations, sponsored by The Asia Foundation, between India’s Kunzru Centre for Defence and Research and the Center for Foreign Affairs Studies in Dhaka. At the dialogue, attended by international affairs experts on the region,  both sides agreed that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit must lay down a vision and guiding principles for the harmonious development of India-Bangladesh’s relations in the future.

Since the last visit in 1997 by Indian Prime Minister Gujral, the relationship has moved forward in a spasmodic manner with little trust built between the two countries. Indeed, most of the problems present when Bangladesh was created in 1971 still remain, such as disputed maritime boundaries and water resources, and a lack of trade concessions and facilitation. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s January 2010 visit to New Delhi took concrete steps in finding solutions to these issues. Last year, India extended its landmark $1 billion line of credit to Bangladesh, primarily to upgrade its road and rail connectivity to India. In line with that agreement, Bangladesh has taken steps in countering anti-Indian insurgent groups along its borders. It now looks to India to meet its commitments on other outstanding issues. Only in the last few months following Indian Finance Minister Pranab Mukharji’s visit have some of the projects from the credit loan started in real earnest. Only through speedy delivery of these projects will it be possible for the two sides to ward off the negativity in the relationship and encourage a more bipartisan view in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh’s population now stands at close to 150 million and will double in the next 50 years. At the same time, effects from climate change, such as rising sea level, threaten to flood low-lying delta land along the Meghna, Ganges, and Brahmaputra rivers, putting pressure on land and swelling economic migrants who continue to illegally enter India. According to latest census figures, India’s population is at 1.2 billion and growing. Both countries have a huge youth bulge.

Bangladesh riverside

Rising sea levels threaten to flood low-lying delta land along the Meghna, Ganges, and Brahmaputra rivers, putting pressure on land and swelling economic migrants who continue to leave Bangladesh for India. Photo by Srabani Roy.

To further improve the India-Bangladesh relationship, the governments will also have to address two important perceptions: that India gives too much attention to only one neighbor – Pakistan – to Bangladesh’s detriment; and second, the imperative that forward-looking relations require bipartisan support within the two countries. While in India this is not an issue, in Bangladesh it still remains elusive. The continuing feeling of neglect in the Bangladeshi psyche despite a discernable positive movement in the last two years is a matter for concern in New Delhi. Nevertheless, Indian Foreign Minister Krishna’s visit to Dhaka early this month was well received and started the process of changing this sentiment.

A vibrant and mutually beneficial relationship with Bangladesh is critical if India is to better economically integrate its Northeastern states with the mainland and the sub-region, which stretch beyond Bangladesh’s borders. Such a relationship could also help India realize its decades-old “Look East” policy toward ASEAN.  Similarly, while international arbitration is being pursued on the disputed maritime boundary, a joint effort to agree on sharing the maritime resources of the Bay of Bengal could provide an effective approach to finally solving this issue. It is understood that both India and Bangladesh are working diligently to complete demarcation of the small section that remains on their land boundary, to mitigate the effects of unauthorized border crossings and smuggling and to look at a follow up to the existing Ganges agreement.

Laying down an overarching vision will provide a frame of reference for the future and reinforce the political will of the two countries to set bilateral relations on a mutually beneficial and sustainable direction.

Rajendra Abhyankar is The Asia Foundation’s advisor in India. He can be reached at rabhyankar@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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