The agreements signed between India and Bangladesh during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s four-day visit to India last month reflect the intensification of bilateral relations- evolving towards a robust partnership- between the two neighbors. The agreements, seven in number, covered a wide range of issues of mutual interest starting from joint coastal surveillance system to improving rail, road and air connectivity, securing international border and educational and cultural exchanges among other things. A Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) allowing India to use Chattogram and Mongla ports for movement of goods and an agreement pertaining to supply of 1.82 cusec water from Feni River to Sabroom town in Tripura as part of drinking water scheme were also signed. All these issue-areas, covered by these agreements, are of crucial importance from strategic point of view as they would help India achieve greater security and connectivity in the neighborhood and checkmate China’s growing presence in the region.
A New Cooperative Security Framework
Bangladesh joined the list of countries such as Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles where India is building coastal surveillance network. As part of the understanding, India is to install a network of 24 radar systems along the coastline of Bangladesh that would boost India’s maritime security helping it to detect and deter any attack from the sea. This surveillance mechanism would not only reduce India’s vulnerability vis-à-vis China but also facilitate expansion of its maritime presence. To augment security in the bordering areas, both sides have agreed to complete the fencing of the border at the earliest. While on the issue of Rohingyas, India assured full support to ensure their speedy and safe reparation to Myanmar, it tried its best to assuage Bangladesh’s concerns regarding implementation of National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam. Interestingly, the NRC issue was not mentioned in the joint statement reflecting the enhanced level of understanding between the leadership of the two countries.
The Sheikh Hasina regime, despite deep resentment from domestic fundamentalist elements, has adopted a ‘zero tolerance policy’ against terrorism and has come out openly in support of India’s tirade against cross-border terrorist activities being perpetrated by Pakistan. It was one of the first countries to support India on the issue of abrogation of Article 370 terming it as purely ‘an internal matter’. Also, post the 2016 terror attack, it has launched massive campaign to root out all terrorist networks and groups allegedly supported by Pakistan’s intelligence agency ISI. Hasina has repeatedly emphasized that her government would not allow any terrorist or terrorist group to operate from Bangladesh against any state or people, including India. During their first meeting after respective reelections, on the sidelines of the 74th UN General Assembly session, both Modi and Hasina reiterated their ‘firm resolve against terrorism and violent extremism’ and the need for establishing an effective framework of ‘security cooperation’. Bangladesh’s tough stand and its unflinching support to India against cross-border terrorism augur well for India’s strategic interests, especially in the north-east region and would pave the way for establishing a strong, effective and mutually-beneficial security mechanism.
Connectivity was one of the key areas of focus during the summit last month as both countries are keen to revive and restore road, rail and water links that existed prior to the partition of the subcontinent. Realizing the immense potential of cargo trade through inland waterways and coastal shipping routes, Bangladesh, apart from allowing India to use two of its major ports for movement of goods, has taken steps to operationalize the Dhulian-Gadagari-Rajshahi-Daulatdia-Aricha Route (to and from) that includes Daudkandi-Sonamura Route (to and from), under the Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade. Both countries also agreed for expediting the operationalization of the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) Motor Vehicles Agreement for movement of goods and passengers through the road network between the member countries and also move s towards a bilateral India-Bangladesh Motor Vehicles Agreement. While it has been decided to increase the frequency of Maitree Express from 4 to 5 times per week and that of Bandhan Express from 1 to 2 per week, Dhaka-Siliguri bus service would commence soon, facilitating people-to-people movement and exchanges between the two countries. The joint statement issued during the visit harped on enhancing connectivity, among other things, while emphasizing ‘an all-encompassing relationship transcending beyond strategic partnership’.
Strengthening the educational-cultural connect further, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina jointly inaugurated Vivekananda Bhaban (students’ hostel) at Ramakrishna Mission in Dhaka, Bangladesh-India Professional Skill Development Institute (BIPSDI) at the Institution of Diploma Engineers Bangladesh (IDEB) in Khulna and bulk import of LPG from Bangladesh to northeast India.
India and Bangladesh, after a period of estrangement, have come a long way to reach this stage where they share each other’s concerns and are keen to move unitedly towards a common future. Being a member of both SAARC and BIMSTEC, Bangladesh is an important neighbor that can play the most crucial role for the success of India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ and ‘Act East’ policies. India also looks towards Bangladesh as a reliable ‘energy partner’ that can help it fulfil its burgeoning energy requirements, especially in the natural gas sector. With India making strenuous efforts to establish greater connectivity and economic engagement with South East Asian countries, using its north-eastern part as a gateway, Bangladesh may emerge as its strongest partner.
*** The author is Director of Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies and currently working as assistant professor of political science at Ravenshaw University ***