The ups and Downs of

Bangladesh - India relations

Mostafa Faruque Mohammed

As the Congress led United Progressive Alliance Government came to power in Delhi in May 2004 official level contacts between Bangladesh and India showed a marked spurt. In the short span of six months Bangladesh had sent its Foreign Minister to India twice. Among other Ministers to visit India since May 2004 were the Minister of Finance and Planning, the Minister of Commerce, the Minister of Health and the State Minister for Civil Aviation and Tourism. Barring in the few initial years of our independence such intensity of ministerial visits from Dhaka to Delhi was somewhat unexpected. They no doubt reflected Dhaka's desire to upgrade its interaction with the new Indian Government. They also served to cover up its nervousness born of the perception about traditional proclivity of the Congress Governments in Delhi towards a particular political party in Bangladesh.

Thus, when following the grenade attack of 21 August 2004 on the Awami League rally Indian Prime Minister conveyed his sympathy directly to Sheikh Hasina and not to his counterpart, the knee-jerk reaction of our Foreign Office clearly demonstrated its disappointment. Bangladesh Foreign Minister did not mince words to warn of the impropriety of a neighboring country (read, India) conversing with a particular party instead of with the nation as a whole”. Apparently, Dhaka felt that Delhi was not reciprocating its overtures.

The straw on the camel's back came by way of New Delhi's unilateral decision to ask for a postponement of the 13th SAARC Summit scheduled in Dhaka on 6-7 February 2005. The South Block, Indian Ministry of External Affairs, explained that the decision was taken against the background of developments in Nepal and “the continuing and deteriorating security situation in Bangladesh”.

Dhaka understandably took umbrage at this “unwarranted and unexpected decision of the government of India”. Dhaka accused Delhi of holding the seven-nation association "hostage to bilateral considerations” and to have retracted its commitment to the SAARC charter. Concerned that its worst fears are about to come true, a visibly disillusioned Dhaka took to infusing fresh momentum to its Look East Policy of diplomacy and moved full throttle to vamp up relations with ASEAN countries, China and others.

Thus began the year 2005 with relations between Bangladesh and India discernibly strained. However, for a long time observer of Bangladesh-India relations the situation was not diametrically different from what existed many other times in the past. Relations between the two countries have for long been marked by suspicion and mistrust, if not outright hostility, with only occasional patches of warmth like some oases in the vast expanse of deserts. It was during one such patch in December 1996 that the 30-year Ganges Water Sharing Treaty was signed between the two countries. Not another major agreement or treaty has been inked by the two since, save, for instance, agreements on such mundane issues as introduction of direct bus services, etc. Even the statutory regular meetings of Joint Economic Commission and the Joint Rivers Commission have not been held. Neither have there been regular meetings of the Joint Working Group on Trade and the Joint Boundary Working Groups. The 1980 Bilateral Trade Agreement went on being renewed on quarterly and bi-monthly bases. For over a decade now the long proposed bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement eluded Ministerial signatures. For a long time now there has not been any bilateral Head of Government level visits between the two countries as is wont between two close neighbors. The highest level visits are undertaken to sort out many problems that appear intractable at bureaucratic and even at Ministerial levels.

In this backdrop the Foreign Office consultations held in New Delhi in June 2005 came as a big relief. The last such Secretary level consultations were held more than two years ago in Dhaka in April 2003. As is wont the consultations in 2005 too covered the entire gamut of Bangladesh-India relations, including outstanding issues of border, common rivers, cross border crimes, trade and investment, etc.

Khaleda-Manmohan during the 13th SAARC Summit

Over the years the relative importance, impact and intensity of these issues have changed. In certain cases with the passage of time respective positions of the two countries have hardened. This has also happened with the change of players and on occasions with the change of goal posts. There have at times been elaborate charades of negotiations with each side playing to their respective domestic galleries. As a result lasting solutions on most of the issues have not been possible. Though they have not exploded into large-scale conflicts so far some close shave situations occurred from time to time when isolated localized skirmishes turned rather nasty.

Big conflicts have been averted thanks mainly to political level intervention in the nick of time. However, courageous and statesmanlike initiatives from either side have been lacking to resolve the issues.

There has been no let up in reciprocal accusations by both countries about harboring of insurgents and miscreants in camps in the other country in spite of repeated reiteration of commitment not to allow their territory to be used for activities inimical to each other's interests. India has expressly appreciated stern action taken by Bangladesh at northeastern borders to prevent Indian insurgents entering Bangladesh. The two Border forces have also begun coordinated patrolling of the non-riverine border areas. India has additionally put up barbed wire fence along 1,357 km, the so-called sensitive stretches of the border, and will cover a further 2,429.5 km by 2006. Contrary to the perception Bangladesh is not averse to India's fencing of the border per se, provided the fence remains beyond 150 yards of the zero line as per the provision of 1975 Border Guidelines. The two countries have also agreed to increase vigil with a view to checking drug trafficking, arms smuggling and trafficking in women and children.

Water Issues
Bangladesh and India have some 54 rivers in common. Disagreements over the sharing of the lean season flows of the Ganges and the Teesta have been most problematic. In December 1996, as if with an opportune constellation of stars, the two Governments signed the 30-year Treaty on Sharing of the Ganges Waters which helped remove the most intractable dispute that had soured Bangladesh-India relations for over three decades. The Indo-Bangladesh Joint Rivers Commission, JRC, had worked out an ad hoc arrangement in 1983 for sharing the dry season flows of the Teesta, but failed to arrive at a permanent, or a long term, arrangement. There thus looms a potential crisis. The two sides have developed various projects along the river. In future when these projects will reach their “full capacity” a conflict over the Teesta appears inevitable as joint management of the river is bound to give rise to contentious issues.

Recently one mega-project of India of linking the major rivers in the country has caused a great deal of unease in Bangladesh. The controversial project would link 14 Himalayan tributaries of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra in northern India and Nepal and divert their flows south to replenish 17 southern rivers. The massive diversion of waters from the main rivers that sustain the economic life of Bangladesh would cause incalculable harm to the country. Although the project received the support of all major political parties of India and the Supreme Court, experts and environmentalists in India have voiced strong reservations. A former Water Resources Secretary of India has dismissed the project as "technological hubris". Official quarters in India have assured Bangladesh that the project was still in a conceptual stage and that India would not take any unilateral action that would harm the interest of Bangladesh. However, Bangladeshis at large do not appear to have been fully reassured. They would, therefore, like to see an iron clad assurance and a total de-linking of the Himalayan rivers from the project.

Trade and Investment issues
The issue, which has continued to cause resentment in Bangladesh, is the chronic and steadily rising trade deficit with India. In 2003-04 alone Bangladesh imports from India topped $1.6 billion when its exports were a paltry $89 million. In addition there has also been a flourishing illegal border trade or smuggling, of more or less comparable size, and equally unbalanced.

Given the relative size of their economies, productive capacities and the trade base Bangladesh will continue to have a deficit trade balance with India even if India were to grant all tariff, non-tariff and para-tariff concessions Bangladesh has asked for. Bangladesh has to develop an efficient and dynamic manufacturing sector and ensure a much larger export basket than at present. The political fall out in Bangladesh of the deficit issue is nonetheless substantial and something got to be done to reduce the deficit. As expected the 13th SAARC summit held in Dhaka in November 2005 confirmed the commitment of SAARC leaders to the launching of the South Asian Free Trade Agreement by 1 January 2006. Additionally, a bilateral Free Trade Agreement between Bangladesh and India will also help.

A couple of other related proposals are also on the table for some time now. One is export of gas to India. Others are, granting of transit or transshipment facilities to India overland through Bangladesh territory, allowing the use of Chittagong port for trade of Northeast Indian states with Indian states to the west of Bangladesh and with other countries and finally to allow transportation of Mayanmar gas to India by a pipeline through the territory of Bangladesh.

There is no doubt that fees and other incomes accruing from transit/transshipment through Bangladesh, from the tri-nation gas pipeline and the use of Chittagong port would greatly ease Bangladesh's trade imbalance with India. Further, if India is given transit/transshipment facilities Indian investment in building the necessary infrastructure would also improve the balance of payments position of Bangladesh. However, the issue of transit has become a politically sensitive issue rater than economic one. Many in Bangladesh believe that the grant of transit facilities would be tantamount to cut Bangladesh in two to make for an Indian corridor.

The tri-nation gas pipeline project, initial affirmative signals notwithstanding, has also met some snags. Bangladesh would consider allowing the pipeline from Mayanmar to India provided Delhi allowed Dhaka transit right for its exports to Nepal and let it buy hydropower from Bhutan and Nepal. To India these are conditions extraneous to the tri-nation pipeline project. It seems there would have to be hard bargaining before the pipeline project comes through. The project holds enormous implications for beneficial regional economic cooperation in South Asia, which has for long been held hostage to regional politics.

As for export of gas to India to reduce the trade deficit the Bangladesh position is that recoverable reserves of gas in the country are too low to warrant an export of gas. As such Bangladesh has opted for a prudent policy to go for maximum value addition to its only major natural resource within the country.

This being the overall situation, to expect any drastic improvement in Bangladesh-India relations in the near future will be over ambitious. In the periods preceding and following the Foreign Office consultations in June 2005 both sides are seen to be making conscious efforts to maintain an atmosphere of express good neighborly interaction, which by all accounts is an encouraging phenomenon.

Any lowering of the level of suspicion and distrust between the two neighbors is always a welcome development.

To start with the two countries must lower the level of rhetoric while speaking on bilateral issues. Unnecessary recourse to the press to score a point or two before the domestic gallery should be avoided.

Isolated border incidents have a tendency to get magnified in the media of both countries. A certain level of media management will be advisable for the sake of good relations. Infringements of the border guidelines often get out of local control and create untenable implications for relations between the two countries. There must be immediate political level intervention to nip the slightest sign of intemperance at the border.

There should be more and frequent political level visits between the two countries, if necessary, with at little of protocol formalities. High level visits by themselves are seen as proof of good relations and contribute to deepen and broaden them.

Both sides should also take visible measures to encourage and carry forward every constructive initiative of cooperation. India's Tata Group has taken a commendable initiative to invest in Bangladesh by formally proposing to invest $2.5 billion in the country to set up a power plant, a steel plant and fertilizer plant.

Every single issue of discord between Bangladesh and India is amenable to peaceful resolution through dialogue. There is also a bipartisan desire on both sides to sort these issues out. What is needed is unambiguous determination by both sides to broaden and deepen their contacts and resolve the irritants through dialogue using the agreed institutional mechanisms wherever they exist and where there is none yet, to devise them without delay.

The author was Bangladesh High Commissioner to India.

©, 2006. All Rights Reserved