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Sheikh Hasina arrives in Delhi: A look back at India-Bangladesh relations over the years

Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina has landed in India. She was received at the airport by her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, who tweeted:

Ahead of this significant state visit, it's worth revisiting relations between the two South Asian neighbours:

India and Bangladesh, two South Asian democracies, neighbours with the longest common border of over 4,000 km have shared a complex equation with their share of highs and lows in the last few years. The partners in progress and development and have, over the last seven years, been able to sketch out an increasingly deepening engagement trajectory. India was the first country to recognise Bangladesh as a separate and independent state and established diplomatic relations with the country immediately after its independence in December 1971. India’s connections with Bangladesh are cultural, social, civilisational and economic.

President Pranab Mukherjee said on Wednesday, "It is a matter of satisfaction that the close relations between India and Bangladesh have substantially expanded in recent years. We have succeeded in enhancing and intensifying our cooperation in areas of our shared interest."

Sheikh Hasina with Narendra Modi. PTI

File image of Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi. PTI

However, according to a Hindu Business Line report, Bangladesh-India relations are perhaps the most complex bilateral equations in the subcontinent. Despite its role in Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, India is often seen as serving its own self-interests against neighbouring Pakistan. Here are some of the primary issues that define their tumultous equation.

Border issues

Illegal immigration has always been a primary problem for India since the partition of Bengal. In view of this, recently, the Supreme Court asked the Centre complete the fencing of the India-Bangladesh border soon to check illegal immigration from Bangladesh into Assam. The apex court on Wednesday also directed it to release funds for it.

A bench of Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice RF Nariman was told by the Centre that on 10 March, the Expenditure and Finance Committee would have a meeting, which would also be attended by Home Secretary, to decide the issue of releasing funds.

In March, the Border Security Force (BSF) had sounded a high alert all along the India-Bangladesh border in view of a terror attack in Bangladesh. Apart from terror attacks, cattle smuggling ia slo an issue. On 3 March, more than 100 head of cattle were seized and a Bangladeshi smuggler arrested along the India-Bangladesh border in Meghalaya, a BSF official said. Border Security Force (BSF) spokesman Sushil Kumar Singh had said 107 head of cattle, meant to be smuggled to Bangladesh, were captured from South West Garo Hills and East Khasi Hills districts on Thursday night.

The Insitute of Defence Studies and Analysis says, a report sent by the Bangladesh government to India’s Ministry of Home Affairs noted that approximately 2,010 operatives of the Harkat ul Jihad al Islami – Bangladesh (HUJI-B) and Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) had entered India through the porous India-Bangladesh border. While nearly 720 men made a safe passage through the Bengal border, the remaining 1,290 are suspected to have entered through Assam and Tripura. The number of such infiltrations through the Indo-Bangladesh border in 2014 and 2015 stood at 800 and 659, respectively.

"Cattle haats along the India-Bangladesh border are becoming a source of cattle for smuggling," Singh said, even as he revealed that there is sudden spurt of cattle smuggling in Garo Hills region.
The BSF has increased its vigil at border keeping in view of the increased attempts of cattle smugglers, he added.

Teesta row

Both India and Bangladesh, as good neighbours, have moved forward on other sectors like power, investment and security but the Teesta waters issue remains a vexed problem. Though an agreement on sharing of the Teesta waters was drafted ahead of then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Bangladesh, it was withdrawn at the last moment when West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee protested against the accord. Banerjee's position is that the treaty would render north Bengal dry and affect Indian farmers. She is of the view that with Bangladesh having its largest irrigation project, the Teesta Barrage, running, the country does not deserve more water.

Despite the bilateral bonhomie, Bangladesh is unhappy about the lack of resolution on all the common rivers. While India did put the river Teesta on the bilateral discussion table, the federal political dynamics has prevented the Centre from resolving the issue of water-sharing overruling Bengal's position. Irrespective of the number of outstanding bilateral issues being resolved, lack of resolution on the contentious issue of sharing of common river waters tends to create despair if not suspicion of India's intention in Bangladesh. This issue has been rankling since 2015 and a recent attempt by the Narendra Modi government to renegotiate with Bengal over this appears to have drawn a blank. While New Delhi can legitimately move ahead on a bilateral resolution, it may not want to give Bengal, led by the feisty Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, a handle to spin yet another round of dance and drama just now as she had done earlier over the Teesta water-sharing issue.

Though Banerjee is scheduled to join a banquet dinner hosted by Mukherjee in honour of Hasina, she will not attend the bilateral summit to be held at Hyderabad House. Though a host of bilateral agreements are expected to be signed during Hasina's visit to India a key agreement on Teesta waters about which there has been wide speculation is unlikely to be inked, it is reliably learnt. The Teesta waters issue apart, the Bangladesh side is also very keen about a Ganga Barrage and talks in this regard are expected during the summit.

Bilateral Trade

India-Bangladesh relations have seen a steady growth in trade in the last few years. According to the data of Ministry of External Affairs, India’s exports to Bangladesh in 2015-16 (July-June) were US$ 5452.90 million and imports from Bangladesh during the same period were US$ 689.62 million. In the five years (from FY 2011-12 to FY 2015-16), total trade between the two countries has grown by more than 17%. More details on bilateral trade statistics are on the website of High Commission of India in Dhaka. There are more than 50 bilateral institutional mechanisms between India and Bangladesh.

Connectivity is another issue of mutual interest and an MoU is likely to be signed on running passenger and goods trains which will be of benefit to Bangladesh and northeast India.

India-Bangladesh border. Reuters

India-Bangladesh border. Reuters

Ahead of Hasina's visit to India this week, the Union Cabinet on Wednesday approved various bilateral MoUs on river transport, judicial cooperation, audio-visual cooperation and media.

Among these Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) is one on the development of Ashuganj-Zakiganj stretch of Kushiyara river and Sirajganj-Daikhawa stretch of the Jamuna river to improve connectivity between the two countries.  An official release said the MoU will help reduce logistics cost of cargo movement to northeast India and also reduce congestion through the Siliguri's Chicken's Neck corridor.

Both countries will undertake necessary dredging jointly via the India-Bangladesh protocol route. Another MoU pertains to passenger cruise services on coastal and protocol routes between India and Bangladesh to ferry people on water crafts between the two countries.

The MoU that got the nod aims at strengthening mutual cooperation between the judiciaries of the two countries through exchange of knowledge in infrastructure and information technology.

During Hasina's visit, a bus service and a train service between Kolkata and Khulna will also be launched as a rail link from Radhikapur in north Bengal.

Defence and power

Among the 25 to 30 agreements that are expected to be signed during the visit, there will be two memorandums of understanding on defence. While an MoU will be signed on defence cooperation under which New Delhi will extend a line of credit of $500 million to Dhaka to buy defence equipment from India, the second MoU will be on setting up training colleges.

Cooperation on defence training between India and Bangladesh has been very strong with a set of standard operating procedures in place. Energy cooperation between the two sides has also shown a lot of positivity with India already transmitting additional power to its eastern neighbour.

Tripura is ready to supply an additional 60 MW of power to Bangladesh. The transmission is likely to start during Hasina's four-day visit to India, a Mminister said here on Thursday. "We are ready to supply the additional 60 MW power to Bangladesh. Our engineers have tested the transmission lines... and given an okay," Tripura Power and Transport Minister Manik Dey said.

He said: "Since last week, on experimental basis, additional electricity was supplied to Bangladesh for several days. Formal supply of power is likely to start during Hasina's visit that begins on Friday."

Tripura has been supplying 100 MW of electricity to Bangladesh since 23 March, 2016, in addition to the 500 MW the country is receiving from West Bengal since 2013. According to the minister, NTPC Vidyut Vyapar Nigam Ltd (NVVN) and Tripura State Electricity Corporation Ltd (TSECL) are the two nodal agencies who will coordinate supply of electricity to Bangladesh.

"Bangladesh has sought additional 100 MW electricity from India to solve its power crisis in the eastern part of the country. As Tripura government was ready to provide this additional power... India informed Bangladesh accordingly," Dey said.

"Considering their existing technical feasibility now, they would take 60 MW electricity," he added.

According to a report published by The Diplomat, while Dhaka does have some legitimate grudges against New Delhi it cannot be defined  as having an anti-Indian stance, nor has the country ever neglected historical and cultural commonalities. Bangladesh has not been excessively dependent on any one neighbouring country, ensuring a degree of autonomy in its foreign policy – unlike some of India’s other neighbours.

With inputs from agencies

Updated Date: Apr 07, 2017 13:21 PM

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