Sheikh Hasina's visit is opportunity for India to iron out sticking points in bilateral relations with 'fast friend' Bangladesh

  • Bangladesh, erstwhile East Pakistan, is also one of India's largest trade partner in South Asia, with bilateral trade amounting to around $9.3 billion in 2017-18

  • The country has also been one of India's long-term collaborators in the development and power sectors

  • The rosey picture on India's eastern border notwithstanding, Hasina's current visit carries the weight of unaddressed issues between New Delhi and Dhaka

Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina arrived in India on Thursday for a four-day visit to strengthen bilateral ties between the two "fast friends" amid an undercurrent of unease regarding the Centre's National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise in Assam, which is pointedly aimed at identifying and deporting illegal "infiltrators" from Bangladesh.

As part of her first official engagement on Thursday, she will participate as the chief guest in the India Economic Summit being organised by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in New Delhi. On Saturday, Hasina will meet President Ram Nath Kovind and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, ANI reported.

This is Hasina's first visit to India after the conclusion of general elections in India and Bangladesh. She won with a landslide majority when Bangladesh went to the polls in December last year, which gave her a third consecutive term as the prime minister. In the course of her stay in India, some "agreements" will be exchanged and the two premiers are also likely to jointly inaugurate three bilateral projects via video link.

Hasina's visit is in line with the "warm" relations that the two South Asian powers share, both of whom are part of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) fora.

On 27 September, Bangladesh supported India's call for "zero-tolerance" approach to terrorism when Modi and Hasina met on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York. The two neighbours also noted that "strong ties in the security sector had built trust and mutual confidence between the two countries".

'Friendly' relations

 Sheikh Hasinas visit is opportunity for India to iron out sticking points in bilateral relations with fast friend Bangladesh

Bangladesh — erstwhile East Pakistan — is also one of India's largest trade partner in South Asia, with bilateral trade amounting to around $9.3 billion in 2017-18.

One of India's long-term collaborators in the development and power sectors, Bangladesh is also "India's largest development partner with New Delhi extending three lines of credit worth a total of $8 billion since 2010," a Firstpost piece noted. "Collaboration in the power sector is another notable aspect of the relationship, with joint ventures in thermal power projects and the fact that Bangladesh imports 1160 MW of power from India annually," the piece further notes.

India has supported Dhaka and has contributed to building strong bilateral relations and it's illustrated by the amicable resolution of two border disputes in 2014 and 2015. New Delhi's closeness with Dhaka is also offset by the "flip-flop" of Nepal and Sri Lanka, two of the other major members of the SAARC forum.

Nepal prime minister KP Oli's "cosmetic" visit to India in April 2018 was followed closely for a few reasons. The Diplomat, in this piece, notes, "His (Oli's) anti-India rhetoric during the campaign season, his determination to expand cooperation with China to decrease dependency on India, and the strong expectation that he would try to resolve several pending contentious issues with India." Additionally, Bangladesh finds favour with New Delhi because of its strategic distance from tensions between India and China, "without giving either country the cold shoulder".

Further, as this Firstpost piece noted, "while the Bangladeshi port of Chittagong features prominently in China's Maritime Silk Route, for now, Dhaka is unlikely to do a flip-flop with New Delhi and throw its doors open to Beijing. An aversion to falling into a deep sinkhole of debt may have a key role to play in that. Instead, the greater risk comes from a stagnation — followed by a gradual deterioration — of relations stemming from India's unwillingness to reciprocate Bangladesh's apparent willingness to address New Delhi's concerns or its domestic policies that end up hurting Bangladeshi interests."

In recent times, amid condemnation for India from certain sections of the international community over the Centre's contentious decision to abrogate Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, Bangladesh echoed New Delhi's stand that the issue was an internal matter only. On the issue, which has been a new thorn in the side of India's equation with Pakistan, Dhaka asserted that "maintaining regional peace and stability should be a priority for all countries."

The joint developmental projects in Bangladesh, which included an agreement regarding the import and export of power between the two countries, have strengthened a 'big sister-small sister' equation between New Delhi and Dhaka.

In March 2019, Modi, lauding Hasina for her "vision" which he said is the "biggest inspiration for stronger connectivity between India and Bangladesh", jointly inaugurated four projects in the health, transport, and education.

Asserting that India-Bangladesh relations were playing a "key role" in "improving the quality of life for people", Modi had said, "The National Knowledge Network will connect scholars and research institutes in Bangladesh to India and the world. The buses and trucks would assist the efforts towards affordable public transportation, water treatment plants will help supply clean water, and community clinics will benefit about two lakh people in Bangladesh."

sheikh haseena in india - PTI 2

NRC, Rohingya refugees, and Teesta river; possible sticking points?

The rosey picture on India's eastern border notwithstanding, Hasina's current visit carries the weight of unaddressed issues between New Delhi and Dhaka. Despite Bangladesh's consistent patience on the unease around the NRC project in Assam, India's silence on the forced exodus of Rohingyas from Myanmar (which is also a crucial factor in India's 'Act East policy'), and the long-standing impasse over the Teesta river water sharing.

However, diplomats are of the opinion that the issues could be addressed in the upcoming meeting between Hasina and Modi. Bangladesh high commissioner to India, Syed Muazzem Ali, was quoted by The Dhaka Tribune as saying that apart from inking agreements in various sectors, both countries are expected to review the Rohingya and Teesta river water sharing issues.

"Prime Minister Hasina and her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi may definitely discuss different issues, including the Teesta as well as Rohingyas," he said.

India's distance from the "ethnic cleansing" against the Rohingya community in Myanmar, a cause that Bangladesh has not only been vocal about but has also extended assistance to the ostracised community, has not gone down well with Dhaka. India also abstained from voting on a UN resolution — sponsored by Bangladesh and the EU — that would take Naypyitaw to task for human rights violations.

Additionally, the resolution to issues around the NRC might not be as smooth a process as the bilateral relations have been, with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dialing up the rhetoric on illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in Assam and West Bengal, especially emphatic after a massive win in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

The NRC was a significant part of the BJP's campaign for a second term, with now-Home Minister Amit Shah having referred to illegal migrants from Bangladesh as "termites" and saying that his party "will throw them out after coming to power at the Centre for a second consecutive term".

Officials are also likely hoping that an effort from India to resolve the Teesta river issue will offset Hasina's unease over NRC, over which the Bangladesh prime minister had expressed "great concern" over the citizen registry exercise. In October 2018, Hasina, in an interview had said that she had spoken to Modi about the concern and added, "He told me that they have no plan to send them (illegal migrants) back."

Hence, with the state-wide NRC exercise having been concluded in August with the publication of the final list of citizens, Hasina's visit assumes more significance.

West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee's recent meeting with Modi is a study in nuance in the context of India's relation with Bangladesh. While the thaw in tensions between the Centre and Mamata are speculated to be to do with the 2021 Bengal Assembly polls, and the fate of former Kolkata Police chief Rajeev Kumar, Modi is likely to use it as leverage to get Mamata's cooperation in easing the Teesta river water sharing issue.

With inputs from agencies

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Updated Date: Oct 03, 2019 18:50:59 IST