By Jai Kumar Verma*
The relations between India and Bangladesh have been strengthening steadily after Narendra Modi took oath as Prime Minister over three years ago.
The cooperation enhanced in several fields including energy and bilateral trade as India accorded duty-free benefits to Bangladesh on a large number of items. India is not only assisting Bangladesh in producing electricity, it is also exporting 600 megawatt of electricity and has promised to export more if the eastern neighbour requires.
Both the countries have signed and executed Land Boundary Agreement which also sorted out the lingering enclave problem.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government is providing proactive support to India in curbing the nefarious activities of Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) in smuggling of Fake Indian Currency Notes (FICN), drug trafficking and in infiltrating terrorists across the porous India-Bangladesh border.
Sheikh Hasina also helped India in isolating Pakistan in the world arena and her refusal to attend the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit meeting in Islamabad in November last year was a positive gesture.
In view of the above, the upcoming state visit of Sheikh Hasina to India, from April 7 to 10, is significant hence Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar paid a two-day visit during the last week of February to chalk out the areas of bilateral cooperation, including border security, power, energy, shipping and railways.
It will be difficult to sort out water-sharing of Teesta and Feni rivers during the visit as West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee may not agree to the agreement. In 2011 also, Mamata had abandoned her trip to Dhaka which resulted in non-signing of the water-sharing accord.
On the other hand, Teesta river, which starts from Sikkim and goes to Bangladesh through West Bengal, is important for Bangladesh, as in December to March the water level falls to 1,000 cusecs from 5,000 cusecs.
The tense relations between Modi and Mamata further worsened after demonetisation. Hence the possibility that she would agree to water sharing with Bangladesh is remote.
In view of China’s rising interest in Bangladesh, then Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar paid a two-day visit to Dhaka in November in the first official visit of an Indian Defence Minister to Bangladesh.
So far, Bangladeshi troops get training in India and there are joint defence exercises between both the countries but India needs to develop more close defence relations with its eastern neighbour in view of China’s rising influence in Bangladesh.
China, which is the leading trading partner and fulfills more than 75 percent defence requirements of Bangladesh, recently sold two submarines equipped with lethal weapons, including torpedoes and mines, to the country. China, which has invested heavily in infrastructure projects, also promised $40 billion investment during the recent visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Hence India has to come forward in a big way to assist Bangladesh economically. Although acquiring of two old submarines may not be a wise decision, nonetheless it may be a beginning of acquisition of more lethal weapons by Bangladesh.
China views India as its potential rival hence it tries to encircle India. In the recent past, China has hardened its attitude towards India which is illustrated by China having prevented Masood Azhar being declared a terrorist by the United Nations and also blocking India becoming member of the elite Nuclear Suppliers Group.
Therefore, India must enhance defence cooperation and supply weapons required by Bangladesh. The Modi government is strengthening the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Public Sector undertakings like Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) under the ‘Make in India’ programme. The production of defence armaments may be enhanced and India will certainly be in a better position to export arms and ammunition to its neighbouring countries, especially Bangladesh, Nepal and Afghanistan.
The forthcoming visit of Sheikh Hasina is important for both the countries. The Bangladeshi public, especially the political opposition, is watching the visit with critical eyes and if Hasina is not able to achieve much, her position would decline. She wants rapid development and economic growth of the country as it is essential to control radicalisation and terrorism. India which is also on the active radar of the Islamic State and al Qaeda must assist Bangladesh so that Sheikh Hasina can curb the menace of Islamic terrorism which is also growing in Bangladesh with the sinister ISI fuelling it.
The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is important to sideline Pakistan and explicit support of Bangladesh — which hosts the BIMSTEC secretariat — is significant. Bangladesh support is also essential for the success of India’s Act East Policy.
The stalwarts of Modi government are aware about the strategic importance of the visit and they know that Hasina cannot return empty-handed. As it is difficult to resolve the Teesta river issue, India must compensate in other areas. It is expected that both the countries may sign about 18-20 agreements in various fields, including energy, space, railways and different technological areas.
The delegations of both countries would discuss rising influence of terror outfits like al Qaeda and Islamic State and intelligence-sharing would be further strengthened.
The Indian side would also raise the issue of rising atrocities on Hindus, especially in Nasirnagar where thousands of workers of Hefajat-e-Islam and Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat took out a procession against Hindus and damaged their property.
China has inculcated a strong lobby in its favour in Bangladesh. The lobby includes several important persons, including former ministers and current advisers. Analysts mention that even Hasina’s son is pro-China. India must try to wean away the rising influence of China by developing a pro-India lobby to counter influence of China and ISI.
In fact both India and Bangladesh are sufferers of ISI-sponsored terrorism. In 2015, Bangladesh expelled a Pakistani diplomat who was assisting terrorist outfits. Pakistan has emerged as a big training centre of terrorists from all over the world, especially India and Bangladesh. Hence both countries should work in tandem so that terrorism can be eradicated once for all.
India must assist Sheikh Hasina so that her position is strengthened in the country and, in turn, Bangladesh can help India in isolating terror-sponsor Pakistan and curbing Islamic terrorism in the region.
*The author is a Delhi-based strategic analyst. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to [email protected]