2021 is marked as the golden jubilee, the birth centenary of the great leader of Bangladesh Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as well as the 50th anniversary of Indo-Bangladesh bilateral relations. This is a unique historical moment for the contemporary history of Bangladesh. The book published this year titled “Fifty Years of Bangladesh-India Relations: issues, challenges and possibilities” written by Md. Shariful Islam. He is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Rajshahi, Bangladesh and a PhD scholar at South Asian University, New Delhi. So far, a lot of studies have been conducted on Bangladesh-India relations; many books have been written that are being studied in the international arena, however, most of the books and research are produced by the Indian scholars. On the eve of the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh, this book is written by a Bangladeshi writer on the personal initiative of the author. After five years of rigorous and extensive research and analysis, the book has finally been published by Pentagon Press LLP, New Delhi. What is the uniqueness of the book and why does one need to study the book?
The book consists of 11 chapters, including Introduction and Conclusion that unearths the issues, challenges and possibilities of the Bangladesh-India bilateral relations. As a student of International Relations, most of the time I have to face hurdles to access different bilateral issues as there is paucity of scholarship. In the book, most of the bilateral issues from the 1972 Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) to the 2015 implementation, the issues of border killing and water disputes to the present time Covid-19 cooperation, are included in a comprehensive manner acknowledging different perspectives. Most importantly, the author discusses the possibilities and essence of bilateral relations in the military, maritime, energy and institutional sectors with respective recommendations. Following the introductory remarks, the second chapter briefs the fifty years of diplomatic relations face ups and downs in its trajectory. However, the economic ties between the countries have been upgraded to a new height during the last decades.
In chapter three, the emerging development partnership has been classified into four segments- trade, institutional/infrastructural development, investment and energy cooperation. The accumulated bilateral trade accounted for US $10.25 billion in the 2018-19 fiscal year. The investment opportunities have also been widened. In February 2019, the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (ECNEC) had approved a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) involving the acquisition of 1,000 acres of land in Chattogram’s Mirsarai for the Indian Investors. In the energy and service sectors, a number of Memorandum of Understanding (MoUs) have also been signed. “This chapter contends that millions of people across borders are immensely benefitted from this partnership” (p.45). However, the chapter concludes by arguing that “a strong political will on the Indian side is necessary to reduce the trade gap and widen development partnership” (p.63).
Chapter four examines the bilateral security cooperation under four dimensions- military security, combating terrorism, maritime cooperation and cyber security. For instance, in 2014, India offered 123 courses to Bangladesh defense personneland availed 14 courses offered by Bangladesh along with military exercises and visits. In combating terrorism and maritime security, both the countries are jointly working since 2010. To face the new challenges of cyber security, Bangladesh and India signed an MoU on cyber security in 2017. To address both the traditional and non-traditional security challenges, bilateral cooperation between the two close neighbors is a must, as the chapter argues.
The next chapters reflect on the bilateral issues of border, water and connectivity. The author meticulously identifies and discusses the key challenges of the border issue, i.e. border killings, smuggling, women and children trafficking and border tensions. The book prescribes for ensuring strong commitment, promoting border cooperation as well as awareness to address border challenges. Water sharing disputes are one of the thorns of the bilateral relations. Lack of Indian interest and information, domestic politics and considering “water as scarce resources and rivers as national” are the main obstacles of a substantial solution of the age-old water disputes. The book elucidates the importance of hydro-diplomacy and joint research along with the role of the academic and media in creating a knowledge-based discourse on the water issue. The author also lucidly explains the recent hallmark development in Bangladesh-India connectivity which impacts millions across borders.
In chapter eight, the author explains the role of civil society, i.e. academia, media, business lobby groups and think tanks in Bangladesh-India relations. The author argues that “the media needs to play a constructive role in resolving long-standing disputes, i.e., water sharing disputes, border killings, and trade imbalance. The media, especially the Indian media, needs to be more sensitive and constructive on Bangladesh affairs” (p.149). The author emphasizes that “Indian media needs to cover Bangladesh’s concerns on a regular basis so that India’s policy community becomes more sensitive and thus take up effective policies to address those issues for mutual gain” (p.149).
Chapter nine unfolds the “China factor” in the Indo-Bangla bilateral relations. Since the visit of China’s President Xi Jinping in October 2016 that resulted in 27 deals worth US$ 24.45 billion, India has been concerned that China has been “targeting all of India’s friendly neighbors”. While China has become an essential development partner of Bangladesh, India is lagging behind. For instance, Indian investment in Bangladesh is about US $3 billion while China’s investment is US $26 billion, with a funding commitment of about US$ 38 billion. The volume of Bangladesh-China trade was worth US $18 billion in 2019, while the Bangladesh-India trade volume amounted to approximately US $10 billion. The author suggests that “it is essential to maintain good relations with India and China for [Bangladesh’s] continued growth, prosperity, and development” (p.153). The author concludes by arguing that despite Bangladesh’s improved relations with China, India should not be worried as Bangladesh maintains close and friendly relations with both India and China.
The next chapter traces at least three implications of Covid-19 in the Bangladesh-India ties. First, the volume of bilateral trade was worth US $2 billion during April-May in 2019 which decreased to US $421 million in 2020. Second, the policy priorities of the two countries will be affected by the pandemic and lastly, the book critically examines that the coronavirus crisis might affect the contemporary terrorism in “10 different ways” in the short, medium and long terms.
In the final chapter, the book offers some recommendations to strengthen the bilateral relations through accelerating the existing development partnership, advanced role of civil society, nurturing people-to-people contact and constructive cooperation in the post-Covid world. The book concludes by arguing that “Bangladesh and India need each other for peace, prosperity, security, and development” (p.178).
No scholarship is beyond its limitations. First, the implications of the Rohingya crisis in the bilateral relations and in what way they should cooperate to address the potential threat of regional peace and stability could be widely addressed. Second, the issue of “illegal migration” is not covered and could also be discussed. Overall, grounded in solid theoretical and empirical evidence, the author offers an insightful and critical analysis of the challenges and prospects of the Bangladesh-India bilateral relations. The book is recommended as it will unleash new horizons of thought both in the state and people perspective.
*Shaikh Abdur Rahman is a research assistant at Central Foundation for International Strategic Studies (CFISS) based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He is a graduate of the University of Rajshahi, where he focused on human security issues, Economic Diplomacy, and South Asian Politics; his work has appeared in modern diplomacy, Eurasia Review, International Policy Digest, and many other publications.