By Rajeev Sharma
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s maiden bilateral visit to Dhaka next month is expected to seal accords on two long-pending issues, of land boundary and sharing waters or Teesta, a major river system shared by India and Bangladesh. Beyond that, it will also set in motion the process of forging a South Asian Golden Quadrilateral, a sub-regional grouping with Nepal and Bhutan which will look forward to long-term cooperation and sharing of water resources, power and connectivity.
The bilateral ties are taking new and decisive shape at a speed that is difficult to keep pace. The neighbours, it would seem, are in a hurry to consolidate them before they face their respective electorates in 2014. Hinting at the political aspects of the current exchange of visits, a senior diplomat dealing with Bangladesh told this writer that “it is not enough to cooperate – we should be seen as cooperating.” Like it is doing it for other neighbours, be it Afghanistan or Myanmar, India has not shied away from “being seen.”
The land boundary agreement will not only change the map of India, it will be the first resolved boundary that India has with any of its neighbours. Removing snags created by the Partition in 1947 when the British left the Subcontinent, the agreement will essentially formalize the status quo on enclaves and areas under adverse possession – that is, there will be no transfer of territory or people. The 53,000 people residing in the enclaves, who have just been counted in the first ever census there, will get the citizenship of the country they reside in. If they want to change later, they would have to go by normal channels.
Over six decades down, this is raising human problems. Joint surveys conducted by the two governments show that people have inter-married. Now, if the enclave gets dissolved into territory as per the religion followed by a majority of its people, what will be the legal status of the children of such couples? This and other issues need to be addressed urgently, while the political climate is conducive, with friendly governments in New Delhi and Dhaka and in West Bengal, which shares over a half of the 4,300 kilometer border.
The Prime Minister’s visit would open wide the regional integration of South Asia, at least, the eastern flank. Bangladesh wants the Dhaka-Calcutta train service to be extended to other
Indian cities, including Delhi and Ajmer, the city of the Sufi shrine revered most by the Bangladeshis. Bangladesh wants to be connected to India as a whole and not just West Bengal. Be it the rail link or the land boundary, since West Bengal is the adjacent and the largest state, much of India’s relationship with Bangladesh is dependent upon West Bengal’s cooperation.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is expected to join the Prime Minister on the Dhaka tour. It may be mentioned that Mamta Banerjee and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina have been in constant touch on issues concerning both the Bengals. Indeed, with the Dhaka-Calcutta service already in place, India is now working to link Bangladesh with Tripura on the north-eastern flank.
India also has plans to take its railway network to Bhutan and Nepal. This follows China linking Tibet’s Lhasa with Beijing by train. It has also started work on a rail link to Khasa, on the Nepal-Tibet border. India and bangladesh share some 300 small and big rivers, including 50 major river systems. Agreement exists only on Ganga. Teesta is very crucial for Bangladesh. An agreement on Teesta has been worked out.
There are also positive hints of concessions from India on the trade front to help ease the balance of trade that is five times in favour of India. These were discussed by External Affairs Minister S M Krishna and earlier, by then Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao. On economic cooperation, Bangladesh and India have identified over 17 projects that will be implemented by the $1 billion line of credit from India. Bangladesh has asked for 61 items to be removed from the negative list, but India is still wondering whether this could be a precedent that would have to be followed for other countries as well.
It must be said that Dhaka has already met one of India’s foremost security concerns by saying ‘no’ to its northeast insurgents. It has denied safe havens to militants of United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). It is likely that before the prime minister’s visit, Anup Chetgia, the top Ulfa militant who is in jail, may be sent back. This would help the process of talks between the militant group and the Government of India. In facilitating this, the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has played a key role.
The importance of good Indo-Bangladesh relations and their positive effect on the South Asian region was recently underscored by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her recent India visit. Urging India to step up its leadership role in the region, she specifically stated that India “has a great commitment to improving relations with Bangladesh, and that is important because regional solutions will be necessary on energy shortages, water-sharing, and the fight against terrorists.” This statement could not have come at a more opportune time.
For the first time since 1975, India and Bangladesh have embraced a historic opportunity to build a lasting relationship. A sustained diplomatic investment in a robust bilateral relationship will produce positive results for both countries. Good relations with Bangladesh have a direct correlation with India’s “Look East Policy.” The effects of better bilateral relations can only strengthen it. India has to catch the fancy of the common man in Bangladesh. This will be a good implementation of India’s Look East policy as far as Bangladesh is concerned, an important neighbour with which India’s northeast is intricably locked.
This is the best phase of Indo-Bangladesh relations and both sides need to consolidate ties for now, and for the future. That would be a good augury for the South Asian region as a whole.