Is India still a reliable friend of Bangladesh?


December 2021 marks the Golden Jubilee of Bangladesh-India relations, which began with India’s recognition of Bangladesh as a sovereign nation-state on December 6, 1971, just 10 days before the end of the Indian War. release. From the heyday of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to the current regime, the warm relationship has come a long way with many ups and downs. Although Indian President Ram Nath Kovind has declared that Bangladesh holds a “special place” in India’s “neighborhood first” policy, critics doubt, citing controversial and unresolved issues, that India is still a reliable friend for Bangladesh. On the 50th anniversary of Dhaka-New Delhi relations, the time has come to introspect strengths, retrospect mistakes, recognize challenges and chart a roadmap to take this relationship to new heights.

Bangladesh and India are linked by centuries of common history, ethnolinguistic roots, common heritage, cultural affinities and social norms. India’s unprecedented support during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 – providing military assistance, providing shelter to 10 million refugees, etc. – was at the origin of the good nature between these two countries. Over the years, mutual respect for independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and strong political will on both sides have greatly contributed to the development of this bond. The aforementioned commonalities have led countries to join different regional platforms such as Saarc, Bimstec, IORA, etc., reflecting a common interest.

Bangladesh and India share a border of 4,096 km, the fifth longest land border in the contemporary world and the longest that India shares with its neighbors. Although many long-standing land and sea border disputes have been resolved – for example the Land Borders Agreement (LBA) and the exchange of 162 enclaves – the number of border deaths of Bangladeshis, due to the India’s Border Security Forces (BSF) ‘s “sight shooting” policy, has become a major stain on this bilateral engagement. According to Human Rights Watch, BSF killed nearly 1,000 Bangladeshis, most of them illegal border workers, between 2001 and 2011, which should be the main concern of these countries to find a peaceful solution.

The thorny issue of sharing water in transboundary rivers – 54 of them – remains another irritant for Bangladesh-India relations. As a downstream country, Bangladesh wants more water from the Teesta River, which India has failed to guarantee so far due to the domestic entanglement between the Union government and the government of the state of West Bengal. They also failed to establish a framework agreement for the optimal use of the waters of six rivers: Muhuri, Manu, Gumti, Khowai, Dudhkhumar and Dharla. It is “water” that has become the “misfortune” of this bilateral relationship.

The northeast of India, prisoner of geography, is landlocked by its neighbors who are connected to the Indian continent by a “chicken neck” 22 km wide. Although Bangladesh could be used by insurgent groups in the northeast as a “safe haven” – a major security concern for India – they did not do so due to the “zero tolerance” policy. from Bangladesh. From the point of view of the confined northeast of its neighbors, Bangladesh is the most important partner in India’s strategic calculation. Ironically, India’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), passed in 2019, has been criticized around the world for defining religion as the basis of citizenship. As a result of this act, 1.9 million migrants, half of whom were Muslims, were excluded from Assam’s National Citizens Register (NRC). They may flee illegally to Bangladesh fearing that they will be sent to detention camps, which is a matter of concern for Bangladesh.

In 2017, Bangladesh and India signed two defense agreements, the first of its kind between India and one of its neighbors. In addition, India has provided a defense-related line of credit (LoC) worth $ 500 million to Bangladesh, a first agreement for India, for the purchase of defense equipment.

In early 2021, a new controversy broke out over the delivery of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine. Bangladesh has signed an agreement for 30 million doses of vaccine with the Serum Institute of India (SII). Although India offered 3.2 million doses as a token of friendship, the failure to deliver the agreed doses on time has plunged Bangladesh into a deep vaccine crisis. On the other hand, Bangladesh has offered emergency drugs and medical supplies to India in response to the latter’s deteriorating Covid situation. Both countries should be much more careful when making a pledge, as broken promises can create mistrust.

Although India has pledged to finance USD 7.36 billion to Bangladesh under the LoC since 2010, only 10.57% of the total committed funds were disbursed in April 2021. Delays in the delivery of funds increasing development spending, the two countries should work closely together to overcome technical obstacles and bureaucratic tangles to accelerate the release of funds.

Bilateral economic relations offer enormous untapped opportunities, with a trade potential of USD 16.4 billion. Bangladesh is India’s largest trading partner in South Asia; on the other hand, India is Bangladesh’s second largest trading partner. In fiscal year 2019-2020, bilateral trade volume passed the $ 10 billion mark, where India’s exports to Bangladesh were $ 8.2 billion and imports were $ 1. , $ 26 billion. This large trade imbalance results in a huge trade deficit for Bangladesh. A Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) between these countries can create a level playing field for Bangladesh and unleash the full potential of economic engagement.

Political will to address non-political issues such as trade protectionism, tariff and non-tariff barriers, complexity of visas, etc. is necessary to give the partnership a global and strategic form. They should share intelligence on challenges affecting common interests and jointly fight terrorism, insurgency and smuggling drugs, weapons and counterfeit money, as shared priorities. Any bilateral dispute must be resolved peacefully on the basis of mutual respect and understanding.

Bangladesh, India’s most trusted ally in South Asia, is not just another neighbor, it is one of the most important strategic partners that India cannot afford. ignore. In contrast, Bangladesh, sharing most of its border with India, still attaches undoubted importance to India in its foreign policy. As India has to go a long way to realize its dream of becoming a “regional power” and as Bangladesh has the potential to become the “economic center of gravity” of South Asia, the two countries need the one another on their journey. The last 50 years have consolidated the foundation; now they have to use diplomatic maps and the three Cs (cooperation, consolidation and collaboration) with more maturity to achieve the respective national goals.

To navigate the ever-changing geopolitical landscape of Southeast Asia, Bangladesh and India would have to face all the skepticism to keep the decades-old friendship as stable and strong as before. Over the next few days, they could face beatings and bottlenecks, but countries should not allow any sense of antagonism to linger and any misunderstanding and mistrust to hamper their relations. Reliability doesn’t come with a long relationship; rather, it is about keeping promises, providing support in difficult times, expressing solidarity with a common interest and working side by side to face impending challenges. The preventive policy aimed at avoiding potential pitfalls will ultimately determine where Bangladesh-India relations stand over the next 50 years.

Hussain Shazzad is a strategic affairs and foreign policy analyst.

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