IDSA COMMENT

Check the Downslide in India-Bangladesh Relations

January 4, 2012

For the past few years, India and Bangladesh have been enjoying a renascent friendly relationship based on shared interests and reciprocity. Under this rubric, they have been able to resolve various contentious issues as well as show a willingness to cooperate with each other for mutual benefit. Bangladesh addressed India’s security concerns by handing over a number of top Northeast insurgent leaders to India. For its part, India has reciprocated by: settling the decades-old border dispute; facilitating the provision of electricity to Dahagram and Angarpota and providing 24 hour access to these two Bangladeshi enclaves through the Teen Bigha; allowing duty free access to 10 million pieces of readymade garments from Bangladesh and removing 46 textile items from the negative list; providing Nepal and Bhutan transit access to Bangladesh, and promising to invest in Bangladesh’s infrastructure sector; and, 225 Indian firms promising to invest Rs. 558.77 million as FDI in Bangladesh.

Despite all this, anti-India sentiments continue to grow in Bangladesh and have now come to centre primarily on two issues: India’s failure to finalise an agreement on sharing the waters of the Teesta and its decision to go ahead with the construction of the Tipaimukh dam. Under the 1983 Teesta river water agreement, presently, India and Bangladesh share 75 per cent of the river’s waters on a 39 and 36 per cent basis, respectively. As a friendly gesture, India had reportedly decided to share the remaining 25 per cent water with Bangladesh on a 50:50 basis. Domestic political compulsions, however, compelled India to pull back from signing the agreement at the last minute during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent visit to Bangladesh. This volte face by India not only embarrassed the Sheikh Hasina government but has also tarnished India’s image as a reliable partner. The people of Bangladesh perceive it as a betrayal of trust as they hoped that the signing of such an agreement would settle the issue of water shortage in northern Bangladesh and serve as a template for the future sharing of trans-boundary water resources between the two countries

At the same time, the proposed construction of the Tipaimukh dam near the confluence of the Barak and Tuivai rivers in India has become yet another spoiler in the bilateral relationship. Bangladesh fears that the construction of the dam would greatly reduce the flow of the Barak river in Bangladesh as well as adversely affect its two downstream channels - Kushiyara and Surma. Reduced water flow, according to Bangladeshi experts, would wreak havoc on the ecology, turn northeast Bangladesh into a desert and destroy the livelihoods of thousands of people. India had been trying to allay these fears by arguing that the Tipaimukh multipurpose hydroelectric project would in fact help in flood moderation, improve river navigation and aid the fisheries sector in Bangladesh. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh even promised that India would not do anything that would harm the interest of Bangladesh. However, the signing of a ‘promoter’s agreement’ between the Government of Manipur, the National Hydro Power Corporation (NHPC) and the Sutlej Jal Vidyut Nigam (SJVN) on October 22, 2011 to set up a joint venture company has raised hackles in Bangladesh. Many in Bangladesh are interpreting it as yet another example of India breaking its promise. Some in Bangladesh even claim that India has indeed built the dam, whereas in reality no such dam exists on the proposed site. Nevertheless, rumour mongering has succeeded in spreading misinformation and fomenting anti-India sentiments.

In addition to these two issues, the killings of supposedly innocent cattle traders and other Bangladeshi citizens by the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) along the border continue to strain the bilateral relationship. Last year, India had agreed to use non-lethal weapons against trespassers in an attempt to bring down the number of such killings. The BSF has claimed that the number of border killings has reduced substantially because of the use of non-lethal weapons and that the ‘innocent cattle traders’ who get killed are in fact gangs of cattle smugglers who attack Indian border guards. Bangladesh, however, asserts that frequent killings along the border indicate that India has gone back on its promise of preventing its border guards from killing Bangladeshi civilians.

Related to the issue of border killings is the smuggling of phensedyl into Bangladesh. Bangladesh argues that its drug problem arises from the channelling of spurious phensedyl manufactured in factories set up inside Indian territory along the border. Refuting these charges, India maintains that it cannot take action against the distribution of a legal drug in its territory. The discrepancies between the two countries in their understanding of the situation arise from differing notions about what is legal and what is not. While the trade in cows is legal in Bangladesh, it is illegal in India and therefore has to be prevented at any cost. In contrast, phensedyl is banned in Bangladesh but is a legal drug in India and therefore can be sold anywhere in the country.

The main casualty in this atmosphere of growing frustration has been the transit issue, which, if implemented, would benefit both countries. India would save time and money in transporting goods to its Northeastern states, while Bangladesh would be able to earn millions of dollars in transit fees. The provision of transit rights to India has always been a contentious issue in Bangladesh. People opposed to this measure argue that it would allow India to transport lethal weapons to its Northeastern states through Bangladeshi territory; that it would ruin Bangladeshi exports to the markets of India’s Northeast; and, that it would lead to the spread of drugs and HIV within Bangladesh. Protests have also taken place in Bangladesh against the trial runs for the trans-shipment of ODC (Over Dimensional Cargos) through the Ashuganj port. Nevertheless, the Bangladesh government successfully overcame all opposition and had agreed in principle to provide transit facilities to India. The two countries were set to sign an agreement to this effect in September 2011. However, India’s turnaround on the Teesta agreement prompted Bangladesh to hold back on the transit issue.

Such stalemates and the creeping feeling in Bangladesh that it has done more for India without gaining anything substantial in return does not bode well for the relationship. India must act swiftly to stem the downslide in its relationship with Bangladesh. While it is a fact that the amicable resolution of various vexing issues and pronouncements about huge investments (which have raised considerable hopes in Bangladesh) would take time to implement, it is also true that India has failed to live up to its commitments and needs to get its act together.

To begin with, India should expedite the conclusion of the Teesta agreement. Secondly, it should invite an all-party delegation from Bangladesh to the proposed Tipaimukh dam site and request Bangladeshi participation in the joint construction of the multipurpose project in order to encourage transparency and dispel misgivings. India should insist on the speedy implementation of the joint coordinated border patrol plan, which would secure the border against smugglers and help reduce unnecessary killings. India should also take steps to regulate the distribution mechanism of phensedyl within its territory and take stringent action against drugs stockists, especially in the border towns. India should address the Sheikh Hasina government’s refrain that it does not have much time on its side by implementing all agreements in a time bound manner as well as fast tracking various trans-border infrastructural developmental schemes. Most importantly, India should address the interests of the common people of Bangladesh and keep its promises.

(This commentary is based on the impressions gained by the author during a recent visit to Dhaka as a participant in the Bangladesh-India Security Dialogue jointly organized by the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI) and the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi.)