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The future of India-Bangladesh ties

Dr Rupak Bhattacharjee is a Political Analyst
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  • May 06, 2014

    The people of Bangladesh are closely watching the election-related developments in India. Reports say that the Sheikh Hasina regime wants to see a stable government in India for all round development of the region. In some quarters, questions have been raised about the future of India-Bangla ties following the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The Bangladeshi intelligentsia is anxious to know if there would be paradigm shift in the bilateral relations after May16. Many of them believe that Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) domestic programmes and political ideology would influence India’s neighbourhood policy, particularly in the light of Narendra Modi’s repeated assertion of initiating tough measures against the illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.

    So long, the Indian observers used to point out the growing influence of domestic political considerations on Bangladesh’s approach towards New Delhi. This time around, India’s own foreign policy is being determined by political parties with agendas that are designed to consolidate their respective support bases rather than well-thought out policy formulations from the perspective of national interest.

    Some strongly believe that with the BJP Hinduvta agenda as part of state policy, the first casualty would be the relationship between the Hasina government and New Delhi. A few foreign policy observers apprehend that the relationship might even undergo a radical transformation in case the new Indian government vigorously pursues certain policies vis-à-vis Bangladesh. India enjoys historic ties with the Awami League (AL). It was the AL government that for the first time officially acknowledged India’s vital contribution to the cause of Bangladesh in 1971. The good will of India that has been generated in the last five years would receive a serious jolt if New Delhi decides to act unilaterally on the contentious issue of illegal migration.

    Bangladesh is placed between the two Asian giants—India and China. Dhaka has to constantly balance its ties between New Delhi and Beijing. India surrounds Bangladesh from three sides and has more influence than any other nation. Despite India’s inability to fulfill all the pledges and implement the agreements signed, Dhaka-New Delhi relations remained cordial during 2009-14. In the history of India-Bangladesh relations, such deeper and broader engagement was only witnessed in the early seventies.

    There has been an increasing realisation among the policy makers of both the countries that they need each other’s cooperation in the changing geo-political and economic scenarios at the regional and global level. Under such circumstances, it is obvious that national interest should get priority over matters. The illegal migration is undoubtedly a major issue that merits immediate attention and should be included in India’s bilateral agenda with Bangladesh. When the problem was earlier raised, Dhaka did not accept the fact that large scale influx has been going for a long period. The ruling elites of Bangladesh across the party lines refuse to recognise India’s claim on huge illegal migration from across the borders substantiated by documentary evidence. In their opinion, lakhs of people identified as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants are in fact Indian citizens composed of Bengali speaking Muslims. A Dhaka-based report suggests that the government of Bangladesh may even counter India’s claims by citing data produced by its Ministry of Home Affairs indicating the illegal presence of over 500,000 Indians in that country since 2009. Dhaka also accuses that India’s BSF has been regularly killing or kidnapping Bangladeshi citizens at the international border.

    Amid claims and counter claims, it can not be denied that unabated influx from Bangladesh into the North Eastern states has reached alarming proportion. It is essential that India convey strongly its concerns to Bangladesh. But the BJP’s prescribed policy of rehabilitating Hindu immigrants while pushing back the Muslims would find few takers. To execute a policy that only takes care of the interests of a single community might be disastrous from the point of India’s national interests. On the other hand, a few foreign policy experts believe that Modi might discard the Hinduvta agenda and continue friendly relations with the strategically-located and economically- important Bangladesh.

    The successive Indian governments have found the secular nationalist forces led by the AL are friendlier than the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) - Jamaat alliance consisting of religious fanatics and reactionary groups. In the context of past experience, India needs to proceed on this ticklish issue with caution and maturity. The BNP would also miss no time to derive political mileage out of the situation. Dhaka is already worried about the delay in reaching an understanding with India on sharing the Teesta water and non-ratification of the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA). While Mamata blocked the Teesta agreement, BJP, AGP and Trinamool jointly opposed the UPA government to implement the LBA. The transit issue has temporarily been shelved since India failed to make any forward movement on the Teesta. Besides, both the governments need to resolve the question of transit fee and improvement of infrastructure to make the scheme operational. Dhaka also complains that India has not responded favourably to its demands for the removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers on Bangladeshi products in an effort to reduce huge trade imbalance.

    In the mean time, opinion polls conducted recently by Dhaka’s two leading dailies have revealed that BNP is likely to form the next government in Bangladesh. Party’s Chairperson Khaleda Zia is waiting for that to happen. Local reports indicate that the former premier intends to visit New Delhi if BJP forms the next government. She is likely to hold talks with the top BJP leaders to clarify her position and renew pledge for a meaningful partnership with India. It may be noted that Khaleda opened up the market of Bangladesh to the Indian companies during her tenure (2001-06) as prime minister. The party undoubtedly benefited from such trade and cooperation. Some Bangladeshis maintain that the BNP has not resorted to anti-India rhetoric in the recent time largely due to this factor. Moreover, the party is not averse to granting transit facilities to the North Eastern states if India agrees to share the Teesta water on equitable basis. The BNP leaders have also lately realised that in order to win the crucial support of the international community, they have to stop encouraging the radical Islamic groups and assure India about not offering sanctuary to the North Eastern militant outfits. It remains to be seen how India-Bangladesh relations evolve in the vicissitudes of change.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.