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Need For a Proactive Policy Towards Bangladesh

Dr Anand Kumar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for detailed profile
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  • September 18, 2020

    India-Bangladesh relations in recent times have been touted as one of India’s best with any country in South Asia. The upswing came in January 2009 when the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League Government came to power in Bangladesh. Since then, there has been no looking back and both sides have continued to strengthen the relationship. A number of important bilateral issues were resolved over the years, barring the sharing of Teesta River waters. However, in the last year or two, some irritants have developed which many perceive as reasons for Bangladesh turning towards China. It remains to be seen whether this turning of Bangladesh towards China is because of its annoyance with India or simply to seek more economic favour.

    Resolution of Outstanding Issues

    Since January 2009, when India-Bangladesh relations entered a new phase, both countries have managed to solve a number of vexed issues, which appear simple once they have been resolved. Issues such as the land and maritime border disputes1 were sorted out at considerable disadvantage to New Delhi. In the land border dispute, India lost 10,000 acres of land while in the maritime dispute the United Nations (UN) tribunal awarded Dhaka 19,467 sq. km of the 25,602 sq. km sea area of Bay of Bengal. India could have chosen not to abide by the verdict of the UN tribunal as has been done by China in the case of South China Sea. India, however, chose to ignore the disadvantages in the interest of building a friendly and sustainable relationship with Bangladesh.

    Bangladesh cooperated with India in sorting out security issues in the Northeast. India's northeastern region had been plagued by insurgency for a number of years and many insurgent leaders took shelter in Bangladesh earlier. Post improvement in relations, Bangladesh handed over these leaders and shut down their training camps. Prominent among them were Ranjan Daimary, the founder-chief of National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB)2 and Anup Chetia of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA).3 It also took the remarkable step of granting a trans-shipment facility to India to transport goods through Bangladesh to the Northeastern states. Clearly, the intention for a friendly relationship was visible on both sides. However, the opposition and some Bangladeshi commentators tried to argue that India has not responded to Bangladesh’s gestures.4

    Issue of Teesta River Water

    The issue of Teesta river water could not be solved because of the non-cooperation of the West Bengal Government. Water is a state subject in India. Hence, for a bilateral agreement on the sharing of Teesta waters, the support of the West Bengal Government would also be needed. The West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, appeared unwilling to oblige the Central government in this regard. She had backed out on the agreement during the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government and has taken the same stance with the current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government.

    The Teesta is an important river for Bangladesh. It helps in irrigation in the northern parts of Bangladesh, which is often considered as the granary of the country. As no agreement has taken place on the sharing of Teesta river waters, the Bangladesh Government now wants to go for an alternative. It wants to manage the water of its side by building a reservoir so that it could use it in an optimum manner and all through the year. To complete this project, Dhaka in early August 2020 sought financial assistance of nearly $1 billion from Beijing.5  

    Bangladesh enjoys a close relationship with China and there is bipartisan consensus over the approach to be taken towards it. China is Bangladesh’s main arms supplier, investor and trade partner. It has invested large sums in Bangladesh on a string of power and infrastructure projects. Between 2008 and 2018, China supplied weapons worth $1.93 billion to Bangladesh. This constitutes 71.8 per cent of Bangladesh’s military acquisitions over this period and makes China the biggest supplier of arms to Dhaka.6 Although Bangladesh’s dependence on China has increased, it has always tried to balance its relationship with India and China. The Awami League Government has shown sensitivity to India’s security concerns and avoided projects that have such implications.

    After the COVID-19 crisis, Bangladesh towards the end of June 2020 sought funding for the construction of the first phase of Pyra Seaport, the Barisal Bhola Bridge, and a technology park.7 It has also sought funding for the management and restoration of the Teesta River. The domestic politics of India has made the settlement of the Teesta issue tricky. Sensing the deadlock, Bangladesh seems to have decided to improve management of the Teesta waters within its own boundaries.

    Bangladesh’s tilt towards China to undertake the Teesta river project is being perceived by many as Dhaka turning away from India.8 However, this may not be true. It appears that there is a tendency at present to see everything in the light of recent Chinese incursion in Ladakh or in terms of Sino-Indian competition in South Asia. India should not have problems if Bangladesh wants to manage its side of the water of the Teesta River.9 If an agreement is reached between India and Bangladesh at a later date, it would only make the situation better for India. However, even if that does not happen, Bangladesh would feel less aggrieved as it would have water on its side at its disposal.

    Beijing, however, is likely to use the opportunity to blunt the resentment of Bangladesh over the damming of Brahmaputra. In any case, it is unlikely that either India’s or Bangladesh’s protests will have much impact and stop China in its endeavour. The pro-Chinese constituency in Bangladesh would also use it to present Beijing in a positive light.

    When Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan called Sheikh Hasina on July 22, 2020 and tried to discuss Kashmir, it was seen as another instance of manifestation of annoyance by Bangladesh.10 It must be noted here that Pakistan would always seek to create fissures in India–Bangladesh relations. Moreover, Pakistan has been shunned by even its old partner Saudi Arabia on Kashmir. Perhaps, it hoped that there would be resentment in Bangladesh over India’s National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which it can exploit to its advantage. There may be some confusion in Bangladesh over these issues, but the annoyance is not to the extent where Pakistan can emerge as a positive player in Bangladesh’s external relations. Bangladesh has not forgotten the role of the Pakistani Army in 1971 and a government with a pro-liberation ideology would remember that.

    Need for Proactiveness

    Perhaps, Sheikh Hasina needs big projects to give a boost to Bangladesh’s economy that is reeling from the COVID-19 crisis. Though the government claims that the economy is growing at the rate of 5.24 per cent, the figures have been questioned.11 Hasina also needs the support of the army, police and the bureaucracy to rule the country successfully. As long as the economy was growing at a rapid pace and the government was able to shower bounties, their support was guaranteed. But as the economy faces difficult circumstances due to COVID-19, their support may become uncertain. The deep state of Bangladesh might then begin to work against the government.

    When the pandemic was raging in Bangladesh, India ensured that there was no shortage of daily use commodities in the country. Policymakers in Bangladesh are definitely going to take note of it. Moreover, India has appointed a new High Commissioner to Dhaka in order to improve things at the diplomatic level.

    This, however, does not mean that India should be complacent. India has to remain careful of both China and Pakistan, who would like to wean South Asian countries away from India. Given the assertive foreign policy followed by China and the desperation of Pakistan after India abolished Article 370 in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, India has to follow a proactive foreign policy. It cannot afford to simply react to what China and Pakistan do. During the COVID-19 crisis, India tried to help Bangladeshi people meet some of their daily requirements by ensuring the supply of food items at a reasonable price. It is also trying to create greater comfort at the diplomatic level.  Only India’s proactiveness in South Asia would keep both China and Pakistan in check.

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