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Sheikh Hasina’s Visit to India: an opportunity to broaden the relationship

Smruti S. Pattanaik is Research Fellow (SS) at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • April 07, 2017

    Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India starting on April 7 has generated an animated debate in Bangladesh. Security analysts, retired bureaucrats and opinion makers have raised concerns about the possible signing of a defence agreement. It is good that the proposed agreement is debated, discussed and various pros and cons are put across to a larger audience. However, what is striking is the absence of a similar debate when Begum Khaleda Zia had signed a defence cooperation agreement with China in December 2002. Analysts who are now questioning the strategic consequences of a defence agreement with India and its meaning for Bangladesh’s sovereignty did not raise such questions about the earlier defence agreement with China. The reason for that could be the fact that Bangladesh’s relations with India and China fall in two completely different categories. Whereas India is projected as a threat by some, China is seen as a proverbial insurance against India. Thus, while a defence agreement with China is understandable, such an agreement with India raises questions about the future of India-Bangladesh bilateral relations.

    India has always loomed large in Bangladesh’s security matrix, with its defence planning and security calculus conceived in terms of a threat from India. This despite the fact that more than 2000 Indian soldiers laid down their lives for its liberation – a fact that was officially recognised only nearly 40 years after Bangladesh’s independence when the military backed caretaker government under General Moeen uddin Ahmed invited Indian soldiers who had fought the liberation war to be part of the Victory Day celebration and started the process of recognising the sacrifices made by Indian soldiers and other eminent political personalities and civil society members. General Ahmed also proposed “to usher in a new era of close cooperation between the two armies”, thus changing the narratives of the relationship between the two armed forces. This process of recognising India’s contribution was taken forward by Prime Minister Hasina after she came to power.

    Such a change within Bangladesh towards recognising India’s contribution to its independence also reflects how the narrative about India was constructed and nurtured by regimes that dominated the country’s politics after 1975. As a result, until recently, there was hardly any contact between the two armed forces, and training and officer participation in their military academies showed a downward curve over time. This state of affairs began to reverse only after the February 2008 visit of Moeen U Ahmed, the Chief of the Bangladesh Army and the power behind the caretaker government. Until then, India was generally perceived as an ‘unfriendly’ neighbour. And that perception had persisted even after India’s enunciation of the Gujral doctrine. So much so that, even transit facilities that had existed before 1965 were not revived citing possible Indian intrusions and consequently a major security threat. Though begun during the military backed caretaker regime, the change in approach towards India took root after Hasina returned to power in 2009. It is only in the last few years that India and Bangladesh have begun to evolve the habit of working together.

    A look at the map of Bangladesh reflects the strategic reality that the two countries have no option but to pursue economic and security cooperation. The emergence of terrorism as a challenge for both countries is also compelling a change in this regard. Against this backdrop, a defence cooperation agreement would serve to consolidate and institutionalise existing bilateral cooperation. It is likely that the defence cooperation agreement with India is not going to be very different from the one that Bangladesh has signed with China.

    Between 2008 and now, there have been several visits to Bangladesh by top Indian military officers including the three chiefs. At the political level, visits by the President, Vice President and Prime Ministers Singh and Modi have underlined the importance India attributes to its relations with Bangladesh. Officers of the two countries have begun to attend courses at each other’s National Defence College. The two armies have regularly held the “Sampriti” anti-terror joint exercises since 2009 and also share intelligence. Co-operation reached new levels especially after the Burdwan blasts in 2014, when investigating agencies of both countries were provided access to the suspects arrested by the other.

    In spite of such close cooperation between the security agencies, there are attempts by vested quarters to raise questions regarding the proposed defence cooperation agreement. One argument – not exactly new – being employed in this regard is that it would limit Bangladesh’s options and choices and the country would get embroiled in the India-China conflict. Others consider a defence agreement unnecessary and express doubt about India’s ability to supply weapons. Some others want all the outstanding bilateral issues to be resolved before any defence agreement is signed. Then there are those who argue that the proposed defence cooperation agreement is a reaction to the Xi Jingping visit and China’s proposed intention to invest USD 24 billion in Bangladesh. It is true that China’s growing strategic proximity to Bangladesh raise concerns in Delhi, but to conclude that the proposed defence cooperation agreement is a reaction to Sino-Bangladesh cooperation is farfetched.

    Here, it is worth recalling the fact that a similar campaign had been orchestrated against the 25 year Treaty of Peace and friendship that India and Bangladesh signed in 1972. The treaty was projected as a surrender of sovereignty. And the opposition to it also had the backing of the Army which saw the treaty as restricting its institutional interest. Unlike in the case of the 1972 treaty, the proposed Defence Treaty has been debated in the Bangladesh media and also discussed widely within the political opposition in and is being negotiated for some time with the involvement of the defence forces. Moreover, the armed forces of the two countries have developed a certain synergy through training and joint exercises in recent years.

    Here, it is worth nothing that a scan of the Bangladesh press of December 2002 reveals that neither journalists raised any questions nor security experts debated or questioned the defence agreement signed with China. The text of the Agreement is not public and there is hardly any research in Bangladesh on the implications of that Agreement, in contrast to the volumes that have been written on the 1972 treaty with India. The only noticeable element in the reports on the 2002 defence agreement with China is the then Foreign Minister Morshed Khan’s statement that the agreement is not directed against any other country and would not affect Bangladesh’s relations with India.

    Given all this, it is not difficult to conclude that the deep rooted antipathy towards cooperation with India among a particular section of the political elite is very much rooted in Bangladesh’s domestic politics, ideological division and mind-set ingrained in the pre-partition ideology. Some within the ruling Awami League (AL) argue that a defence agreement with India will be politically suicidal for the party in the 2019 elections if it is not matched by a quid pro quo, for example, a deal on Teesta.

    It needs to be recognised that a number of unresolved bilateral issues have helped the anti-India constituency in Bangladesh. – a constituency that looks at China as a benign benefactor and an insurance against India. First, the unresolved Teesta river sharing issue has remained a major bone of contention. Bangladesh remains aggrieved that a Treaty for sharing the waters of this river was not signed at the last minute during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Dhaka in 2011 due to pressure from the Paschima Banga government. In spite of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s assurance during her subsequent visit to Dhaka in February 2015 that she would help resolve the issue, there has been no forward movement on this front. Rather, the issue has become embroiled in India’s domestic politics. The second bone of contention is the issue of BSF firing at the border causing the death of Bangladeshi nationals, even if most of them are involved in illegal activities. A study of Bangladeshi newspaper reports reveals that most firing incidents occur between 3 and 5 AM, a time when smugglers are active. Therefore, the two border guarding forces need to synergise their efforts to curb illegal activities. Though there is coordinated and joint patrols by the two forces, these have failed to curb illegal activities. The third bone of contention that needs to be addressed at the earliest relates to Non-Tariff Barriers (NTBs), which are a major obstacle for bilateral trade. The Indian Standard Institute is cooperating with the Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution (BSTI) for capacity building and quality harmonisation. Perhaps, the two agencies should open a joint office near the border for the quick certification of goods. The Government of India also needs to seriously look into the issue of establishing laboratory facilities near the border to help with the immediate clearance of perishable goods. Energy cooperation can be furthered through joint investment and by encouraging power trade.

    While the two countries work on identifying new areas of cooperation, they need to institutionalise the current avenues of cooperation. A defence cooperation agreement would institutionalise capacity building efforts, sharing of intelligence, joint training, and deal with the challenge of terrorism. As the Burdwan blast revealed, unilateral action by one country does not suffice in dealing with terrorism. There is speculation that the two countries may be thinking about the joint production of certain small arms, and India may extend a USD 5 billion credit line for this purpose. There is also a likelihood that cooperation may be enhanced in the maritime domain. Perhaps, India can take steps to further relax visa rules and provide visa on arrival to certain categories of Bangladeshi government officials and armed forces personnel.

    The bilateral relationship between India and Bangladesh is a function of geography. Bangladesh is surrounded by India. And it is located astride India and its North Eastern states. Cooperation between the two countries is therefore unavoidable. With non-state actors taking centre stage in the security calculus of both countries, the time has now come to institutionalise the existing security cooperation for meeting the common challenge of terrorism. To succeed, there is a need to shed the old mind-set that prefers the status quo. The fact that the Indian High Commission issues the largest number of visas to Bangladeshi nationals testifies to a reality that the elites in both countries refuse to recognise. Sheikh Hasina’s visit should not, therefore, be seen through the narrow prism of a defence cooperation agreement or Teesta agreement. Instead, it should be seen from the broader perspective of the future trajectory of, and the unexplored potential in, India-Bangladesh relations.

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