PM Sheikh Hasina’s Visit, 2017-Time for New Vision in Indo-Bangladesh Relation

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is scheduled to visit India (April 7-10, 2017) at the invitation of Indian Prime Minister Modi. In a statement issued by the government, “The upcoming visit is expected to further expand cordial and cooperative relationship between India and Bangladesh and build on the strong ties of friendship and trust between the leaders”. According to media reports, PM Hasina’s itinerary is expected to include all the protocol driven elements such call on the President and Vice-President, state banquet, meeting with PM Modi on April 8, meetings with other senior ministers such as Foreign Minister, Home Minister, Finance and Defence Minister, Joint Statement etc. There is also possibility of a visit to the Ajmer Sharif Dargah which she normally does every time. During her visit, the Premier is also is likely to honour family members of 1,688 martyred officers of the Indian armed forces by offering them an ex-gratia of 5 lakhs each.

It may be recalled that the last official visit of PM Hasina to New Delhi was in 2010 which set new templates for bilateral neighbourly relations, not only in terms of announcements of some path-breaking commitments but more importantly in actual delivery on promises made on issues of core concerns to India. Following that, two prime ministerial visits from the Indian side took place in 2011 by PM Dr. Manmohan Singh and in 2015 by PM Narendra Modi.

While considerable ground in favourably responding to Bangladesh’s expectations of India had been covered during the visits Dr. Manmohan Singh, the 2015 visit of PM Modi to Dhaka marked a significant shift in New Delhi’s focus as it was designed under the new government’s concept of ‘neighbourhood-first’ outreach policy. During that visit, it may be recalled, two highly significant developments had taken place; the signing of the historic Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) and its quick implementation with substantial socio-economic implications for a class of people whose fate and destiny were uncertain for decades. The second, albeit less written about, was the positive confidence building agreement on delimiting India-Bangladesh Maritime Boundary. It may be mentioned that both these had been long festering disputes and the latter had deterred many overseas petroleum companies from investing in the sea blocks initially offered by Bangladesh. The plethora of economic and commercial deals finalised then, added further value and substance to the new developing paradigm in bilateral relations.

It is in this back-drop that the forthcoming visit of PM Hasina has raised very high expectations on both the sides for new major path-breaking decisions that would not only define a new trajectory in further strengthening the ongoing all-round cooperation but also in making them irreversible. Analysts also note that this would certainly be her last in her current tenure as Prime Minister and would likely have considerable impact on the political dynamics of Bangladesh. It is also noted that during her two consecutive terms in office this time, the two countries have taken significant strides forward, both in optics and substance, for a more meaningful and constructive relationship to ensure regional peace, economic progress, connectivity and security cooperation. These have become the key work-areas behind our bilateral ties.

Even though one does not yet have access to the detailed agenda for the forthcoming leadership dialogue except that bilateral discussions between the two leaders are slated of April 8, the very fact that the visit was, as per media reports was rescheduled twice, gives hope that, apart from a serious review of the entire gamut of bilateral and regional issues as is the norm for such visits, ‘something very substantive’ could emerge during this round of top-level engagement. Politically, it would be of critical importance for PM Hasina to get positive results on some of the core issues of concern to her country. This list is understandably topped by the question of early finalisation of water sharing issue popularly referred to as the Teesta dispute. Non-finalisation of the water sharing accord was perceived as a major negative, in an otherwise hugely successful visit of PM Modi in 2015 which was high on content and defined the future trajectory of Indo-BD cooperation.

It is natural to expect that during the upcoming visit, once again the Teesta issue will attract a great deal of attention. In the context of the state of acrimonious relations between Kolkata and New Delhi, it generally felt that no resolution or agreement is likely even this time around. Even then, according to media speculations, there is an element of optimism that PM Modi in his characteristic style, might still come up with some ingenious formulation to circumvent the West Bengal leader’s resolute opposition to any accord. The sharing of river waters has been the most contentious issue and Delhi should not miss the signal that Dhaka’s patience on water sharing is fast running out.

Apart from this, the agenda for talks would definitely include efforts in counter-terrorism cooperation to enable the security and intelligence apparatus of the two countries to fight against terrorism and violent extremism in the region. It is understood that a lot is already being done by the concerned agencies in this field even though there are still some serious concerns in relation to the activities of criminals and extremist radicals in and around the borders. These concerns were echoed even in the “BIMSTEC Leaders Retreat 2016 Outcome Document” wherein it was said that terrorism “continued to remain the single most significant threat to peace and stability in the region” PM Hasina reiterated her “strong commitment to combat terrorism in all forms and manifestations” and glorification of terrorists as martyrs was condemned1. Prime Minister Modi applauded Bangladeshi government’s efforts in combating terror including the crackdown on the radical elements.

There is need for giving a boost to effective implementation of the Coordinated Border Management Plan (CBMP) for better border management so as to prevent cross border criminal activities, irregular movements, incidents of violence and tragic loss of lives. During their last meeting in Dhaka, both the Prime Ministers had reiterated that the number of deaths at the border must be brought down to zero.

Strengthening of defence relationship is another area where New Delhi and Dhaka are expected to raise the bar. ‘Sampriti’ -Bangladesh-India Joint military exercise has included calisthenics in counter-insurgency and counterterrorism operations. It has been an important step in bilateral defence ties between New Delhi and Dhaka. Previously, six editions of the exercise have already taken place. Bangladesh’s diplomatic sources have gone on record that Dhaka has set a mechanism both in security and defence fields. The Indian Defence Military report has added that “the exercise is an important bilateral defence cooperation endeavour between India and Bangladesh. The visits by 11 member High powered delegation under former Defence Minister Shri Manohar Parrikar late last year and that of the Indian Foreign Secretary recently endorses India’s full support to the vision of the two Prime Ministers in shaping our twin-destinies. These have given rise to media speculation of some big-ticket defence deals being negotiated during the visit.

According to reports in Bangladesh media, two agreements namely ‘Defence Cooperation Agreement’ and ‘Technical Agreement on Naval Cooperation’, along with seven MoUs on defence and security issues are likely to be signed during the visit. 2

Another issue in focus is expected to be connectivity and transit. These have been acknowledged by both New Delhi and Dhaka as the new paradigm in their bi-lateral relations for regional development. While there has been considerable progress on these, a lot more needs to be done from both the sides to help the two neighbours realize the vast latent potentials of the region. While the operationalisation of the Dhaka-Shillong-Guwahati and Kolkata-Agartala Bus services have gone down well, and would likely come up for upgrading, New Delhi is expected to persuade Dhaka to strongly back better and advanced rail links and other programmes under BBIN cooperation. India would be looking at an expanded sub regional cooperation among the BBIN nations to cover initiatives in rail and air connectivity. India’s primary focus is to revive the extensive rail connectivity that existed between India and Bangladesh and thereafter add Bhutan and Nepal to it. The new rail connections namely Karimgunj (Assam) to Shabazpur (Bangladesh), Agartala (Tripura) to Akhaura (Bangladesh) and Sabroom (Tripura) to Chittagong Port (Bangladesh) will open new vistas in the regional connectivity. Sylhet and Dhaka in Bangladesh and Guwahati in Assam can thereby emerge as regional hubs for air and rail connectivity to promote trade and tourism. With Bangladesh implementing the ambitious $ 1.3 billion Dhaka Chittagong rail projects, trains originating in North-east India will soon reach Kolkata through Bangladesh.3 But the major area of interest in the field of rail connectivity would be Bangladesh’s reaction to India’s recent proposal for a futuristic BD-India-Pakistan-Iran-Turkey rail route for commercial connect.

On the trade and development front, over the past 5 years, the annual development assistance to Bangladesh from India has ranged from USD 20 million to USD 810.86 million Line of Credit and USD 200 million grant for use for commencing the key Padma Bridge projects in 2012, which was subsequently topped by the landmark USD 2 billion that was extended during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Dhaka in June 2015. There were some technical impediments in the quick disbursement of the earlier LOC which was made more user-friendly since 2012 at the request of Bangladesh.

Emphasis will also certainly be on creating a Power corridor as a vital tool for economic development programme. Also in focus will be the Special Economic Zones (SEZ’s) to be set up by India in Bheramara and Mongla. As a Key instrument of India’s aid policy, it is imperative that infrastructural projects are executed timely. Procedural delays and lapses will need to be avoided. Meanwhile, the Government of India’s ‘Development Partnership Administration’ is undertaking all remedial measures to streamline coordination and implementation of our aid-management framework.

Covering the afore-mentioned items on the agenda, Bangladesh media reports suggest that a total of nearly 40 agreements/MoUs are expected to be signed including seven in the Shipping sector, four covering Science and Technology, three in the Power Sector, four on Education, two relating to Commercial matters and one each on Health, Railways, ICT, Industries, Information and Cultural Affairs. Besides, there is also speculation of a new Line of Credit amounting to $ 4 billion being firmed up during the visit.4
The future of BBIN/BIMSTEC/SAARC mechanisms is also expected to attract serious attention. In the regional context, both countries have high stakes in working together to develop the BIMSTEC module of regional cooperation. With 1.5 billion people and a combined GDP of $ 2.5 billion, the countries under BIMSTEC have a shared aspiration for growth, development, commerce and technology. Prime Minister Hasina has said that the potential and strategic advantages of both the BRICS and BIMSTEC region are enormous and both need to mutually take advantage of each other’s potential particularly a sizable population in the bloc was grappling with challenges posed by poverty, sanitation, climate change. She stressed the need for nations to partner with them for collective benefit. 5

The Indian commitment and initiative in the BBIN-BIMSTEC cooperation model has been discernible. India, as host to the recent BRICS Summit chose to invite countries belonging to the BIMSTEC group over those of SAARC. India spoke of sustainable development, economic progress, poverty eradication and stemming of terrorism. Seeking close cooperation between the BRICS and BIMSTEC nations, Prime Minister Modi provided a perfect opportunity to frame economic development partnerships and shape ties in the field of energy, agriculture, trade, investment and pool resources to stem terrorism and transnational crimes. PM Hasina hailed the floating of new bank by BRICS to help channelize investments in low income counties of BIMSTEC.

It must however, be recognised that there still remain some irritants in bilateral relations and these too will come up for discussion. These include a worrisome perception of Bangladesh gravitating towards China as reflected in the Joint Venture agreements involving USD 13.6 billion and MOU’s for 34 projects amounting to an impressive USD 24.45 billion signed during Xi-Jinping’s recent visit to Dhaka.6 Their “comprehensive partnership of cooperation” was also upgraded to “a strategic partnership of cooperation”.7 China’s recent sale of two submarines to Bangladesh Navy has only added to India’s strategic worries. In this context, India would also like to flag its concerns on the growing level of defence cooperation between Bangladesh and China; an issue that has been under continuing deliberation. It is expected that through discussions, a mutually acceptable resolution would soon be in place particularly since both side are fully cognisant of each other’s position.

Another area of shared concern for the two countries is the rather disturbing trend threatening the core values of religious and cultural freedom/tolerance that both countries profess and practice. The rise of religious extremism evidenced by bloggers’ killings have culminated in an intimidation of the liberal thought processes in an otherwise secular Bangladesh. Presently 14 such radical outfits are under the scanner of the Bangladesh government. The expanding activities of Ansar-ul-Bangla are of grave concern for this region. The exemplary efforts of Bangladesh Security Forces under the present government in carrying out extensive raids and arresting over 8000 criminals and members of banned outfit’s, post-Dhaka Bakery attack, deserve appreciation. A related issue is of the spate of atrocities perpetrated by these radical elements on the minority Hindu community in Bangladesh which inter alia include grabbing of Hindu property, desecration of Hindu temples and forced conversions. A spate of attacks on them have sparked wide spread condemnation all over the Bangladeshi society as they pose serious threat to the secular and pluralistic values of Bangladesh.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her government have taken cognitive steps to stem Islamic terrorism. There has been a crackdown on radical Islamist oriented groups in Bangladesh. Her systemic efforts at pursuing war crime trials also deserve kudos. She has singularly taken Bangladesh to new heights globally with dignity and honour. The Bangladeshi premier has been steadfast in her support for Modi government to crackdown on the north-eastern rebels, Islamist militants and on FICN issue.8 PM Hasina has already cleared transit for the Indian goods to Northeast through Bangladesh territory and addressed most of India’s connectivity and security concerns seen as extremely crucial to the success of India’s “Look East Policy”. Bangladesh is key to the success of this policy initiative. It is time for India to look beyond the catchy photo-ops and pay back to its most trusted partner and neighbour at a time when Bangladesh needs it the most.

References:

  1. Hasina Modi crucial meeting in Goa-Dhaka Tribune October 16, 2016.
  2. 9 Deals on Defence During PM’s Visit – Rejaul Karim Byron and Reaz Ahmad, March 21, 2017.
  3. India eyes better rail links with Bangladesh under BBIN – Prothom Alo, October 26, 2016.
  4. 9 Deals on Defence During PM’s Visit – Rejaul Karim Byron and Reaz Ahmad, March 21, 2017.
  5. BIMSTEC countries condemn terror, want constructive partnership with BRICS-Ittefaq, October 17,2016 (BDT).
  6. Will Xi-Jingping’s visit to Bangladesh be a regional game changer-Mahfuz Anam.
  7. Bangladesh Prime Minister’s Sheikh Hasina’s India visit : A few questions to ask-Shantanu Mukharji.
  8. BIMSTEC countries condemn terror, want constructive partnership with BRICS-Ittefaq, October 17,2016 (BDT).

Image Source: http://greenwatchbd.com

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