Bangladesh FM’s Delhi Visit: Can India help?
Dr Sreeradha Datta, Centre Head & Senior Fellow, Neighbourhood Studies, VIF

The first overseas visit of the Bangladesh Foreign Minister, AK Abdul Momen to India during 7-9 February 2019 was important for a variety of reasons. The visit was more than validation of the existing strength of the bilateral relations, it was also a reiteration of mutual support and acknowledgment of the significance each country holds for the other. The Awami League was recently returned to power in Dhaka and India will be in election mode in a few months, thus the imperative to showcase each of their achievements and electoral pledges of ensuring growth and prosperity is implicit. The Indo-Bangladeshi framework of cooperation has thus been critical to both sides towards building an emergent infrastructural connectivity and development of economic zones and growing bilateral trade figures. Most importantly, the strengthening of bilateral cooperation has not only been beneficial for domestic growth and development but is also viewed as “...model between two neighbouring countries which needs to be showcased for a wider audience around the world”. 1

Indeed, in many ways, this bilateral relation is a test case for both India and Bangladesh. For Prime Minister Modi, good relation with Bangladesh is the cornerstone of India’s ‘neighbourhood first’ policy. While detractors may question the efficacy of this policy in the South Asian neighbourhood at large, the multifaceted convergence that India and Bangladesh has developed is evident. Bangladesh, of course, has seen its economic growth rocket in the last few years through many of its policies - some of which have involved India’s close engagement. Thus, expectedly, India laid out the red carpet for Momen. While his official meeting with PM Modi was the highlight of this visit, the days were filled with several engagements with number of important officials, many of those who were close associates of Momen from his UN days.

It was the 5th India-Bangladesh Joint Consultative Commission (JCC) held on 9 Feb 2019, chaired by the two respective Foreign Ministers, Swaraj and Momen, that provided a platform to deepen the ongoing engagement through a gamut of common areas of cooperation. The MOUs singed on this visit covered few new areas too. India has been keen to popularise Indian traditional and alternative medicine systems of Ayurveda, Siddha, and Homeopathy and this was included in the basket of sectors that will be taken up in the JCC. The Ayush Department had earlier signed up with some Latin American and Caribbean countries but the recent agreement with Bangladesh’s health ministry creates a foothold in the neighbourhood too. While technology partnership was included in continuation of the bilateral cooperation in security and economic issues, the MoU between the Anti-Corruption Commission of Bangladesh and the Central Bureau of Investigation of India will address the ongoing cross border movement of offenders, apart from facilitating exchanges of expertise in anti-graft probing.

This apart, another agreement addressed a long standing issue; Bangladesh has in the past unfailing pointed out the popularity of Indian television programs in numerous Bangladeshi households while there was no Indian viewership for the Bangladeshi television programs. The latest cooperation between the two media organisation, India’s Prasar Bharti and Bangladesh Television, would, in a limited way, address this sore issue. The ongoing program of the training of Bangladeshi civil service officers in India too will be strengthened in the coming days through the recent formalisation. This visit has also has been a consolidation of the erstwhile cooperation in various sectors of the economy, trade, and connectivity that emerged in the past decade or so. Thus, the finalization of the Indian Special Economic Zone proposal near the Mongla Port will be facilitating India’s connectivity with its immediate neighborhood and to the South East Asian region too.

Prior to this high level visit, the media on both sides had highlighted Bangladesh’s priority centered around seeking a durable solution for the large scale Rohingya refugees from Rakhine region of Myanmar that Bangladesh was hosting, and its expectation from India to be an active partner for facilitating their repatriation. Besides, as seen in the past, for Bangladesh, water has been its most emotive issue vis-à-vis India; the lack of agreement over the Teesta, however, has not been made a point of friction in recent times. Following a personal reassurance from Modi, the Bangladesh government had graciously accepted that once India is able to sort out its own internal problem a concrete proposal for water sharing will be brought back on the table. But India’s inability to take Bangladesh’s side over the recent phase of large scale Rohingya influx into Bangladesh (from August 2017 ) stood out sorely. India’s pragmatism (widely understood as lack of support to Bangladesh) at the height of the crisis was a cause for despair, especially for Bangladesh. Given the maturation of the relationship, the Bangladeshi leadership masked its disappointment with India to some extent, but the civil society’s reaction was naturally not so muted. Expectedly, the Foreign Minister’s statement upon reaching Dhaka highlighted the issues of Teesta and repatriation of Rohingyas. These two outstanding issues of common water sharing and the politics surrounding these refugees have thrown a shadow over the otherwise robust bilateral ties.

India’s lack of outward support to Dhaka was balanced through its humanitarian assistance to the large numbers of refugees housed in Cox’s Bazar, along with promised construction of prefabricated housing in Rakhine State for facilitating the safe repatriation of these refugees who were chased out of their home and hearth. The problem is far from being over. While Bangladesh remains in dialogue with Myanmar, and India too has held separate discussions with Myanmar and Bangladesh, the issue of Rohingyas’ remain embroiled in complications.

Although commonly dismissed as a continuation of the communal tensions between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, the issue poses larger questions beyond just the prism of ‘citizenship’ which it is widely viewed through. Critically it is more about whether the Rohingya’s constitute an indigenous ‘national race’ which accords them full political rights. In the context of the majoritarian debate in Myanmar, the Rohingya’s are not only ethnically marginalized but also a religious minority, giving them very little space to maneuver within the tightly controlled administration in Myanmar. Thus, in view of the inherent complexities of the issue, it is unlikely to be resolved easily and in any straight forward way.

Given Myanmar’s criticality in addressing India’s cross border security concerns and in its developing connectivity corridors with Southeast Asia, India’s predicament is understandable. While the Indian leaders including the opposition have reiterated their ‘cooperation’, the Rohingya the impasse continues. India’s assurance to Bangladesh of its support can have little bearing on India’s ability to ensure Myanmar toes a particular line. In this triangle of India-Myanmar-Bangladesh the stakes and leverages don’t balance each other out. While India has been able to engage closely with Bangladesh and Myanmar, despite India’s economic growth and growing recognition by global powers, its leverage vis-à-vis both remain limited. For now the Awami League Government in Dhaka enjoys India’s backing and Yangon enjoys a close relationship with India, but in a not so friendly atmosphere both within the region and outside, influencing state behavior remains a challenge. While Bangladesh’s immediate concern of repatriation of the Rohingya population is not viewed with any interest by Myanmar, India continues to work behind the scene. Inevitably as it attempts a nuanced position, India’s apparent dilemma is understood but not necessarily excused by its friendly neighbour, Bangladesh.

With an exception of a trilateral dialogue (India, Bangladesh, Myanmar) first initiated in Kolkata by a Central Government funded research institute in 2014 which was then raised to the track one and half level in 2015 in Dhaka, there has been no other specific platform that has facilitated such an interaction among these three neighbours. Unfortunately, the third round of dialogue that was to be hosted by Myanmar never came through for a variety of reasons; any such exercise by India at whatever level would be welcome by Bangladesh and Myanmar, especially when both these sides are examining various mechanism to exchange views and create an enabling atmosphere for free flowing discussions. Given the unfolding of the recent crises which needs greater understanding of the ground situation, India hosting a dialogue with its two immediate neighbours to share, discuss and formulate policies will be move a towards, first, lessening the existing tense atmosphere, second, viewing all the available options to address the outstanding issues, and third, creating better understanding of the long term implications of the crises for effective redressal as well as prevention. Initiating of a dialogue and creating mechanisms for sharing best practices to ensure a safer and peaceful future will be welcomed by all.

References
  1. ‘Delhi-Dhaka relations are a model for world: PM Narendra Modi’, Live Mint 08 Feb 2019 at https://www.livemint.com/poli

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