Strengthening Ties: PM Sheikh Hasina’s Strategic Visit to India
Dr Anchita Borthakur, Research Associate, VIF
Introduction

On 21 June the PM of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina arrived in New Delhi for a two-day state visit at the invitation of PM Narendra Modi, thus becoming the first leader to pay a bilateral state visit to India following the conclusion of the country’s 18th Lok Sabha elections and the formation of the new government in New Delhi the same month. It is noteworthy to mention that this was her second consecutive visit to India within a span of less than 15 days. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was among the international leaders/dignitaries who attended the swearing-in ceremony of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Union Council of Ministers[1] that was held on 9 June last month. This visit received much media attention as the Bangladeshi PM is scheduled to travel to China, after almost 5 years, in the second week of this month. Therefore, ahead of her China trip, this visit demonstrates India’s geo-political significance in South Asia and the country’s prominence in Bangladesh’s foreign/regional policy for the latter’s development, prosperity, security, and regional stability.

Major Outcomes of the Visit

While addressing a press conference at her official residence Ganabhaban to brief the media on the outcome of her recent state visit to India, the Bangladeshi PM said that “this visit would play a pivotal role in strengthening the existing excellent relations between India and Bangladesh.” [2] During the visit, New Delhi and Dhaka signed 10 Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) including seven new and three renewed ones on a wide range of critical areas such as blue economy, maritime cooperation, digital partnership, rail connectivity, space technology, military education, green cooperation, etc. to further consolidate the ever-growing relationship between the two neighbouring countries. [3]

Unlike previous years, indicating a deeper level of cooperation, shortly after the visit, the two countries issued a joint “vision statement” on the “Shared Vision for the future to enhance peace, prosperity, and development of the two neighbours and the entire region, driven by connectivity, commerce, and collaboration.”[4] This marked a new chapter in the longstanding diplomatic relations between the two states that have flourished over the years. In the joint shared vision, it was stated that

As a close and valued neighbour with rapidly growing capabilities, Bangladesh is at the converging point of India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, ‘Act East’ policy, SAGAR doctrine and the Indo-Pacific vision, and an indispensable partner in the development of India’s north-eastern region. On the other hand, Bangladesh values its relationship with India as the closest and friendly neighbour and considers India as an important partner in the pursuit of its Neighbourhood Foreign Policy for ensuring shared peace and prosperity.[5]

Moreover, emphasis was given on the fact that there is a convergence between India's Vision of “Viksit Bharat 2047” and “Smart Bangladesh Vision 2041,” and therefore the two leaders defined the collaborative future course of action to ensure the realization of these two visions for peace and development of both India and Bangladesh. In addition, on the economic front, both sides have agreed to begin negotiations on a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) [6] and early operationalization of two Special Economic Zones (SEZs) which were previously offered by Bangladesh to India at Mongla and Mirsharai. [7]

Sensitivity Surrounding Teesta River Conservation & Management Mega Project

However, one of the significant development cooperation between the two states was Bangladesh’s acceptance of India's undertaking of the Teesta River conservation and management inside Bangladesh with the latter’s assistance within a mutually agreed timeframe. [8] For the same, a technical expert team is expected to visit Dhaka in the coming days. Recently Teesta River, one of 54 rivers shared by the two countries—India and Bangladesh – has been in the news due to Chinese authorities expressing interest in Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration project as this multifaceted project is presumed to be a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project. [9] It is reported that Beijing has been gazing at this project for the past few years, with an estimated cost of $1 billion, and submitted a formal proposal to the authorities in Dhaka for implementing it.[10] However, this has been a sensitive issue for India as this project will bring China within 100 km of its border and close to its 60 km long and 22 km wide Siliguri corridor[11], often referred to as Chicken’s Neck, which is the only land link that connects the country’s precarious north-eastern states with mainland India. Therefore, prior to the Bangladeshi PM’s visit to Beijing, talks on the conservation/management of the Teesta River water was an important as well as positive step where both sides have shown interest in resolving this long pending issue while taking into consideration the geo-strategic concerns of each other. Moreover, the joint shared vision has already mentioned that the cooperation between these two South Asian states is “reflective of an all-encompassing partnership that transcends a strategic partnership, built upon shared values and interests, equality, trust, understanding and rooted in mutual sensitivity to each other’s aspirations and concerns.” [12]

Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Hassan Mahmud in May had announced that “India has offered its support to construct a reservoir on the cross-border Teesta River in Bangladesh.” [13] After returning home from New Delhi, the Bangladeshi PM had clarified that both China and India—the two regional rivals—have submitted proposal for the implementation of this project; however, the government of Bangladesh will accept the proposal based on the latter’s national interest.[14] This illustrates how Bangladesh is successfully maintaining a balance in its relations with both the regional players. But in terms of the Teesta project, the Bangladeshi PM had also hinted that it would be beneficial if India undertook the project as Teesta water sharing is a long standing issue between both the states hindering otherwise cordial bilateral relations. [15] However, for India, a consensus between New Delhi and West Bengal will be required to deliver on the former’s promise to Dhaka on this sensitive issue.

Intra-Regional Trade & Connectivity

Some other significant outcomes of the visit are: to ensure smooth people-to-people relations India’s extension of e-medical visas to Bangladeshi citizens travelling for treatment to India (especially to overcome the problem surrounding visa issues which has been a major thorn in the bi-lateral relations); expanding “power and energy collaboration” and developing “intra-regional electricity trade[16];” agreement on the former’s opening of a new Assistant High Commission in Rangpur; finalizing a new Framework Agreement for Development Partnership between the two countries[17] etc.

Another notable agreement which was signed between the two neighbours was on rail connectivity. According to the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed by Bangladesh and Indian Railway, “India is allowed to use Bangladesh rail lines to carry goods and passengers across its territory (north-eastern part); while as a part of sub-regional connectivity initiative, India will extend transit facilities for Bangladesh to carry goods[18] and passengers to Nepal, Bhutan and India by using Indian railway networks.” [19] However, it has been witnessed that few groups in Bangladesh including the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) are questioning this agreement by terming it to be “anti-state” as the deal supposedly compromises Bangladesh’s sovereignty and national security. [20] But the ruling Awami League has outwardly debunked these statements. As a part of cross-border connectivity, it was also announced that a passenger train service running between Kolkata and Rajshahi will be launched soon. [21] A goods train on Bangladesh Railways from Gede-Darshana to Haldibari-Chilahati cross border interchange point is scheduled to commence its trial run from this month. [22] In addition, it was also declared that a new bus service between Kolkata and Chittagong will start its operation soon. [23] Overall, along with the signing of 10 MOUs, 13 specific declarations have emerged from the PM’s visit, despite uncertainty remains surrounding the Teesta Water Sharing Agreement and the renewal of the Ganges Water Sharing Agreement. [24] Furthermore, the joint future vision statement also mentioned that both India and Bangladesh will work together for “regional and sub-regional integration under the BIMSTEC, SAARC and IORA architectures.” [25]

Conclusion

Therefore, to sum, PM Sheikh Hasina’s recent visit underscored the shared commitment of both the countries for enhancing cooperation across multiple domains including intra-regional trade, connectivity, sustainable development, digital technology, security, defence, regional cooperation/peace, and stability. The visit came at a crucial time, having strategic implications as PM Sheikh Hasina is scheduled to travel to China this month, thus marking a new chapter in the evolving relationship between the two South Asian neighbours. The joint “Shared Vision for Future” signed by the two is a testament of broader commitment of both the nations to foster a robust and dynamic partnership, therefore, paving the ground for a prosperous and stable future not only for India and Bangladesh but also for the entire region of South Asia. In this backdrop it will be interesting to witness the outcomes of PM Sheikh Hasina’s upcoming visit to China and how the PM will continue to strike a balance in her country’s ties with both New Delhi and Beijing—the two major players in the region.

References

[1] https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/37888/State_Visit_of_Prime_Minister_of_Bangladesh_to_India_June_2122_2024
[2] https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/foreign-affairs/350156/pm-hasina-india-visit-brief-but-very-fruitful
[3] https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/foreign-affairs/350156/pm-hasina-india-visit-brief-but-very-fruitful
[4] https://mofa.gov.bd/site/press_release/2d1bfcb8-e9e6-4a01-a47e-6baaaeb21316
[5] https://mofa.gov.bd/site/press_release/2d1bfcb8-e9e6-4a01-a47e-6baaaeb21316
[6] https://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/37897/IndiaBangladesh_Shared_Vision_for_Future_Enhancing_Connectivity_Commerce_and_Collaboration_for_Shared_Prosperity
[7] https://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/37897/IndiaBangladesh_Shared_Vision_for_Future_Enhancing_Connectivity_Commerce_and_Collaboration_for_Shared_Prosperity
[8] https://mofa.gov.bd/site/press_release/2d1bfcb8-e9e6-4a01-a47e-6baaaeb21316
[9] https://www.bbc.com/bengali/articles/c04rzr3n807o
[10] https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/china-eyes-teesta-development-project-in-bangladesh-india-in-race-too-101715173755774.html
[11] https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/crossing-currents-india-china-contention-and-the-teesta-conundrum-in-bangladesh
[12] https://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/37897/IndiaBangladesh_Shared_Vision_for_Future_Enhancing_Connectivity_Commerce_and_Collaboration_for_Shared_Prosperity
[13] https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/india/india-offers-support-for-bangladeshs-teesta-reservoir-project-foreign-minister-hassan-mahmud/articleshow/109981283.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst
[14] https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/foreign-affairs/350173/pm-hasina-govt-to-accept-most-beneficial-teesta
[15] https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/foreign-affairs/350173/pm-hasina-govt-to-accept-most-beneficial-teesta
[16] https://thediplomat.com/2024/06/pm-hasinas-delhi-visit-energizes-bangladesh-india-relations/
[17] https://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/37897/IndiaBangladesh_Shared_Vision_for_Future_Enhancing_Connectivity_Commerce_and_Collaboration_for_Shared_Prosperity
[18] https://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/37897/IndiaBangladesh_Shared_Vision_for_Future_Enhancing_Connectivity_Commerce_and_Collaboration_for_Shared_Prosperity
[19] https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/foreign-affairs/350418/goods-passengers-allowed-under-bangladesh-india
[20] https://www.thedailystar.net/news/bangladesh/news/govt-deals-india-anti-state-fakhrul-3645881
[21] https://www.deccanherald.com/india/india-bangladesh-announce-new-train-service-between-rajshahi-and-kolkata-new-bus-service-between-kolkata-and-chittagong-3077123
[22] https://www.deccanherald.com/india/india-bangladesh-announce-new-train-service-between-rajshahi-and-kolkata-new-bus-service-between-kolkata-and-chittagong-3077123
[23] https://www.deccanherald.com/india/india-bangladesh-announce-new-train-service-between-rajshahi-and-kolkata-new-bus-service-between-kolkata-and-chittagong-3077123
[24] https://www.daily-sun.com/post/755319
[25] https://mofa.gov.bd/site/press_release/2d1bfcb8-e9e6-4a01-a47e-6baaaeb21316

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