Evaluation of Indo-Bangladesh Strategic Relations
Maj Gen (Retd.) P K Chakravorty
In Perspective

On 16 December 1971, the Pakistani Army surrendered to the Indian Army resulting in the creation of Bangladesh. [1] It is more than 52 years and the country is developing at a steady pace. Elections were held recently on 07 January 2024, when the Awami League Party came victorious and is set to rule for another five years. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is in the post since 2009. She refers to India as a trusted friend and is intent on deepening the bilateral relations further. [2] She has stood by India and stopped activities of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) from Bangladesh. Anup Chetia, a top leader of the militant group ULFA who had fled India about 28 years ago, was unconditionally handed over to India in November 2015. [3] The back bone of the ULFA movement was thus broken leading to diminishing insurgency in Assam. On December 29, 2023, the pro-talks faction of the ULFA headed by Arbind Rajkhowa signed a tripartite peace deal with the Central Government of India and the Assam Government. This memorandum of settlement is a remarkable achievement and raises the hope that the Paresh Baruah faction will also join in the peace negotiations in a short while. [4]

Sovereignty Issues

The biggest Indo-Bangladesh issue which has been resolved pertains to exchange of border enclaves. These are small, isolated pockets of land embedded into each other country’s territories following the Partition, thus making it difficult for each country to exercise administrative control. In some cases, the issues were complicated by existence of counter-enclaves. The 2015 Land Boundary Agreement served an important role in mutual exchange of 111 enclaves (17160.63 acres) from India to Bangladesh, and reciprocally, the latter transferred 51 enclaves (7110.02 acres) to India. Further, the choice of citizenship was also offered to enclave residents. [5] The Land Boundary Agreement also demarcated the boundary between India and Bangladesh along the Indian states of West Bengal, Tripura, Assam and Meghalaya.

The next issue was the resolution of the maritime dispute between the two nations in the Bay of Bengal. Largely, the differences were over delimitation of the territorial sea. India wanted to determine the maritime boundary on ‘equidistance method’ which implies that a nation’s maritime boundaries should conform to a median line equidistant from the shores of neighbouring nations. Bangladesh, however, was pressing for a solution that could be reached by keeping in focus all relevant circumstances of equitable distribution of resources like fishing, sea bed mining and extraction of oil and gas. A United Nations (UN) tribunal, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) based at The Hague in Netherlands, gave the ruling in favour of Bangladesh. As per the award, Bangladesh was given four-fifth of the total disputed area of 25,602 sq km. [6] It was creditable that both countries accepted the verdict.

Domestic Economy

Economically, the Bangladesh is progressing with a lot of caution. The International Monetary Fund Press Release no 23/440 dated December 12, 2023, stated that the economy was navigating multi-faceted challenges. There is the need to contain inflation and maintain a steady growth rate of about six percent. IMF supported programs are helping to restore macro-economic stability and protect the needy while accelerating development in other sectors. [7] Despite a difficult external environment, program performance has been steady. This is creditable considering that Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Maldives are facing stiff economic challenges. GDP of Bangladesh is US $ 420.52 billion. In the last decade the country has developed considerably and is on the higher growth trajectory with a per capita income of $ 2,687 (June 2022 figure). a growth of 5.3 percent (Financial Year 2023). [8] Like all others, the country is impacted by slow global growth following the war in Ukraine. Bangladesh Government is doing its best to control the inflation and has embarked on many reform programs as precautionary measures. [9]

The Padma Bridge

Here, it would be interesting to consider the construction of the Padma Bridge as a reckonable economic feat undertaken by Bangladesh, a riverine country.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, with the help of all organs of the Government including the security agencies, completed the crucial economic highway of the Padma Bridge. It is way back in 1971 that the first feasibility report for the bridge to link Faridpur with Dacca was carried out. [10] In order to develop the road-link it was essential to construct a bridge over the River Padma. Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, the first President of Bangladesh, had announced the construction but his assassination prevented its implementation. The foundation stone for the bridge was laid by Sheikh Hasina on 04 July 2001. However, the succeeding Prime Minister, Begum Khaleda Zia, discontinued the project. The World Bank had initially agreed to fund the project but later withdrew on account of widespread corruption. Ultimately, Sheikh Hasina took a courageous decision to fund the project internally. The Engineering Support and Safety Team was provided by the Bangladesh Army. 99 Composite Brigade consisting of 20 Engineering Construction Battalion, 58 East Bengal Regiment and 34 Bangladesh Infantry Regiment was given the task. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in an address at Dacca Cantonment greeted the formation and stated that “We will construct the infrastructure ourselves, we are an independent nation, we want to hold our head high”. [11]

It is to the credit of Sheikh Hasina who undertook the project with full backing of the Bangladesh Army and other Government agencies. A visit to the project shows an engineering marvel that would ensure higher economic growth. The steel truss bridge carries a four-lane highway on the upper level and a single-track railway line under it. The bridge connects Kolkata to Dacca both by road and rail. Soon it would be possible to travel from Kolkata to Dacca in five hours. The bridge also it connects Louhajang Upazila of Munshiganj and Faridpur. The bridge consists of 41 sections, each 150.12m long and 22 m wide with a total length of 6.15 Km. It is the longest bridge in Bangladesh and with piles sunk as deep as 127 m, has the deepest piers in the world. The construction was considered to be especially challenging due to the width and depth of the Padma River.

The bridge is expected to boost the GDP of Bangladesh by as much as 1.23 percent. It will bring Bangladesh benefits worth more than $ 10 billion which is three and half times more than the construction cost. [12] Population density and wages in the southern districts connected by the Padma Bridge to Dhaka City will increase significantly. A possible sea rise will witness a greater influx of population to the Northern regions. The bridge will help to lessen the impact of sea level rise in the region. [13] The bridge will bring Kolkata and Dacca closer which would further good relations.

Bangladesh Economy

Bangladesh’s is a major developing market economy. As the second largest economy in South Asia, the Bangladesh economy is the 37th largest in the world in nominal terms and 25th largest by purchasing power parity. The country is a member of South Asian Free Trade Area and the World Trade Organisation. Bangladesh is one of the fastest growing economies in the World.

Bangladesh embarked on economic reforms in the late 1970s which promoted free markets and foreign direct investments. GDP of Bangladesh is $ 420.52 billion. The per capita income is $ 2740 and the Services sector occupies about 53.4 percent of it. The country has exports of $ 52 billion. Garments form the major part of exports. Interestingly, neither cotton nor the machines for these garments are indigenous. These are imported for the country to produce world class garments. The main export partners are United States 15 percent, Germany 14 percent, United Kingdom 8 percent, Spain 7 percent and France 7 percent.

The country imports amount to $85 billion (figure of 2021). 31 percent of the imports are from China, 15 percent from India and 5 percent from Singapore. The imports are mainly refined petroleum, cotton, natural gas, scrap iron and wheat. [14] As per the Asian Development Bank (ADB), GDP growth in 2022 despite COVID was 7.1 percent. Currently, growth is dampened by the economic slowdown and the special operations launched by Russia in Ukraine. ADB is responding to Bangladesh’s need for greater climate resilience, quality education, improved infrastructure and skills development to realise the country’s goal of becoming an upper middle-income country by 2031. [15]

Bangladesh Armed Forces

Armed Forces of Bangladesh consists of three military services. These are the Bangladesh Army, Bangladesh Navy and the Bangladesh Air Force. These are responsible for safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bangladesh by protecting land, maritime, air space, and its national cohesion against threats that may be internal or external. These also play a role in disaster management and maintaining peace in the Chittagong Hill Tracks, and have a key role in nation building activities. Currently, members of the Armed Forces are deployed in nine counties as peace keepers under the United Nation’s mandate. [16]

The President is the Commander-in-Chief and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is the Head of the Armed Forces and Minister of Defence. The Army has about 10 divisions with specified areas of responsibilities. In addition, there are several independent brigades and an Army Training Doctrine Command. Effectively, the Army would comprise about twelve divisions. Then there are the Independent Air Defence, Engineer, Para Commando and Signals Brigades. The Global Firepower’s 2019 Military Strength Ranking has named Bangladesh as the third most powerful military power in South Asia after India and Pakistan. In world rankings, it is placed at 45 out of 137. [17] There are about 200,000 military personnel. The para military strength is huge. [18] In terms of equipment, the Army has about 280 tanks, 779 Armoured Personnel Carriers, 281 Field Guns, 62 Medium Guns, 225 Anti-Aircraft Guns, few Surface to Air Missile launchers and about 28 Multiple Launcher Rocker Systems. [19]

Bangladesh Navy currently operates two submarines, five guided missile frigates, two patrol frigates, six guided missile corvettes, mine sweepers, survey ships, amphibious landing craft, auxiliaries, and minor surface combatants of various types including off shore patrol vessels, coastal patrol boats, missile boats and rapid response boats. Some of the vessels are indigenously manufactured, rest have been imported from China, South Korea, United Kingdom, Singapore, Indonesia, United States, Denmark, erstwhile Yugoslavia and Netherlands. [20]

Bangladesh Air Force, Naval Aviation and Army Aviation Forces are equipped with proportionate combat aircrafts. The Air Force is equipped with the following:-

  • F-7 Fighter - 36.
  • MIG-29 B Multi Role Fighter - 6.
  • MIG -29 UB Fighter Trainer – 6, plus some more of other types.
  • C-130 B Tactical Transport- 4.
  • C-130 J Tactical Transport - 4.
  • AN -32 Tactical Transport- 3.
  • L-410 Utility- 3.
  • MI -17 Transport / Gunship Helicopter -35.
  • Bell 212 Medium Utility Helicopter - 14.
  • AW 139 Medium Utility Helicopter- 4.
  • Trainer Helicopter Bell 206 + AW 119 - 6+2.

The Army Aviation has the following aircraft:-

  • C 295 Tactical Transport- 2.
  • MI-17 Medium Lift Helicopter – 5.
  • AS 365 Medium Utility Helicopter – 2.
  • Bell 407 Light Utility Helicopter -2.
  • Bell 206 Light Utility Helicopter – 1.

Naval Aviation has the following aircraft:-

  • Do 228 Maritime Patrol – 3.
  • AW 109 Medium Utility – 2. [21]
Employment of Bangladesh Armed Forces

The Armed Forces is primary responsible for external defence. [22] Bangladesh has land borders with India and towards the South East she has a small border with Myanmar. Relations are extremely friendly with India and the present Government is doing its utmost to move the strategic relations between India and Bangladesh to a higher trajectory. India has a 4096.7 Km border with Bangladesh. The border passes through flat terrain, riverine belts, hills and jungles.

Indo-Bangladesh Border Fencing. Erection of a fence 150 meters from the zero line by the Government of India is partially complete. The fence is aimed at preventing illegal immigration and cross border criminal activities. The Home Ministry of India feels that a fence would check anti-national activities along the border. Currently about 915 km of the border remains to be fenced. There are five districts along the border where the fencing is incomplete. These are Murshidabd, Malda, and Cooch Behar in West Bengal, Karimganj in Assam and West Jaintia hills in Meghalaya. [23] The State Governments have to acquire land and carry out minor adjustments to enable the process. The borders are not manned by the Armed Forces but certainly they have to be prepared for unseen contingencies.

Bangladesh-Myanmar Issues. Bangladesh’s border with Myanmar from the tripoint with India to the Bay of Bengal in the South is 271 km. About 210 km is fenced, while the Myanmar Government has announced that it would fence the rest. With Myanmar, Bangladesh faces a refugee crisis in which the Bangladesh Armed Forces are involved. Millions of Rohingya are currently sheltered outside Myanmar, but the largest number of over a million of them are in Bangladesh. [24] The largest exodus took place in 2017. The refugees are currently housed close to Cox’s Bazar district where around one million refugees are living in 34 refugee camps. Thus, the Bangladesh Armed Forces have to be vigilant against anti-national activities on the land border as well as the maritime front.

Rohingya Refugee Crisis. A week-long visit by a delegation from Myanmar to Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugee camps ended on March 22, 2023. The visit was hailed as significant as it was the first mission since 2019 intended to start the process of return of the refugees. While no statement was made by the Myanmar delegation, the Bangladesh Government stated that the delegation came to verify information about the Internally Displaced Persons for a pilot repatriation project. The UN refugee agency UNHCR stated that the conditions in Myanmar were not conducive to sustainable return of the refugees. [25] Accordingly, the matter will take some time before a viable solution is found.

The Chittagong Hill Tract. A situation of Counter Insurgency existed in the Chittagong Hills Area where the Bangladesh Army conducted operations from the 1970s until the late 1990s. [26] Many political steps have been taken resulting in peaceful situation but the Armed Forces have to be observant to avoid rise of any untoward situation. The International Maritime Bureau reports that shipping in the territorial waters of Bangladesh are vulnerable to armed robbery. A number of measures to tighten the security measures have been taken to reduce such incidents. [27]

Forces’ Modernisation. The ‘Forces Goal 2030’ is a road-map to modernise the Bangladesh Armed Forces. The aim is to modernise the Armed Forces in order to establish influence over the Bay of Bengal and to become a strong nation in Asia. The overall plan visualises two separate Commands for the Army (Eastern and Western Commands), modern submarines and frigates for the Navy and four Squadrons of 4.5 generation Aircraft for the Air Force. [28] The process is on and efforts are being made to realise the goals.

Intensifying Indo-Bangladesh Strategic Relations

India borders Bangladesh on three sides and it was the first country to accord diplomatic recognition to the country. Relations are extremely close in all dimensions ranging from trade, transport, culture, connectivity and people-to-people contacts. However, there is a need to intensify relations in the area of military diplomacy. After all, Bangladesh was created as a result of India’s cooperation with Bangladesh’s freedom rebellion in which the Indian Armed Forces (referred to as the Mitra Bahini) cooperated with Bangladesh’s Mukti Bahini.

The Armed Forces of the two countries are extremely friendly, and therefore, military diplomacy would play a great part in strengthening the strategic relations between the two countries. Here, it would pertinent to be clear about the roles military diplomacy could play, as follows:-

  • To dispel hostility. Build and maintain trust between nations in a region. This could lead to strategic partnership impacting all other fields.
  • Strengthening of ties with other like-minded countries.
  • Defence consultations and strategic dialogues including Track 1.5 and Track 2 dialogues where required.
  • Sales of weapons and military technologies.
  • Training of militaries,
  • Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief.
  • Upskilling the militaries and improve interoperability by interactions and joint exercises.
  • Facilitate subsidiary activities by setting conditions for logistic support.
  • Observance of regional activities including state-to-state military protocols.
  • Participation in UN peace keeping operations.
Viewing Indo-Bangladesh Relations

In this context, the first aspect is to be accomplished is to improve strategic relations leading to Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. India-Bangladesh relations have strengthened ever since we listened to the call of the people against the Pakistani rule. The Indian Armed Forces rose to the call of the Bangladeshi people and with the assistance of the Mukti Bahini defeated the Pakistani Army. Further, the contemporary India-Bangladesh relations have taken deep strides. India remains a committed partner in Bangladesh’s growth and development. To quote former Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, “India-Bangladesh relations are today deeper than any other strategic partnership and role model for ties between two neighbouring countries”. [29] This is true and we must have a robust strategic partnership with Bangladesh. Once that takes place not only will the two-Armed Forces work together harmoniously but it will also lead to all issues being resolved mutually with complete understanding of mutual issues.

That actually is the major aspect which needs to be formalised. Thereafter, discussions on extending the cooperation further in numerous other spheres may be taken to higher trajectory. Currently, there is reasonable interactions at the top level, what is needed is enhanced cooperation at the middle and subordinate levels. Some of these considerations could be:-

  • Understanding Bangladesh’s strategic needs; this could primarily be the handling of Rohingya refugees coming from Myanmar. The Indian Armed Forces could interact, advise and also learn how to deal with the problem.
  • Bulk of Bangladesh equipment is of Chinese origin. Closer interaction would lead to India understanding Bangladesh’s needs and assist them with equipment what they need. We have sold our BrahMos Supersonic Cruise Missiles to Philippines, Pinaka Multiple Launch Rocket System to Armenia and very recently gifted a Missile Corvette to Vietnam. [30] It would be a win-win situation for both countries.
  • Joint exercising of troops from the Army, Navy and Air Force of both countries with a greater frequency.
  • Marching contingents taking part in our Republic Day and Bangladesh’s Victory Day (Bijoy Dibosh) celebrations.
  • Logistics agreement for easy replenishment of Armed Forces of both countries. Military personnel of Bangladesh may be provided medical treatment in our Military Hospitals, should there be a requirement.
  • Posting of instructors in training establishments. To start with, a Colonel level Instructor from Bangladesh may be posted at the Defence Services Staff College in Wellington, India. Similarly a Colonel Instructor may be posted from India to the Defence Services Command and Staff College at Mirpur, Dhaka. Thereafter it be gradually applied at other Category ‘A’ instructional establishments.
  • Disaster management, particularly maritime search and rescue cooperation and joint exercises should be undertaken by the Navies of two countries.
  • Training of specialists like pilots and submariners are skills which Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy possess. This expertise could be used to optimise skills of Bangladeshi pilots and submariners.

Military diplomacy enables two countries to enhance cohesiveness between their Armed Forces and cooperation between the two countries. All the aspects mentioned above would intensify military cooperation between two friendly neighbours. Strategic cooperation would automatically lead to better understanding and resolution of problems.

The Way Forward

Bangladesh is a close friend of India. Its principal language is Bengali which is spoken by people in the Indian states of West Bengal and Tripura. Its national anthem ‘Sonar Bangla’ is written by India’s greatest poet Nobel Laureate Rabindra Nath Tagore. Culturally, it has deep links with our country. Over the years we have become closer to each other and currently there is a need to step up this relationship to the next level. Formalising strategic partnership between the two countries would be the first step in that process. That will assist in development in both the countries and permit peace to prevail in this region.

We must remember that India has its biggest border with Bangladesh – more than 4000 km. Declaring Bangladesh as a strategic partner will improve our communications and security. The new deep-sea port at Matarbari will be a game changer for both Bangladesh and India. With the rail link extension to Cox’s Bazar and onwards to Matarbari, ships with big containers for Bangladesh, our North Eastern states and West Bengal will be able to land their goods at this port. Train connectivity through Akhaura to Agartala and through the Padma Bridge to Kolkata will enable easy communications leading to a win- win strategic situation for both countries.

With the Awami League winning the elections, we must elevate our friendship with Bangladesh. We must help them in all spheres as we have done in the case of Vietnam. Development of our Eastern and North Eastern region can be best achieved by cooperating with Bangladesh in its development. Strategic partnership will pave the way forward.

References

[1] P K Chakravorty, “1971 India-Pakistan War 50 years Later-Section II, Chapter5”, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, 2022, p. 80 Accessed on May 17, 2023.
[2] The Business Standard, “India has total support for Sheikh Hasina’s leadership: Indian Foreign Secretary”,
www.tbsnews.net, May 19, 2023. Accessed on May 19, 2023.
[3] Reported by Monideepa Banerjee, Sudhi Ranjan Sen,” Anup Chetia, Top ULFA Leader handed over to India by Bangladesh”, NDTV, www.ndtv.com, November 11, 2015. Accessed on May 19, 2023
[4] Rahul Karmakar, “Understanding the peace pact with ULFA’, The Hindu, Jan 03, 2024, www.thehindu.com, Accessed on Jan 13, 2024.
[5] Nikita Nayar, “ India and Bangladesh exchanging border enclaves & reconnecting with new citizens”, Brookings, www.brookings.edu, May 12,2020. Accessed on May 19, 2023.
[6] Vani Manocha, “ Bangladesh wins maritime dispute with India”, Down to Earth, www.downtoearth.org.in, July 10, 2014. Accessed on May 20,2023.
[7] International Monetary Fund. “ IMF Executive Board Concludes 203 Article IV Consultation with Bangladesh”, Press Release No 23/440, December 12, 2023.www.imf.org. Accessed on January 16, 2024.
[8] CEIC data, “Bangladesh GDP per capita”, www.ceicdata.com. Accessed on May 20, 2023.
[9] Asian Development Bank,” Bangladesh Economy to Grow Moderately Amid Global Economic Slowdown”. www.adb.org, April 04, 2023. Accessed on May 20, 2023.
[10] In Bengali, Daily Purbadesh (internet Archive), “ The Dacca-Faridpur Road project could usher in a new era”, www.en.m.wikipedia.org, January 19, 1971. Accessed on May 20, 2023.
[11] Senior Correspondent, “ Army brigade for Padma work”, BD News24.com, www.bdnes24.com, Sep 19,2013. Accessed on May 23 2022.
[12] TBS Report, “Gains from Padma Bridge to cross $ 10 billion hope experts”, The Business Standard, June 21, 2022, www.tbsnews.net. Accessed on June 20, 2023.
[13] TBS Report, “ Padma Bridge to boost wage by 2-4% in South, lessen climate impacts World Bank” , The Business Standard, September 25, 2022, www.tbsnews.net. Accessed on June 20, 2023.
[14] The World Fact Book,” Bangladesh Economy,” Central Intelligence Agency, www.cia.gov. Accessed on June 25, 2023.
[15] “ Asian Development Bank and Bangladesh Fact Sheet”, www.adb.org. April 2023. Accessed on June 25, 2023.
[16] Prime Minister’s Office, Armed Forces Division,“ Bangladesh Armed Forces”, www.afd.gov.bd. Accessed on June 29, 2023.
[17] Tribune Desk, ”Bangladesh Army named 3rd most powerful in South Asia”, Dhaka Tribune, www.archive.dhakatribune.com, September 30, 2019. Accessed on June 29, 2023.
[18] “War Power Bangla Desh”, www.warpowebangladesh.com. Accessed on June 29, 2023.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Deepak Acharjee, ”From Buyer To Builder”, The Independent Bangladesh, www.theindependentbd.com, January 14, 2018. Accessed on June 29, 2023. & www.en.m.wikipedia.org, List of Active Bangladesh Navy Ships. Accessed on June 29, 2023.
[21] “War Power: Bangladesh”, www.warpowerbangladesh.com. Accessed on June 29, 2023
[22] Central Intelligence Agency, “Bangladesh -2022 World Fact Book Archive CIA, Military and Security”, www.cia.gov. December 21, 2022. Accessed on July 1, 2023.
[23] Rajeev Bhattacharyya,” Why Has India Missed deadlines for fencing India-Bangladesh Border?”, The Diplomat, www.thediplomat.com, February 03, 2023. Accessed on July 1, 2023.
[24] Anu Anwar, “ Does Anyone want to solve the Rohingya crisis?”, The Diplomat, www.thediplomat.com, February 2, 2023. Accessed on July 1, 2023.
[25] Faisal Mahmud, “ Myanmar visit to Bangladesh’s Rohingya camps leaves doubts, fears”, www.asia.nikkei.com, Nikkei Asia, March 23, 2023. Accessed on July 2, 2023.
[26] Central Intelligence Agency, “ Bangladesh -2022 World Fact Book Archive CIA, Military and Security”, www.cia.gov. December 21, 2022. Accessed on July 2, 2023
[27] Shahadat Hossain Chowdhury, “ How Ctg port was port was rid of pirates”, The Business Standard, www.tbsnews.net, February 25, 2022. Accessed on July 2, 2023
[28] “ Forces Goal 2030”, Military Wiki-Fandom, www.military-history.fandom.com, Accessed on July 2, 2023.
[29] Press Trust Of India, “ India-Bangladesh ties deeper than any other strategic partnership: Harsh Vardhan Singla”, Times of India, www.timesofindia.com, October 23, 2021. Accessed on July 7,2023.
[30] Dinkar Peri,” India gifts missile corvette, INS Kirpan to Vietnam”, The Hindu, June 19, 2023, www.thehindu.com. Accessed on July 8, 2023.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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