Indo-Bangladesh relations: ups and downs

Dr. Rashid Askari
Friday, September 16th, 2011

Introduction: Background of the relations


Bangladesh’s relations with India may well be weighed up by their geographical locations—a weak little mouse in a mighty cat’s paw. Bangladesh is bounded by the Indian states of West Bengal to the west and north, Assam to the north, Meghalaya to the north and northeast, and Tripura and Mizoram to the east, and by the Bay of Bengal to the south. So the poor Sub-continental ghetto called Bangladesh is swallowed up three fourth by Mother India, and one fourth by the Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh shares 4094 kilometers of land border, a vast maritime boundary, and 54 common rivers with India. If India is a big banyan tree, Bangladesh is a twining tendril around it. Bangladesh took on this crooked shape as the result of a rash political caesarian done in 1947 in the name of the so-called ‘Two-nation theory’. Like an organ severed from an indistinguishable land, and a millennium-old culture, the then East Bengal turned into East Pakistan which was called ‘moth eaten’ by Pakistan’s first Prime Minister, Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan (1895-1951). But our ‘moth eaten’ land split up with their ‘holy’ land, and emerged as Independent Bangladesh in1971. After independence we did away with all that was Pakistani except for the territory. It broke off from Pakistan, and remained apart from other part(s) of Bengal and the Bengali speaking regions of Northeast India. So what we now call Bangladesh is not the full Bengal. It is the politically liberated version of East Bengal which had to have its arms and legs amputated by the inequitable division of India in 1947 which emphasized religious affinities, and ignored geographical, social, and cultural similitude. We, however, want to remain happy with our fragmentary Bangladesh. We are happy that we are rid of Pakistan rule, but we are sometimes unhappy that we are endangered for the loss of our organs in 1947. The neighbouring demi-super power tries to use our lost organs against us. This is where lies the crux of Bangladesh-India relations.


Along Indo- Bangladesh land border has been raised an 8-foot-high, double-walled, barbed-wire fence by New Delhi reportedly to prevent terrorism, smuggling, and infiltration into the country. But the iron fence could not restrict the movements of nature—flora and fauna, and culture. People of two countries (the caged up Bangladeshis and the West Bangalis and many of northeast Indians) are born and raised in the same cultural matrix. They are bathed in the same waters, dried in the same air, fed the same food, speak the same language, read the same poetry, listen to the same music, and share the same history, culture and heritage. Thus, when the same people have to belong to two different countries by the twist of an arbitrary political fate, it becomes difficult to determine their bilateral relations.


There is another thing that binds one country to the other is India’s role in the Liberation War of Bangladesh (1971). India played the role of a loving matron in the birth of an orphan-like child whose father was in a far off solitary confinement during childbirth. The founder of Bangladesh Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman(1920-1975) himself owed a great debt of gratitude to India and its erstwhile Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (1917-1984). For this deep sense of gratitude on one hand, and the vulnerability of geographical location and other concomitant weaknesses on the other, Bangladesh cannot always strongly haggle with India over different bilateral issues. Not only that, Bangladesh often fails to levy its due on India which both countries are agreed on. It is, however, not that Bangladesh is solely responsible for the failure to obtain its rights being cowed by its counterpart in authority. India’s big-brotherly attitude and hegemonic control over the neighbouring countries sometimes work as a hindrance to smooth functioning of relations building agenda. Besides, the change of governments in both the countries largely affects the relations. Sheikh Mujib and his Awami League were the best friends of Indira Gandhi and her Congress. Their relationship was so profound that on Mujib’s request Indira withdrew all her armed forces from Bangladesh in no time. The ‘Indira-Mujib Pact’ (16 May 1974) could have been the best possible catalyst for the best possible relations between the two countries, if it had been fully realized. But after the assassination of Mujib in 1975, the anti-Mujib military, autocratic, and pseudo-democratic governments in Bangladesh took a U-turn in their attitude towards India. On the other hand, the non-Congress governments in India did not feel much about neighbouring Bangladesh, the vast majority of whose people are the supporters of Congress leader Indira Gandhi. Although this usually does not matter in case of the formulation of state policies, but it sometimes reaches crisis proportions.


So the state relations between Bangladesh and India vary with the change of the political ascendancy in both the countries. As a result, in last four decades after the independence of Bangladesh, Indo-Bangladesh relations have been more or less a source of continued disappointment especially for the people of Bangladesh. The building of many upstream dams,  the Ganges water share deprivation, indiscriminate  killing of Bangladeshi nationals in the border, untold miseries of the  people of 162 enclaves in India and Bangladesh  have hugely frustrated  160 million people of the downstream delta—Bangladesh. Today’s scholars in Bangladesh tend to depreciate the selfish motives of India for helping Bangladesh in its Liberation War (1971), and highlight India’s own geopolitical interest.


Bones of contention:


The Bangladesh -India relations revolve around the issues of joint rivers, border & enclaves, security concerns, bilateral trade, regional cooperation, maritime boundary, transit and transshipment, and international politics. The core of the contention mostly lies in the operation of the Farakka Barrage from April 21, 1975 by India which was to divert up to 40,000 cu ft/s of water from the river Ganges into the river Hooghly during the dry season, in order to flush out the deposition of silt, and to prevent the build-up of further silt in the Hooghly River to save Calcutta Port. The upstream dam, however, is taking a heavy toll on the downstream people of Bangladesh. About one third of the total population and almost half of the total irrigated land in Bangladesh are in the Ganges basin. Bangladesh claims that it does not receive a fair share of the Ganges waters during the drier seasons despite mutually made agreements, and gets flooded during the monsoons when India sets free the flow of water.


There have also been disputes over the transfer of Teen Bigha Corridor to Bangladesh. A pretty large part of Bangladesh is surrounded by the Indian state of West Bengal. On 26 June 1992, India leased three bighas (a bigha is a measure of land equal to 6400 sq cubits or 0.33 acre approx) of their land to Bangladesh to connect this enclave with mainland Bangladesh. There is dispute regarding the indefinite nature of the lease.


The exchange of adversely held enclaves is also a big problem for both the countries. About 51,000 people are stuck in limbo in 162 enclaves (111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh, and 51 Bangladesh enclaves in India) spread over 7000 acres of land. Terrorist activities carried out by the outfits based in both countries, like Banga Sena and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islam are also big cause for concern. Recently India and Bangladesh had joined hands to fight the forces of terrorism, extremism and militancy.


The cross-border insurgency is another worrying issue. India sometimes claims that insurgents from India are given refuge in Bangladesh. This has been a major disquiet over the years.


India’s pursuit of the transit facilities in Bangladesh is a very sensitive issue in Bangladesh. The vested quarters try to earn narrow political interest by abusing this issue. But connectivity plays a pivotal role in this era of globalization. Most ironically, the connectivity between Bangladesh and India in terms of train services, transit and trans-shipment was much easier during the Pakistan days. It should have been far better by now in the post-Independence period.


That India feels distinctly uneasy about the illegal Bangladeshi immigration into India is another cause of mounting tension in the bilateral relations. The Indians are prone to believe that there are large numbers of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh in the North- East, West Bengal, and even in the big cities like Mumbai and Delhi.  Bangladeshi officials, however, deny the existence of illegal Bangladeshis living in India. The illegal Bangladeshi immigrants found in India are described as having been trafficked. This has serious repercussions among them, for they are uncritically stigmatized as being involved in prostitution. The worst thing about the ‘cross border migrants’ is that they are running high risk of HIV infection and other STDs (sexually transmitted diseases).


Indiscriminate cross-border killing, aiding and abetting criminal activities like armed robbery, fake money transfer, and illegal drugs trafficking by both Indian and Bangladeshi people are the most difficult problems besetting our bilateral relations.


The trade gap has been another major obstacle to Indo-Bangladesh relations. Bangladesh has always been in a situation in which the value of its imports is far greater than that of its exports. Bangladesh has been a major market for Indian products, while India imposes a number of non-tariff barriers to the marketing of Bangladeshi products in India. The huge trade deficit stands in the way of mutually beneficial trade.


The claim of both Bangladesh and India over the same seawater at the Bay of Bengal poses some new challenges to Indo-Bangladesh relations.


The nature of the relations:


The relation between Bangladesh and India is not merely a bilateral relation. It is also a multilateral connection between the south Asian countries, and could be a catalyst for regional cooperation, peace, and prosperity. Kathryn Jacques of the School of Classics, History, and Religion at the University of New England in Australia has done a seminal work on Bangladesh’s relationship with India and Pakistan between 1975 and 1990 entitled Bangladesh, India and Pakistan: International Relations and Regional Tensions in South Asia. Her book is a broad analytical study of the complexity of the relationship between Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan and challenges the stereotypical and lopsided views on the subject. In her book, Ms Kathryn tries to identify the root causes of Bangladesh-India tensions, locate their position in the tug of war, show the reasons for sustained failure in the mutual relation building activities, and prescribe probable ways of solution to the problem. As she puts it:


“The most prominent India-Bangladesh border issues, the Tin Bigha Corridor, Muhuri Char and New Moore/ South Talpatty / Purbasha island have all tended to reinforce the traditional antagonisms, rivalries and fears existing in South Asia, the disputes being manipulated and protracted for political advantage by both Mrs. Gandhi and Ziaur Rahman (President 1975-1981). Both states added fuel to their mutual disputes, both overreacting with aggression and suspicion. Of the two states, India was in a far better position to compromise. Bangladesh did not represent a military threat, and had much more to lose than India. The disputes should have been quickly resolvable through diplomatic channels. Instead, the conduct of the issues was characterised by belligerence and insensitivity on India’s part, and oversensitivity and suspicion on Bangladesh’s part. The Indian government, particularly under Indira Gandhi, had great difficulty in differentiating between disputes with Bangladesh and those with rivals, Pakistan and China. A Bangladesh government which was not obviously pro-Indian, as it was under Mujibur Rahman, was automatically dubbed by India, Cold War-style, as being pro-Pakistan.” Ms Katryn has explored that Bangladesh’s role in South Asian international relations has tended to be overlooked and underestimated.


Significance of the improvement of relations:


In tune with the advancement of regional and global peace making processes, it is imperative to develop Indo-Bangladesh relationship. In a recent U.S.-India Strategic dialogue in Chennai, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged India to step up its leadership role in the Southeast Asian region. She specifically stated that India “has a great commitment to improving relations with Bangladesh, and that is important because regional solutions will be necessary on energy shortages, water-sharing, and the fight against terrorists.” Ms Clinton’s advice has been a timely reminder to both India and Bangladesh and it can be said that, for the first time since 1975, India and Bangladesh have entered a historic moment to build a robust bilateral relationship which can invigorate India’s ‘Look East’ policy.


In Bangladesh too, there has been a sea change in people’s attitude towards India. People have ceased to believe that their dearly bought country may be eaten up by the Indian hobgoblins or be sold to them. The India-card players are not having grounds to hoodwink the people. There is widespread realization that Bangladesh would gain enormously from an improved relationship with India.


This is a good thing in Bangladesh side that they have come to realize the importance of India in the present global context. India is one of the four countries (BRIC) in the world who would lead the world in the foreseeable future. So, it would be very prudent of Bangladesh to develop an amicable relation with India, and benefit from it through trade, commerce, and investment; technical and scientific cooperation; and education. We should not be obsessed with the geopolitical stereotype of a regional Cold War between the Sino-Pak and Indo-Soviet alignments, and be worried about our own vulnerability. It is no wonder that India is developing its relationship with China and America, moving much away from its SAARC-skeptic position, and opening new windows on regional and sub-regional cooperation. The Manmohan Singh government has unequivocally reaffirmed India’s commitment to SAARC and regional cooperation during the last SAARC Summit. Ever since then, there have been a number of developments in the whole process of regional cooperation, the most significant of which was the unilateral duty free access given by India to the five least-developed countries in SAARC, including Bangladesh. So this is time for Bangladesh and India to settle the differences, and develop fresh relations on the basis of friendship and mutual trust.


Present Developments:


Although Indo-Bangladesh relations have always been more or less under strain, at present there are some developments. This has been instigated by some high-profile visits and return visits. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina accompanied by a 123-member delegation of Foreign affairs and water resources personnel and a 50-member strong business contingent paid a state visit to India on 10 January 2010. The visit helps recreate an atmosphere of friendship and mutual trust between the two countries after a long period of sterility. Sheikh Hasina was conferred the prestigious Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development.


Three agreements on mutual legal assistance in criminal matters, transfer of sentenced persons, and combating international terrorism, organized crime and illegal drug trafficking were signed. Besides, a memorandum of understanding on cooperation in power sector, and a cultural exchange programme were also signed. The Prime Ministers of the two countries agreed to put on record a comprehensive framework of cooperation for development of the two countries based on their mutually shared vision for the future. The joint communiqué declared by the two countries during that time heralds the start of the new relationship.Security regarding militancy and armed insurgency in the northeast India, and in the hill districts of Bangladesh, has significant impact on India-Bangladesh relations. The political leadership and administration of both the countries have agreed not to indulge in the militants and insurgents by any means. This agreement would reassure both of them about national and regional security and strengthen bilateral ties.


India is giving Bangladesh economic assistance and technical cooperation. Prior to Manmohan’s visit it has approved a $750 million loan for Bangladesh to develop ports and related trade infrastructure. Bangladesh, too, signed an agreement (31 May, 2010) to finalize a transshipment deal with India to allow Indian goods to be transported to the northeastern city of Tripura in the state of Assam through Bangladeshi territory. This is a sign of great responsiveness on the part of Bangladesh. Goods produced in the northeast region of India are not easily marketed to the rest of the country. Transit could be a viable solution to the problem. Bangladesh would also financially benefit from it.


Sonia Gandhi, president of Indian National Congress and the chief of National Democratic Aliens of India came to Dhaka to attend an autism conference of South Asia on 25 July 2010. Although a non-political visit, it proves highly diplomatic, and successfully generates a spirit of goodwill in the two countries’ relations.


Monmohan’s visit to Bangladesh and a new twist to the relations:


Although Indian Prime Minister Monmohan’s Singh’s last visit to Bangladesh (6 September 2011) has been a mixed blessing at present, it may mark a new dawn in the history of Indo-Bangladesh relations, and break fresh grounds in bilateral ties in future. Though the sharing of Teesta water issue has cast some aspersions on it, and upset the people of Bangladesh, still there is hope against hope.  Both the premiers have expressed an unambiguous willingness to reach a mutually-acceptable solution to water sharing of Teesta and Feni rivers. Apart from this, Dr. Monmohan’s visit has been more or less a success. The two countries have inked framework agreements on land boundary demarcation, and exchange of adversely held enclaves which may help settle the decades-old border disputes. Prime Minister Singh has announced the access of the Bangladeshi nationals to Dahagram and Angorpota enclaves through the ‘Tin Bigha corridor’ round the clock which makes the people break into rapturous applause. The other deals the two countries made include comprehensive framework on cooperation, protection of Sundarbans tigers and preservation of its bio-diversity, railway cooperation in transit for Nepal, exchange of programmes between BTV and Doordarshan, cooperation between Dhaka University and Jawaharlal Nehru University, and cooperation in renewable energy.


Cutting the Gordian knot:


Although the dramatic cancellation of the Teesta and Feni river water sharing deal has cast a cloud over the bilateral relations, but every cloud has a silver lining It should not come badly unstuck for the non-cooperation of a person whoever (s)he may be. It may only be deferred for a certain period of time. Despite the opposition of Vallabhbhai Patel (1875-1950), Nehru (1889-1964), the first and the longest serving   Prime Minister of India, concluded the historic Delhi Pact (1950) with his Pakistani counterpart Liaquat Ali Khan. The way the present two premiers Sheikh Hasina and Monmohan Singh have reassured us about the holding of the water treaty in near future, we can easily hope against hope. A successful conclusion of the Teesta water treaty may lead to other major shared rivers water treaties along with many other Indo-Bangladesh mutual settlements.


Conclusions: Hope for the best


The historic relation between Bangladesh and India did not develop as expected. For whatever reason it may be, it is most unfortunate for both the countries to fail to improve their relations. There is no reason as such as to why they should grow unfriendly to each other. The state principles of both the countries are almost identical. Both are People’s Republic where democracy and secularism are mostly valued. Both believe in the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty. Both have framed their foreign policies in the light of amity and goodwill. Then why not the practice of what they preach? There should not be any room for doubt and distrust between the two states. But how to earn this? All the disputes developed so far between the two countries should be settled by diplomatic means. The agreements signed during the visit of Mommohan Singh should be properly implemented before long so that there remain no fears of a hidden agenda. There should be a clear time frame for the implementation of boundary demarcation and enclave exchange agreements. It has to be ensured that the Bangladeshi products that have duty-free access to Indian market are not faced with unpredictable non-tariff barriers. On the contrary, Bangladesh should, for obvious geographical exigencies, provide connectivity for the countries of the region especially for Nepal, Bhutan, and India. Through a sincere accomplishment of the agreements so far concluded, India can win back the confidence of the Bangladeshi people. People of Bangladesh should also reciprocate with the same, and secure a win-win situation. India should be well rid of its hegemonic role, and Bangladesh should come out of the shell of any kind of unfounded xenophobia. Only through the exercise of liberal and unprejudiced views and benevolent attitudes the two countries can earn each other’s trust.  Failing this, Bangladesh-India relations would continue to remain in the doldrums.


Dr. Rashid Askari writes fiction and columns, and teaches English literature at Kushtia Islamic University, Bangladesh. E-mail:


  1. Humayun
    September 17, 2011 at 10:51 am

    One of the best articles on the subject of India-Bangladesh relations, objective,dispassionate and well-written.The author tries to focus on some key factors affecting the relations and prescribe down-to-earth solutions to the age-old problem.

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