What lies ahead for Indo-Bangla relations?
Bangladesh and India are two friendly South Asian neighbours whose historic bonding is a time-tested one. India’s support in Bangladesh’s emergence as an independent nation through the 1971 War of Liberation is well recognized. The two countries that share many cultural toes are common members of SAARC, BIMSTEC, the Commonwealth and many other multilateral forums. Of many bilateral developments in recent years, the most historic one has been the signing of the land boundary agreement on 6 June 2015, which opened a new era in their relations.
Still, there are some irritants like occasional killings on the Indo-Bangla border and disputes over sharing of waters from common rivers as the two countries are co-riparian ones. But it’s heartening that the number of border killings came down significantly in recent years, while both the countries are now in close-touch over the just sharing of waters from the common rivers. The bilateral trade has also been fantastic, though the export-import trade is heavily tilted in favour of India.
At a time when relations between Bangladesh and its most important neighbour India are almost universally held to be perched ‘at a new height’, Cosmos Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Bangladeshi conglomerate The Cosmos Group, and the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore organised a symposium on relations between the two fastest-growing South Asian nations to break down what that means.
New heights bring new challenges. What are the new headwinds to further improving ties that the two countries now face? What are the new opportunities? Are there issues that can act as a drag force on the wings of the relationship? The symposium titled ‘Bangladesh-India Relations: Prognosis for the Future’ – part of the Foundation’s Dialogue series in which a high-level panel sought to tackle pressing issues of the day in an interactive setting - sought to answer these broad questions and more.
The panel for the edition, held in the capital’s Six Seasons Hotel, comprised of former Indian Foreign Secretary and Ambassador Krishnan Srinivasan and former professor of Jahangirnagar University Dilara Chowdhury.
ISAS Principal Research Fellow and a former Advisor to Bangladesh’s previous caretaker government Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury chaired the inaugural session while ISAS Director C Raja Mohan delivered the keynote address.
Cosmos Foundation Chairman Enayetullah Khan delivered the welcome speech while Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large and Chairman of the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), Singapore Gopinath Pillai delivered the inaugural speech.
Cosmos Group Directors Nahar Khan and Masud Khan, former and current diplomats, scholars and editors spoke. UNB Chairman Amanullah Khan was also present at the symposium.
The speakers deliberated on many important aspects of bilateral relations, both broad-based and specific.
Experts noted that India can certainly help bring some much-needed balance in the trade with Bangladesh through elimination of tariff and non-tariff barriers.
With their relations now at a newer height, Ambassador Krishnan Srinivasan thinks Bangladesh and India can dominate any sub-regional or regional grouping by continuing close coordination between the two countries.
“Together we’re the giants in BBIN & Bimstec. We can dominate any sub-regional or regional grouping,” said the international relations analyst.
BBIN is a sub-regional cooperation among Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal, while Bimstec stands for Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec).
Through close coordination in all fields, he said, Bangladesh and India can together transform the landscape of the two countries, South and Southeast Asia.
The expert said India will soon be the 5th largest global economy, and Bangladesh will beat India in achieving the middle-income status.
In his paper presented at Cosmos Dialogue, Srinivasan said the current developments between Bangladesh and India are referred to as a golden age.
“Golden ages have come and gone, but there definitely are positive achievements in recent years on trade, land and rail connections, power supply, investments, lines of credit, exchange of visits, cultural and educational ties.
The former Indian foreign secretary said the issue of water sharing is naturally emotive in Bangladesh, a deltaic country afflicted by floods and droughts and mentioned that India is required to understand Bangladesh’s needs.
Bangladesh and India reiterated their commitment to further strengthen the bilateral relations on the basis of friendship, trust and understanding for the mutual benefit of the people of the two countries.
Considering the vision of Bangladesh to become a middle-income country by 2021 and a developed country by 2041, the two countries agreed that a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) in the coming days covering goods, services and investment would provide a sound basis for substantial enhancement of trade and commercial partnership.
Officials concerned of the two countries have already been directed to undertake a joint study on the prospects of entering into a bilateral CEPA.
ISAS Director Raja Mohan thinks Bangladesh requires defining the country’s interests keeping the ever-changing geopolitical and regional scenarios in considerations.
“The question is how you define your interests,” said the Indian scholar based in Singapore stressing that the two countries require building trust at all levels.
Raja Mohan said they are going to see the formation of new geography and one of the most critical elements is the rise of Bangladesh itself and transformation of its economy.
He said the growing economy of Bangladesh is going to have significant implications for South Asia.
Mohan said the change of geography around them will have at least five important consequences for bilateral relations between Bangladesh and India, including the argument of Bangladesh is India-locked. “In fact, Bangladesh can be a land bridge between India and China.”
Dhaka’s water, Rohingya concerns
Speakers at the symposium laid emphasis on addressing two major concerns – water and Rohingya issues – and sought India’s genuine efforts to address those concerns and boost trust between Bangladesh and India at all levels.
Recognising the growing relations between the two South Asian neighbours, they noted much has been achieved over the past years but more needs to be done. The speakers said India made many declarations with lower deliveries.
“We want to be treated equally and candidly if they claim that we are friends. Our prosperity will be the prosperity of India as well,” said Prof Dilara Chowdhury.
She said Rohingya is a great security risk for Bangladesh and if these people do not go back Bangladesh will face all kinds of security repercussions on the society, politics and economy of the country.
The expert said India has not given that kind of pressure on Myanmar that they should be taken back though Bangladesh took care of security interest of India.
She said India and China under the same footing want Bangladesh to solve the Rohingya problem bilaterally which has not been possible. “International support is needed and India should take the lead from its high moral ground to uphold that humanitarian causes of the subcontinent.”
Prof Dilara identified water as the second security concern and expressed displeasure for not seeing any role from the Indian civil society on water issues.
“Bangladesh is a riverine country. Rivers are dying in Bangladesh,” she said apparently putting blames on dams and barrages built by India that diverted water flows.
The analyst mentioned that Bangladesh has given transit and transshipment facilities to India that raised India’s physical presence in Bangladesh but Bangladesh did not gain much.
“Despite promises, only 1 percent of India’s total import is from Bangladesh whereas Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka have more trade shares with India,” she said adding that none of the symposium participants is anti-Indian but what all they want to see is a relation mutually beneficial.
Prof Dilara said Bangladesh cannot prosper no matter how much investment it has if its rivers are dried up.
She, however, said after lot of ups and downs Bangladesh’s relations with India is now better as lot of development is taking place since Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina came to power in 2009. “We can say it has never been better than what it is today.”
Bridges between Delhi-Beijing
Raja Mohan said they are going to see construction of new geography and one of the most critical elements is the rise of Bangladesh itself and transformation of its economy.
He said the growing economy of Bangladesh is going to have significant implications for South Asia.
Raja Mohan said the change of geography around them will have at least five important consequences for bilateral relations between Bangladesh and India including the argument of Bangladesh is India-locked. “In fact Bangladesh can be land bridge between India and China.”
Onus on ’govt of the day’
Shedding light on politics, he said, “You’re free to elect whom you want. Today, in your country, you can elect any one. I’ve been advocating with India to deal with whoever is in the government. You can’t do the management of somebody else’s domestic politics.”
He thinks large countries have no choice but to deal with whoever is in power across the border and across the world.
“Sometimes it comes with problems, sometimes it comes with no problem. Democracy is not a gift that somebody else will give you,” Raja Mohan said adding, “Let’s be pragmatic.”
Raja Mohan said the sovereignty is desired and Bangladesh is sovereign to do what it wants. “Choices have to be made. Choices are difficult and some of the choices will turn out to be bad while some will be good.”
Krishnan Srinivasan said “India will soon become the 5th largest global economy and Bangladesh will beat India to middle income status. Both are growing at almost 7.5 percent of GDP.”
“Together we are the giants in BBIN and Bimstec. We can dominate any sub-regional grouping,” he said.
The former Indian foreign secretary said through close coordination in all fields, Bangladesh and India can together transform the landscape of two countries, South and Southeast Asia.
Dr Iftekhar highlighted various aspects of relations and said it is always important to talk about the problems to take forward the relations.
He said India is most blessed in terms of size, population, and resources in the region and special responsibility, therefore, goes to her. “We are confident she will not shy away from it. As India grows, we all would like to grow with her. Let us assist one another towards progress and prosperity.”
Dr Iftekhar said they want to see India as an elder brother not just for its larger size but as a country with the largest heart.
Emphasizing on avoiding the risk of miscalculation, he said two countries need to work together though there will be differences.
Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large and ISAS Chairman Gopinath Pillai highlighted the activities of the ISAS and pledged to continue working together with Bangladesh including Cosmos Foundation on various important issues.
Enayetullah Khan said India is undoubtedly an emerging power and its importance as economic and strategic power is growing in the region and beyond.
He said Bangladesh is also gaining its importance as a South Asian and global actor. “It has huge potentials.”
Khan said how Bangladesh and India relate to each other is extremely critical for the progress and prosperity of their people as well as peace and stability of the region and beyond.
Cosmos Foundation has always recognised the ties between India and Bangladesh to be essential, not only in the field of foreign policy or geopolitics, but across a range of fields from art to business.