Awami League General Secretary and Minister for Roads and Bridges Mr. Obaidul Quader’s visit to India has been significant. He led a 19-member delegation to India on a three-day visit on the invitation of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The visit is reportedly to be first of the kind since the ruling Awami League came to power in 2014.
Returning to Dhaka on 24th April, it was reported that the Minister Quader told the media at the airport that he had discussed several serious issues with the Indian Prime Minister and several Indian leaders. It was reported that the AL delegation had a nearly two-hour meeting with BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav. The AL delegation is reported to have attended a dinner hosted by Ram Madhav at the official residence of Indian Commerce and Industry Minister Suresh Prabhu who is expected to visit Bangladesh in June of this year.
On 26th April, Awami League General Secretary Obaidul Quader said that the delegation did not discuss anything about the upcoming 11th parliamentary election (he meant parliamentary election in Bangladesh) with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He is quoted to have said “Modi himself didn’t talk in this regard too,” while addressing a press conference at the party president Sheikh Hasina’s Dhanmondi political office in Dhaka.
Before the trip, the Minister Quader was quoted to have said that “India is more than a neighbour.” According to many analysts, it meant that the relationship is so pervasive from ancient days. Naturally, “India factor” looms large in Bangladesh foreign policy as .the country is surrounded by west, east and north by India, and on the south- east it shares border (only 271 kilometre on land and river) with Myanmar. Furthermore, India is 22 times larger in territory than that of Bangladesh. No one can refashion geography but this asymmetrical size has an impact on bilateral relations.
Bangladesh-India relations are complex, sensitive and multi-dimensional. The relationship is not only restricted to governments but exists independently among people of the two nations because the ties of history and culture of the peoples are tied down from ancient days.
It was perceived at the initial stage of independence that Bangladesh and India would not suffer from any mistrust and suspicion. For example, after the visit in India in early 1972 by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of the nation and the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, in a Joint Statement it was stated that “Bangladesh and India would live in eternal friendship as brothers” since the two countries had “an identity of ideals, outlook and values and would live in amity”.
The sentiment expressed in the communiqué was found later to be idealistic and within a short period it had suffered a few serious bumps in bilateral relations due to failure to resolve many bilateral disputes. While acknowledging debt to India for independence of Bangladesh the people in the country could not perceive as to why India is so insensitive to the sentiments of the people of Bangladesh. An eminent India journalist Sunanda K. Datta-Ray wrote in July in 2009 in Kolkata’s The Telegraph “Bangladesh may sizzle but it sizzles on a back-burner of Indian priorities.” On 15th February, 2012 The Times of India warned the Indian government to rectify policies before time was over. Further it said that New Delhi failed to deliver on big-ticket issues and risked, losing most of the goodwill it had previously garnered.
After the tragic assassination of Sheikh Mujib in August 1975, the country went under the military rule until December 1990. The bilateral relations took a different path and. Bangladesh gradually became closer to China than to India.
However, in 2009, the installation of the Awami League government in Bangladesh and the Congress party in India to power created a congenial ambience in building a stronger bilateral architecture.
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s landmark four-day visit on 10-13th January 2010 to India created an excellent environment of mutual trust that sought to lay the foundations to a much more mature, stable and fruitful relationship with India through a - 51-paragraph Joint Statement.
The Prime Ministers of Bangladesh and India had signed in Dhaka the “Framework Agreement on Cooperation and Development” on 6th September 2011. The agreement had ushered in a new phase of Indo-Bangladesh relations.
The Agreement opens up possibilities in cooperation on bilateral, sub-regional and regional level on areas such as, water, energy, food security and environmental safety and is to be welcomed. If the provisions of the Agreement are implemented speedily with good faith, the outcome will be mutually beneficial.
Both nations need to be mindful that the geo-political scene around South Asia is changing. Physical connectivity with South East Asian nations and China is an imperative and already a regional forum - Bangladesh, China India and Myanmar (BCIM) - has been floated for cooperation in all possible sectors and Dhaka hosted the meeting in November 2014.
The eastern region of South Asia including Bangladesh Bhutan, Nepal and northeastern states of India will flourish most when their economy is integrated to the region and the rest of the world. Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and the northeastern states of India could be constituted as a sub-regional economic group, sharing of resources for mutual benefits.
The sub-region could be made an engine for economic growth because there are many opportunities to explore and exploit the natural and human resources.
India is an emerging power. Majority of people in neighbouring countries looks at India, the larger and resourceful neighbor, with admiration and apprehension. Admiration is felt because the neighbour, having common bonds of history and geography, has been emerging as a global political and economic power. Apprehension emanates from stresses when neighbours are not sure of their position in the new geopolitical environment
One of the biggest challenges is addressing the asymmetrical nature of the connection between our countries. One may ask whether India really needs Bangladesh as much as Bangladesh needs India. No one would have easy answers to this question.
There is a saying that one can choose friends but not neighbours. Bangladesh and India are destined to live next to each other. Therefore there is no reason why Bangladesh-India relations should not be mutually supportive and friendly as both should fight together the common enemy, poverty - existing among people of both countries. n
Barrister Harun ur Rashid, Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva