Tuesday, October 4th, 2022 22:24:37

Modi’s visit to Bangladesh A Paradigm Shift In India-Bangladesh Relations

Updated: July 4, 2015 11:50 am

The exchange of ratification documents of the Land Boundary Agreement was an impeccable presentation from India to its neighbour

Prime Minister Narendra Modi concluded his maiden two day state visit to Bangladesh on June 7, 2015 with a display of increased mutual confidence, trust and co-operation between the two nations. The visit could conclude at least twenty two agreements and MoUs between India and Bangladesh including the much talked and anticipated the Land Boundary Agreement. Other agreements were related to security- both land and maritime, power sector, setting up of Indian economic zones, trade and commerce, transit and social sector etc.

The exchange of ratification documents of the Land Boundary Agreement was an impeccable presentation from India to its neighbour. On May 7, 2015, the much awaited 119th constitutional amendment bill to bring the revised India Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) into force was tabled in the Indian parliament and passed unanimously. The passing of the Bill which was pending since 1974, marked the historic departure for the India-Bangladesh relations. The Land Boundary agreement will cast away the confusions of border demarcation, however border management will remain a challenge for both the countries especially for India due to migration issues.

This state visit was distinct in some ways, first that unlike earlier this visit was welcomed and adorned not only by Ms. Sheikh Hasina but also by across the political groups of Bangladesh, and second PM Modi gave star priority to Ms Mamata Banerjee by taking her along as the only chief minister from the north eastern region of the country. In 2011, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh included other chief minister of the region in his convoy, however, Ms Banerjee backed out at the last moment. She alleged that that Centre overlooked the interest of the state and hence the Teesta river pact could not be inked.

Weaving of new Economic Ties

In his statement PM Modi said that ‘We are not just neighbours. We are two nations bound by the threads of history, religion, culture, language and kinship – and, of course, passion for cricket’. Perhaps, he should have added trade and commerce also as a new dimension. It was reported that Anil Ambani’s Reliance Power and Adani Power would invest a combined capital of around $4.5 billion for setting up power stations in Bangladesh. PM Modi stated in his joint press briefing about setting up of special Indian Economic Zones and a quick implementation of the line of credit of 800 million U.S. dollars and full disbursement of 200 million dollars in grant. He also extended another line of credit of 2 billion U.S. dollars to support infrastructure and other development activities in Bangladesh as a tribute to the cooperation between the two countries. Both in economic and security matters there are mutual understanding and coordination of strategies. Such initiatives will not only attract further Indian investments in Bangladesh but also create employment opportunities in both the countries. India could promote Bangladesh’s energy security and on its part Bangladesh could help India to deal with the insurgencies in India’s North-East. It would be reassuring if the Joint Statement Notun Projonma—Nayi Disha, New Generation—New Direction, justifies itself in a way that Bangladesh-India relations have entered a new phase in the relations with a pragmatic, mature and practical approach based on sovereignty, equality, friendship, trust and understanding, as the official Indian spokesperson described it.

Niche in Geo-politics

In a significant departure from its earlier stubborn position, Bangladesh agreed to allow transit of power equipment and foodgrain to the India’s Northeast, as well as allowing Indian cargo vessels to access to Chittagong and Mongla ports. These developments would have far reaching strategic implications especially from the famed Chinese ‘String of Pearls’ perspective. The Chittagong port was developed by China and now it has been developing another deep sea port near Cox’s Bazar. These port are said to be commercial but given the Chinese aggressive approach reflect the subterranean strategic interest by in the region. Time will tell how the Chinese would react to the latest bonhomie between India and Bangladesh. India should be cautious and should not be complacent because what Partha Ghosh, an expert on South Asia, considers – India-Bangladesh relation as an enigma. Is this enigma unfounded? The answer would be No. The India-Bangladesh relations has seen many ups and downs in the last four decades. Despite India’s contribution in the Bangladesh’s liberation, a section of political force has always tried to obfuscate the relations. The alternation in power between the Awami League (AL), and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and their relative outlook towards India vindicates the point. India should endeavor to win over the trust of the country rather limiting relations to one political party. To restrict Chinese intrusion in South Asia via Nepal and Bangladesh, it would be wise to bolster sub-regional cooperation among Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal.

The Awami League could silence its opponents who criticise it for being let down by India. Bangladesh has welcome the amendment even it happened many decades after Bangladesh ratified the agreement. One should keep in mind that the Indira-Mujib agreement of 1974 have always been a win-win situation for Bangladesh, therefore making hue and cry by a section of Bangladeshi media and politicians for India taking such a long time does not hold any water. Amendment of the Indian Constitution for the LBA was not easy considering the political structure, the domestic politics-foreign policy interface, the enigmatic relationship and not the least vote bank politics.


Challenges Ahead

To keep the pace on and realise the commitments made during the visit much would depend on how the north eastern states of India respond. This reminds of how domestic politics influence the foreign policy of a country especially in its neighbourhood. It would be important to keep Ms. Banerjee to keep in good humour especially to clinch the teesta water sharing issue. The newborn bonhomie between Ms. Banerjee and Mr. Modi seems to be symbiotic. One the one hand she needs central support to carry out development and other infrastructural works in the state where election is due in 2016, as also, the smokes of Saradha scam reached to Mr. Mukul Roy, the number two in Trinamool Congress, which might worry the chief minister. On the other hand, the Centre perhaps has understood that any engagement with Bangladesh is not possible without taking the concerned states into confidence thus maintaining the principles of cooperative federalism. It could be noted that agreements on the river water sharing remained unrealised though Mr Modi did mention his intention to sort out Teesta and Feni river issues in near future.

Secondly, as mentioned above, the LBA coming into force would facilitate the border demarcation between the two countries, exchange of enclaves and land in adverse possessions. It may also help curbing the cattle smuggling, gun running and other trans-border crimes especially in the enclave and char areas. It would also ease the high density deployment of about 11 Battalions of BSF only to safeguard enclaves, which is costly as well as lead to frequent skirmishes with Bangladesh Border Guards. As far as managing the several hundred kms of porous and riverine Indo-Bangladesh border will remain a challenge. The rivers and tributaries of the region will keep changing their course in future also thus making the fencing difficult. As the centre of the common river is considered as the international border, the changed course would lead to confusion, as it has done in past, and create new char areas as well as the quest for its possession.

The agreement gives freedom to the people living in enclaves to choose nationality. The challenge would be about the citizenship of nearly fifty thousand people living in the enclaves. It is believed that, given the opportunity, majority of the inhabitants of the enclaves of both the sides would opt for Indian citizenship. Hence swapping of lands between 111 Indian and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves would be very difficult. The loss of nearly ten thousand acre of land would also add to the rehabilitation problem.

Thirdly, it could be surmised that the Chinese economic and diplomatic growing footprints have prompted the Indian Government to reach out to its neighbors proactively. Nevertheless, there seems no reason to doubt the seriousness of the Indian Government for improving the relations with its neighbours, considering the priorities given to the neighbours by the present government. It would also be an opportunity to rejuvenate the friendship between the two countries which unfortunately has seen ups and down in the last few decades. In the present geo-political atmosphere India could not afford to be seen as a friend of a political group of the country, rather it will have to endeavor to win over the friendship of the nation irrespective of whoever is in the power so that prospects for transit and economic interests are not restricted to the Awami League government. India could not ignore the rising extremist groups in Bangladesh. In the last couple of years, there have been several cases of attacks on minorities in Bangladesh. Jamat-e-Islami, Bangla-desh Islami Chhatra Shibir and other fringe groups have increasingly asserted through violent protests which claimed many lives. In the last four-five month at least three bloggers were hacked to death for raising secular voices. Dangers of derailing the present optimism looms large in case BNP and its allied forces resume the power in future which have germs of constructing an enemy image of India.

Fourth, Apart from course changing rivers, natural calamities, ethnic connections and illegal trade, the bourgeoning population of Bangladesh combined in a package of local politics makes the region amenable for movement of people towards relatively prosperous locations in India. In the absence of any formal mechanism for movement of people, most of these migrants adopt illegal means to cross over. In the process, violence and harassment during and post migration situation especially by agents, contractors, law enforcement personnel and touts etc. are rampant. Therefore, along with strategic and political factors, the agent-victim continuum of migrant needs to be understood from the human rights perspective. Bangladesh would never acknowledge the illegal outflow, however presence of the undocumented Bangladeshis could be felt in many parts of India. On the other hand in India there has always been a dilemma in dealing with migrant from different communities from the other side.

Fifth, a conducive political and economic environment is imperative for actualisation of all those agreements of investments and bus transport connecting Dhaka to the West Bengal, Assam and Tripura. Bangladesh will have to curb the rising fundamentalist forces which might create hurdles. Every day strikes and protests might puncture Indian investment. Notwithstanding in the recent past, Bangladesh has acted severely on militant groups operating from its soil against India, yet reports claim that many more such groups have camps in eastern and northern Bangladesh.

04-07-2015Trade imbalance is another factor which constantly cloud over the economic relation between the two countries. In the backdrop of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Dhaka in June 2014, the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) had indicated that bilateral trade between India and Bangladesh could almost double to USD 10 billion by 2018, provided trading irritants like non-tariff barriers and infrastructure related-issues are resolved. Bilateral trade between India and Bangladesh stood at USD 6.6 billion in 2013-14 with India’s exports at USD 6.1 billion and imports from Bangladesh at USD 462 million. This trade imbalance in favour of India and decline in Bangladesh exports to India are a cause of concern which reflected in PM Modi’s speech and he assured his counterpart that India would do everything to bridge the deficit between the two neighbouring nations. Experts believe that the trade imbalance could be redressed by increasing Indian investment in Bangladesh and addressing to the non-tariff barriers (NTBs) such as harmonisation and classification issues and non-recognition of Technical Standards to enhance trade, beside alleviation of infrastructure bottlenecks related to power, ports, energy, and telecommunication.

Mutual trust and cognisance of the shared history are quintessential for the improved bilateral relations. It would also be in the Indian interest to have improved diplomatic and economic relation with Bangladesh with a non-contentious border. It is also a high time for Bangladesh to reciprocate the same promptness and strive to clear out its domestic hurdles and take serious steps against illegal border crossing because skirmishes on a friendly border will have perennial problems both for the domestic politics of either side as well as the bilateral relations point of view. Both the countries must be exposed to each other much more than what it is now to get to know each other’s weakness and strength better and make best use of the every opportunity to fulfill the commitment as envisaged by the two leaders.

(The author is a Research Fellow at Centre for Public Affairs)

By Vikash Kumar

Finally Sun Rises In The Dark Land

By Joydeep dasgupta

04-07-2015It is a significant agreement between India and Bangladesh. It is like once again experiencing the freedom while getting citizenship of a sovereign nation in each side. This historic event took place as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina exchanged instruments of ratification of the land boundary agreement on June 6, 2015, far away in the enclaves on the India-Bangladesh border. The door opened for over 50,000 virtually stateless people to finally get a national identity. By doing this, India and Bangladesh have settled their 4,096 km-long land boundary dispute though on paper as of now.

These are the enclaves along the Indo-Bangladesh border, in Bangladesh and the Indian states of West Bengal, Tripura, Assam and Meghalaya. There are 106 Indian enclaves and 92 Bangladeshi enclaves. Inside the mainland of Bangladesh, 102 of these are first-order Indian enclaves, while in the Indian mainland, 71 of these are Bangladeshi first-order enclaves. As per a joint census in 2010, there were 51,549 people residing in these enclaves; 37,334 in Indian enclaves within Bangladesh while the rest in Bangladeshi enclaves in India.

How does it benefit the people living there?

For people living in these enclaves, being surrounded by the territory of another country means that they have no access to any of the government services they are entitled to but now after this agreement they can avail the government services, as the citizen of the nations. India is expected to lose 40 square kilometres under the agreement but the move is expected to finally resolve a procedural complication.

The agreement on the ownership of nearly 200 enclaves—essentially islands of land located in each other’s country—had proved elusive for decades. They resulted from complex ownership arrangements made centuries ago by local princes. Under the agreement, each country will assume sovereignty over all enclaves in its territory. The two countries will swap the enclaves dotted around the border. Their inhabitants have been deprived of public services and have been living in squalid conditions. Residents now will be allowed either to stay put or to move across the border. The enclaves will effectively cease to exist.

The Prime Ministers of India and Bangladesh signed the Land Boundary Agreement in 1974 to exchange enclaves and simplify the international border, when the land accord was originally agreed upon in 1974 by Indira Gandhi of India and Sheikh Mujibur Rehman of Bangladesh. Progress stopped for a long time as Mujibur was assassinated in 1975 and subsequent governments failed to agree on the transfer of enclaves. But it was only last month when a revised version of the agreement was finally adopted by the two countries, 41 years later, when the Parliament of India passed the 100th Amendment to the Indian Constitution on May 7, 2015.

Under this agreement, which was ratified on June 6, 2015, India will get 51 Bangladeshi enclaves (spread over 7,110 acres) in the Indian mainland, while Bangladesh will get 111 Indian enclaves (spread over 17,160 acres) in the Bangladeshi mainland. The enclave residents were allowed to either reside at their present location or move to the country of their choice.

Brief History

The enclaves were used as stakes in card or chess games centuries ago between two regional kings, the Raja of Koch Bihar and the Maharaja of Rangpur. As far as history records concerned, the little territories were apparently the result of a confused outcome of a 1713 treaty between the kingdom of Koch Bihar and the Mughal Empire. Possibly, the kingdom and the Mughals ended a war without determining a boundary for what territories had been gained or lost.

After the partition of India in 1947, Rangpur was joined to East Pakistan, and Cooch Behar district was merged in 1949 with India. The desire to “de-enclave” most of the enclaves was manifested in a 1958 Nehru-Noon agreement for an exchange between India and Pakistan without considering loss or gain of territory. But the matter then worked into a Supreme Court case in India and the Supreme Court ruled that a constitutional amendment was required to transfer the land. So the ninth amendment was introduced to facilitate the implementation of the agreement. The amendment could not be passed because of an objection to transfer of southern Berubari enclave. Due to India’s deteriorated relations with Pakistan, the issue remained unsolved. With that agreement unratified, the negotiations had to restart after East Pakistan became independent as Bangladesh in 1971.

Now, after the agreement the tricolour had started fluttering in the Bangladeshi enclaves since the agreement has signed. When Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina finally inked the Land Boundary Agreement in Dhaka formalising these territories as a part of India, the area erupted in celebrations. Similarly the Indian enclaves inside Bangladesh celebrated the signing of historic agreement that will allow them to choose their nationality.

Significance of Land Boundary Agreement

India’s relations with Bangladesh had already taken a distinctly positive course since Sheikh Hasina’s 2010 visit to New Delhi. The Land Boundary Agreement’s unanimous endorsement is seen in Bangladesh as an affirmation of the general attitude of friendliness towards it in India. It reflects the resolve of India’s leadership to be fair towards a country that has demonstrated goodwill for India by taking action against insurgent leaders sheltering within its territory, as also its readiness to partner India on mutually supportive connectivity and infrastructure initiatives.

India’s decision to opt for international arbitration to settle her maritime boundary with Bangladesh was a similar gesture of goodwill. It signified a deliberate, a priori relinquishment of its claims on the disputed waters, nearly 80 per cent of which have gone to Bangladesh. Negotiations could never have settled this matter since the India-proposed median line was drawn in a way—taking account of the concave configuration of the coast—that the Bangladeshi waters got confined to a narrow triangle between India and Myanmar.

By establishing its ability to resolve sensitive, sovereignty-related issues of its land and maritime boundaries and displacement of peoples, India has signalled, just prior to Mr. Modi’s visit to China, that the Sino-Indian border may be ripe for a similar settlement. India’s inability to ratify a 41-year old Land Boundary Agreement, which addressed issues of a lesser magnitude than the McMahon Line, had given reason to China to continue to keep on hold the settlement of the boundary dispute with India.

India’s land and maritime boundary agreements with Bangladesh also show that intractable issues can be wrapped up between neighbours within an overall relationship of growing trust and friendship. It is also instructive for the issue of Jammu and Kashmir, which can be resolved as a function of improved India-Pakistan relations, and not the other way around, as sought by Pakistan.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, while describing India as a “very important neighbour”, said Modi’s visit has given “us a renewed hope and would provide growth” to our relations, the deals that we signed today would open new doors in the areas of trade, investment.”

Now when India and Bangladesh has sealed the Land Boundary Agreement, the focus should be on the people who are placed near the zero line or Radcliffe line, the international boundary drawn between India and Bangladesh. According to Border Security Force this villages on or near the zero line are the hub of illegal trade. The villagers mostly women and children, smuggle into Bangladesh goods such as cough syrups, rice, spices, cooking oil, saris and cycles. Trafficking of cows and trading of illegal currency are the two biggest problems that security forces face on this porous border.

But villagers have their different take on this, they accuses BSF of torture and harassment in the name of raiding their houses in search of illegal goods. BSF denies the allegations. “We do our job for security issues but they think we are harassing them. If we don’t keep a check, we would be accused of colluding with them on illegal trade,” says Sandeep Salunke, IG, BSF, South Bengal Frontier who is also in charge of North Bengal Border.

Problems are many as the roots are old but the mutual trust and friendship between the two neighbouring nations will certainly lead these important nations of the sub-continent to greater heights. Now the Look East policy of India certainly turned to Act East Policy.

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