In spite of commonalities between Bangladeshis and Indians, officially, the unofficial borderline between the countries remains very thin. What happens at the official level effects people-to-people contacts. From that point of view there should be a true reflection of the people’s attitude in foreign policy formulation and execution in both the countries.
In bilateral relations, India gives more weight to fulfilling its interest in Bangladesh than to addressing Bangladeshi causes. But one can safeguard national interests without being callously negligent about the interests of the other party. Bangladesh’s major problems in bilateral relations with India stem from a number of issues ranging from cross-border water sharing, frequent border killings by BSF, trade complications, using Bangladesh as a market for Indian narcotics, pushing religious minorities into Bangladesh territory, un-demarcated lands, non-exchange of enclaves, non-compliance of major treaty provisions by India, and finally a lack of commitment from the Indian side to address these issues through goodwill and friendship. In order to strengthen bilateral relations and build mutual trust and confidence, it is necessary to find common ground and each country ought to be prepared to seek a win-win outcome.
India maintains that it is ‘obsessed’ with Pakistan and consequently issues with Bangladesh gets marginalized. It is a dogmatist perception in India to just ignore the legitimate claims of a small neighboring country. Every pair of relations has its own chemistry i.e., merits and peculiarities, road maps and tragedies. India-Pakistan relations are pegged at the strategic level, but other relations can be put in a pecking order and given proportionate importance at the individual country level.
Other South Asian neighbors get neglected not because of India-Pakistan relations but due to India’s insensitivity that serves its vested interests. To promote growth and prosperity in South Asia, India ought to attach importance to regional development issues so that benefits can be reaped from regional arrangements already in place under the framework of regional cooperation. The more India shuts the door to its neighbors, the more small neighbors will look around for alternative windows for ventilation.
There is also an Indian perception that Bangladesh uses the China card to supplement its bargaining capacity and a growing relationship between China and Bangladesh is visualized by India as potentially problematic. The Indian myth about growing Bangladesh-China relations is going to be changed very soon with the implementation of BCIM that I am going to address in the later part of this article. But today, Bangladesh’s India policy is not targeted towards playing the China card. The Indian assessment does not capture all facets of Bangladesh’s foreign policy.
Bangladesh does not seek good relations with China at the cost of its relations with India, or any other country. Rather, it seeks functional and friendly relations with all nations within the region and beyond. I personally believe that Bangladesh should simultaneously pursue its relationship with India and China on the basis of trilateral integrity and cooperation and continue to focus more on their economic reciprocity, whereby in a win-win situation neither China nor India could lose anything from the same trusted relationship with Bangladesh.
Like any other country, Bangladesh weighs its national interests in pursuit of its foreign policy. Moreover, bilateral relations would never follow a straight line and there might be some ups and downs depending on the mutual convergence of the issues over the period of time. In a democratic polity it is quite natural that some people might favor some ideas, whereas others might have different taste and temperament on the same issue.
A degree of strategic coordination is in place between Washington and New Delhi in relation to Bangladesh, especially about ‘energy shortages, water-sharing, and the fight against terrorists.’ It is true that many of the common problems and transnational threats in the region cannot be dealt with without reaching a regional solution. As Bangladesh is surrounded by India from three sides, naturally, many of its problems like water-sharing, fighting religious militancy and energy security will require a closer cooperation with India. Bangladesh has already evidenced its commitment towards the regional and global War on Terror and now the country needs active cooperation from both India and the US to win its War on Drugs.
Nonetheless, India’s commitment towards seeking a common and regional solution to vital issues has not been time tested. India backed out of the Teesta water-sharing agreement at the last moment after Bangladesh’s prime minister had signed some important agreements and protocols in January 2010. The same thing happened after the Mujib-Indira Agreement of 1974. These experinces left a mark in Bangladesh’s bilateral relations with India. Many Bangladeshis also have hard feelings about the flow of Indian narcotics and psychotropic substances into Bangladesh which destroys younger generations. This situation is comparable to the British colonial drug trade throughout the nineteenth century when Indian opium was forcefully introduced into China that resulted in 30% of Chinese youths becoming opium addicts. (For details see my book Drugs in South Asia: from the opium trade to the present day).
Despite political and security impediments and a historical record of mistrust, Bangladesh, India and Myanmar can look beyond the myopia of Realpolitik that resulted in the stagnation of the MBI project. Bangladesh more importantly supports such a cooperative venture. At one time, Bangladesh did not show much interest in the project but became interested later.
The most recent initiatives of energy cooperation amongst Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar, however, show signs of more optimism. Of late, Bangladesh has officially agreed to work with China, India and Myanmar to facilitate the proposed ‘economic corridor’ among these countries. The working group meeting held in mid-December 2013 increased the likelihood of the success of the current BCIM initiative. The BCIM Forum is one good example that includes China in addition to the three south Asian countries.
It is good to observe that along with the governments of the respective countries, the civil societies of the countries concerned have come forward to address the pressing challenges that include trade, energy cooperation and connectivity. It is the first time civil societies are coming up with novel ideas through exchanges of their views and the governments of these countries are also following suit. This bottom-up approach is opposed to the traditional top-down approach whereby only government officials had been involved in the process. It cannot be denied that internal politics has a big stake in how the bilateral relations are dealt with by both India and Bangladesh. While the ‘India issue’ is often sensitized in Bangladesh, it is also true that India has provided scope for such sensitization with some of its contradictory policies and behavior towards Bangladesh. Overlooking the inner self, India used to complain that there is huge ‘anti-Indianism’ in Bangladesh’s domestic politics.
But today, Indian domestic politics, particularly, center-state relations stand as a stumbling block to Bangladesh-India relations. The center does not appear to be uncomfortable with this state of affairs, rather it uses Mamata card to avoid concessions or recognize Bangladesh’s due claims in several areas. It is in India’s interest that the country should patch up its differences with Bangladesh. After years of mistrust, the people of Bangladesh intend to see the results of the historical connection not being completely lost.
One may recall Prof. Omprakash Mishra who maintained that ‘India should not overemphasize history and Bangladesh should not forget geography and both the countries should develop vested interest in each other’s prosperity.’ As evident in a common history and inescapable geography, Bangladesh and India are intricately intertwined. Both countries can gain from each other’s markets, cooperation in energy, connectivity, trade and commerce, among other things. It is high time especially for ‘big brother’ India to attach adequate importance and address Bangladesh’s legitimate claims for its own sake in the northeast.
In order to integrate its ‘northeast’ with its ‘mainland,’ India has been persistently seeking some form of transit/corridor facilities from Bangladesh. Up until now, traffic between Kolkata and the northeast has been mainly carried out by rail and road links through the Shiliguri Corridor. To transport goods to and from the northeast through this ‘chicken neck corridor,’ the Indian government provides 25 percent transport subsidy. In the 1990s it was estimated that Rs.7bn was spent as additional costs, but the cost has increased tenfold with economic growth both in the northeast and in the rest of India. Prior to the full implementation of the transit deal, Bangladesh should reasonably calculate and claim half of the total additional costs which India has to spend at the current level.
Fact shows that Bangladesh-India relations today are highly imbalanced and lopsided. The major problems that impedes progress in bilateral relations is a lingering trust deficit. India should reciprocate with integrity and immediately address, on a priority basis, the issues that get in the way of trust building. In this context, one remembers Gujral Doctrine that says India would make unilateral concessions to small neighbors without expectation of reciprocation. Today, Bangladesh makes unilateral concessions, while Gujral doctrine is footing unmoved. Presuming Bangladeshi gestures to be one sided the Indian authority, in their major engagements, have been using non-elastic diplomacy for taking advantage of an elastic attitude of their counterpart.
Media and civil society ought to play a constructive role in moving away from politico-bureaucratic biases in India in order to improve goodwill with Bangladesh. Some efforts have already been made in this regard and they should be taken forward by increasing cultural and educational exchanges both at the public and private levels between the two countries.
To improve people to people contact, the following measures should be given priority: (i) easing of visa formalities for the Bangladeshis; (ii) unilateral border killing by BSF must be brought to an end; because it impacts on people’s psyche tremendously; (iii) reducing NTBs and PTBs for Bangladeshi goods and commodities in the Indian market; and (iv) making entry of the Bangladeshi business people easy in the bilateral trade relations; and (v) allowing Bangladeshi TV channels to be freely telecast in India for better cultural reciprocity.