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In this article an attempt has been made to explore how the dynamics of Indo-Bangladesh relations were navigated by the stewardship and distinct orientation of PM Narendra Modi ever since his government came to power in 2014 with an overwhelming popular mandate that put an end to the previous phase of weak coalition at the centre.
From 2014-15 onwards Indian foreign policy started acquiring a new confident tone which was evident in the presence of all the leaders of the SAARC countries to his inauguration. Prime Minister Modi himself gave a call that his priority would be neighbourhood first. It set in motion a new spirit of optimism that perhaps major unresolved issues in South Asia would be addressed very soon.
The Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) was the first major milestone that set the ball rolling. The issue remained unresolved for more than six decades of India’s independence. But Modi made it possible by getting the two sides together. The LBA was like opening up a new chapter in India Bangladesh relations. India and Bangladesh mutually agreed to exchange a host of enclaves that remained as an intractable issue feeding a mutual tug of war between India and the Government of East Pakistan, later Bangladesh. The Indian side showed flexibility and sacrificed more land than its smaller neighbour in order to arrive at the historic agreement in which the credit obviously goes to the leadership of Modi.
Secondly, if anything stands out in Modified Indian foreign policy since 2014 it is the distinct thrust towards economic growth and regional prosperity through infrastructure development and connectivity. This is the key to success that India seeks to achieve and share the benefits of with its neighbours such as Bangladesh. Hence India’s initiatives have been twin tracked, to put emphasis on various aspects of mutual connectivity through sea ports, railway and even through air travel routes. At the same time, we have seen that even when India became a little disillusioned with SAARC, her eagerness towards BIMSTEC, BBIN, BCIM and similar multilateral forums included Bangladesh. It is now clear that under Modi, a very energetic policy of cooperation has been put in place with Bangladesh which incorporates on one hand our border management based on what External Affairs Minister Jaishankar recently termed as a “no-crime-no-death border” and on the other hand, visualises the implementation of a number of projects like Special Economic Zones, Integrated Check Posts, Railway links and freight corridors.
In a recent take of Dhrubajyoti Bhattacharjee of ICWA on March 23, 2021 it has been stated that “while inaugurating the Maitri bridge on March 9, 2021 PM Modi stated that such infrastructure development was opening up more gateways for Northeast India with the rest of India through Bangladesh”. Besides, India’s development assistance to Bangladesh ‘for implementation of development projects during the 2014-2018 period is at the level of $4.5 billion’. It is important given the impressive rise of China that is breathing on the neck of India.
Thirdly, If India wants to see her relations with Bangladesh thrive she needs to empathize with the latter’s persistent endeavour to have more river water. It is a problem which again is partly attributable to China and its vigorous policy of diverting the flow of Brahmaputra while ruling out the concerns expressed by the Indian side. We need to find an amicable solution for fair distribution of the water of Teesta which is considered as a lifeline in the northern part of West Bengal. Both sides are also trying to agree to terms of negotiations for a meeting of the Joint River Commission.
Fourthly, if any issue in particular has cast adverse effects on India Bangladesh relations it is related to illegal infiltration of Bangladeshi citizens into India through porous borders. Such an inflow of refugees including Rohingya immigrants could pose a threat to India’s national security’. So it has nothing to do with the communal factor.
Fifthly, India under Modi gave Bangladesh a huge assistance in terms of Covid vaccines and India’s SAARC Emergency fund was also a testimony of our benevolent attitude to Bangladesh. Now when the second wave of Covid Pandemic has arrived and begun to strike India and Bangladesh, During the PM’s 26th March visit to Bangladesh for the first time after a nation-wide lockdown started from March 24th 2020 we saw that apart from carrying out official engagements and attending the formal celebration of the golden jubilee of the country’s independence and the centenary Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s birthday, India supplied many doses of Covishied as a charity.
Sixth, while laying emphasis on the personality cult at the heart of our analysis we need to put the historic struggle in East Pakistan in the right perspective. Therefore if we delve deep we would see that the struggle in East Bengal did not begin as a planned nationalist movement for liberation from Pakistan. Rather it was a historical conjuncture of events in the late 1960s which lent the popular mobilization in East Bengal an anti-imperialist character vis-à-vis the Pakistani regime and armed forces.
Today however what is important is not only reviving the historic memory and bask in nostalgia but more pertinently to put focus on developing the Regional Value Chains (RVC) which according to Sreeradha Datta, Pratim Ranjan Bose and Shaquib Quoreshi “would bring transformational change in the regional trade and investment paradigm” in South Asia. According to them this is the current challenge because “the intra-regional trade in South Asia is less than 3%” and Covid has rendered it even more difficult to counter the economic slowdown. To explain the point the three scholars Datta, Bose and Quoreshi cite India’s case, noting that “India has been able to participate in a limited way into the global value chains in some items like gems and jewellery, automotive parts and services but has not been able to develop any Regional Value Chains in many products. Nevertheless, between India and Bangladesh, the government to government cooperation between India and Bangladesh has been flourishing even during the COVID-19 crisis. In fact a new water transport facility was inaugurated recently with Bangladesh connecting it with Tripura in the Northeastern part of India but disruption in cross border trade between the two countries could not be entirely avoided due to the COVID-19 crisis”.