Transit, the Great Wall of India and Indo-Bangla Relations

M. Shahidul Islamshahid1
Research Associate, ISAS

Like most border-sharing neighbours the relations between India and Bangladesh have seen highs and lows owing to structural problems and cyclical issues. However, the Indo-Bangla ties have improved markedly in recent years, particularly following the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League (AL) government’s return to power in December 2008. The joint communiqué signed by the two countries during the Bangladeshi Prime Minister’s visit to India in January 2010 has paved way for a new trajectory in India-Bangladesh relations.

As far as regional connectivity is concerned, notably transit, there are some encouraging developments. Sheikh Hasina’s government took a political risk by granting transit to India. As per the agreement, Bangladesh will allow use of Mongla and Chittagong sea ports for movement of goods to and from India through road and rail. This might prompt many to believe that the Indo-Bangla transit deal is likely to open a new era in South Asia’s regional connectivity. However, political rhetoric may hide the reality. To what extent New Delhi wants to engage with Bangladesh is an issue that deserves a closer look.

While the transit and transhipment facilities are likely to benefit India by slashing down its transportation cost drastically, Bangladesh also stands to gain if an agreement is made on service fees. Dhaka and Delhi have not capitalised on the momentum created towards regional connectivity by dealing with the issues in a transparent manner.

Moreover, economists are of the opinion that while transit facilities are essential to increase regional connectivity, there is a need for strong trade relations between Bangladesh and the northeastern region (which is geographically more intimate with Bangladesh than its mainland) to sustain the relations. If natural trade between the two regions is not allowed, the illicit trade and extremism in the borders may not be contained.

Moreover, the Indian authorities are implementing a mega project by fencing of its border with Bangladesh which often touted as the “Great Wall of India”. India’s two-pronged approach concerning Bangladesh is that on the one hand it asks for transit facilities for better connectivity in the region and on the other hand fences the border. This has cast doubts on New Delhi’s commitment to engage with Dhaka. Moreover, it was expected that in line with improved bilateral ties the Indian security forces would demonstrate some restraint on the border. However, a recent report shows that Indian border guards killed 136 Bangladeshis since January 2009.

The present government in Bangladesh has adopted a new paradigm as far as its regionalism approaches are concerned. It now wants to engage New Delhi in various infrastructure projects that should involve only Myanmar and China. Newspaper reports reveal that Dhaka intends to involve India in the proposed Chittagong-Myanmar-Kunming tri-nation road link. Moreover, the Bangladeshi Foreign Minister of late opined that Dhaka would happily agree to Indian involvement in deep seaport development project in Chittagong, although New Delhi is far behind Beijing both in terms of financial and technical capacities.

AL’s over reliance on New Delhi is understandable. This is largely due to the polarisation of politics in Bangladesh. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) does not have good ties with New Delhi, which makes Beijing a natural partner for the party in South Asian geo-politics. On the other hand, historically AL’s relations with India have been very warm and the party does not want to disturb its terms with New Delhi even if they come at the cost of the country’s interest. As a result, the relations between the two countries have not been institutionalised.

Against the will of common people the foreign policy of the current government in Bangladesh focuses primarily on India at the cost of developing strong ties with other major powers. The masses desire better bilateral ties with New Delhi, but at the same time would not like Bangladesh to be treated as a “satellite state” of India.

So, what is the immediate future of Indo-Bangla relations? So long as AL is in power, the current policy is likely to continue. If BNP returns to power in the next general elections (owing to an anti-incumbency factor) then in the presence of the structural flaws in relations between the two countries, the progress made in recent years might come to naught.

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