Indian High Commissioner in Dhaka, Vikram Doraiswami, has stressed that sub-regional connectivity is a good thing for everybody, a game changer. About Bangladesh-India relations, he said the next 50 years will be an even more consistent trajectory of progress between the two countries. He was speaking about these issues and more in an interview with Prothom Alo on 21 November this year. This is Part 2 of the interview.
There were series of discussions between the two countries and India asked for transit repeatedly. In recent times we don't hear that much about transit. Has India lost its interest in transit through Bangladesh?
I am not sure where you get this notion from. We are consistently interested in connectivity for better two-way trade with Bangladesh and for connectivity through Bangladesh. There are three points to make here. First, the high cost of logistics and the regulations that effectively give monopoly status to one border crossing are the largest non-tariff barrier to trade on both sides, increasing the cost of goods coming to Bangladesh and the cost of your goods in the Indian market. Without opening up more land ports to unrestricted trade, and without improving rail, road and riverine connectivity and infrastructure, and without building and staffing new customs facilities, new warehouses and ICDs, our two way trade and investment flows will always be limited.
Second, we are already providing Bangladesh transit by rail to Nepal, and we are providing, at zero extra cost, facilitation for goods trade between Nepal and Bangladesh and Bhutan and Bangladesh. We are still awaiting entry into force of the agreement on the use of Chattogram and Mongla Ports, for which the Standard Operating Proceedures were finalised over two years ago. A trial run was also conducted 18 months ago during COVID. And yet there has been no progress.
Third, sub-regional connectivity is in the interests of all countries of the sub-region. It will drive third country and intra-regional investment within our region too. Multimodal connectivity is sorely needed. The World Bank study on connectivity, released in March this year, says that national income in Bangladesh will rise by 17% if there is seamless connectivity with India, and India's national income would also rise by 8%. Indeed your exports to India would increase by up to 297% if connectivity improves, along with trade and transport regulations and infrastructure. So of course we will always remain keen on connectivity and improved transportation openings. How soon this happens and how fast we make things more seamless is of course Bangladesh's sovereign decision.
In recent years, India is more focused on connectivity and wants to re-establish the link of the pre-independence era as well as expand it between Bangladesh and India. Bangladesh is also focused on connectivity as a tool for trade, investment and market and the ultimate goal is regional prosperity. How does India look at connectivity beyond the bilateral approach, engaging Nepal and Bhutan?
Sub-regional connectivity is a good thing for everybody. Everybody will benefit. Just as people here correctly understand that India does want access to its northeast through Bangladesh, Bangladesh wants access into India, to Nepal, to Bhutan and now towards Myanmar also. The prime minister has specifically said this. Just as we need you, you need us, so it makes sense to us to work together.
When it comes to roads, we already have a reciprocal agreement with Nepal. Our trucks can ply on Nepalese roads, Nepalese trucks can also come in to Kolkata or wherever they need to go. Bhutan has a non-reciprocal agreement with us where Bhutanese trucks can ply on Indian roads, including up to the Bangladesh border, but Indian trucks can't go into Bhutanese territory. So that integration is already happening. So it actually makes sense for all four of us to integrate together. And this can progress towards Myanmar and Thailand also. There is no such initiative where only one side benefits. Everybody benefits. You can do it in a manner in which your interests are preserved, and our interests are also preserved, everybody's interests are preserved.
Now beyond roads, there are other ways of connectivity. There are railways. People in Bangladesh are not aware but since 1976 we have an arrangement for the use of Indian railway wagons to carry Bangladesh goods to Nepal and vice versa. It's been a slow process because it's only the last decade that Bangladesh has focused strongly on building the railway. But more railway connectivity will be the game changer for Bangladesh, just as much as it is for the entire region. Railway is faster, environmentally friendly, carries much more goods and eventually can help seriously connect.
Similarly, airports. We can start looking at sub-regional connectivity for freight. And even inland waterways. We have even offered the use of our inland waterway system up to Varanasi so you can actually shop goods from Varanasi to Nepal, using the India-Nepal water connectivity. And looking at Bangladesh’s extensive riverine network, we could also ship goods to Tripura of further afield from there.
So long term, we have to re-imagine connectivity as a benefit for everybody. It’s not a one-way benefit. But it is a fact, and I have been trying to convey this to people, there is this impression that somehow India has got connectivity across Bangladesh and Bangladesh hasn’t. Actually it’s the other way around. Since the agreement on the Chattogram and Mongla port was signed, and the SOPs were signed that in 2019, there has been only one trial shipment of containers and the total number of containers has been exactly four, not 400. So your government and your establishment had taken all the blame for giving it, but nothing has actually happened! So there is really no reason for people to get upset. In fact, it would be much more useful if we could get this going, because there is money to be made from the transport. It will cost and we are happy to pay the cost.
India’s humanitarian assistance to Rohingya refugees has been appreciated. Since India serves as one of the non-permanent members of the Security Council, how does New Delhi look into the issue of resolving the Rohingya crisis?
We understand and share your point that the solution lies in the displaced people going back to Rakhine state in Myanmar. It’s the logical solution. The main thing is that it must be done in a way that is sustainable and safe and as fast as possible because, of course, it has been four years already. We fully sympathise with the plight Bangladesh finds itself in, hosting so many people and doing its best to provide so many people. It has been a huge strain on Bangladesh.
The problem is that no one disagrees with the end state, what the solution should be, it is how to get there and how fast to get there. We fully support this position, your bilateral dialogue with Myanmar as well as your conversation with the UN on how best this can be facilitated. We have also parallelly been in conversation with the government of Myanmar on the opportunity for them to take people back. We have even invested in development projects in Rakhine state for people to go back, building houses, building community infrastructure. Much of that stopped in the last several months.
The situation has changed. On the ground there is greater stress. There was increased violence year before last with the Arakan Army suddenly becoming very active over there. So it has become harder to press people to come back and stay peacefully with this challenge happening. So it’s a complex situation, but quite honestly, the problem isn’t with us. We are doing our best to try a help you both. Both of you are neighbours to us, Bangladesh and Myanmar and it is in our interest that both neighbours can resolve the problem as fast as possible.
In recent years Bangladesh has been getting increased interest from big powers including the United States, China, and Japan. How does India see the regional alignments shaping up – such as Belt and Road Initiative, Indo-Pacific Partnership, and BIG-B?
We look at our relationship with you as something that has its own merit and strategic significance for us. So our relationship with Bangladesh stands on its own. Indo-Pacific for us is a larger construct which is non-exclusive. We have repeatedly been saying this. It includes everybody who lives in the area and who has hinterland in the area. For us it spans all the way from the eastern and southern coast of Africa, all the way to the Pacific, including the Pacific shores of Russia, obviously Korea, China, Japan, all Southeast Asian countries, Australia, New Zealand and all of us in this neighbourhood here, Bangladesh in particular, and also Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Maldives, etc.
We see no reason why the Indo-Pacific has to be seen with caution or suspicion because it is not intended to be any kind of alliance. It is meant to be an opportunity as an open platform to cooperate in the maritime domain, in every aspect, not just the security aspect—maritime trade, maritime environment, which is why we have come up with a series of initiatives to try and underscore the importance of a more cooperative framework.
We are not looking at the Indo-Pacific as something for Bangladesh to be either/or. We are saying that there is no reason for you to feel that this is a challenge. However, the government of Bangladesh will take its own view on this. We are not seeking to do any kind of persuasion on this.
Some see this as a containment policy…
How can you contain if you are including everybody? That is our Indo-Pacific policy. We have told many of our friends in other countries, including in Asia and Eurasia, if you have a difference of opinion with somebody else’s Indo-Pacific policy, tell them. Our Indo-Pacific policy, specifically stated by our prime minister and repeatedly stated on several occasions by our external affairs minister, is abundantly clear. We are not seeking to exclude anybody in this region – let me put it explicitly – not Russia, not China, not anybody else. So why would that be a problem? How could you contain anybody who is on the same platform with you?
Bangladesh's engagement with China is continuously growing in the economic and infrastructure development. How does India look into the issue?
We look at our relationship with you as a bilateral factor. Other people are not the reason we have a relationship with you. Our relationship with Bangladesh stands on its own. We will obviously judge our relationship by the way you relate with us. So our relationship with you is not based on your relationship with any other country. We are very clear about that. We will do what we think is important for our partnership. The priority is India-Bangladesh relationship. How you choose to relate to others is up to you. You are a sovereign country, you get to decide.
You've mentioned that India doesn't worry about Bangladesh's growing ties China. But recent years we saw lot of writings and discussions both sides of the border especially after the two countries elevated their relationship as 'Strategic' in nature. How do you explain that?
I don't have to explain what other people write. That is a question you should ask those who write these issues. I am quite clear that our relationship with Bangladesh stands on unique footing given the unique and unparalleled origins of our friendship in the Liberation War, and the overriding imperatives of culture, history and most of all, geography. There is no prosperity for either of us if we do not have a strong and close relationship. That is not something you can say for either of us, for any other relationship with countries further afield.
After the lapse of two decades, Taliban once again came to power in Afghanistan in August. How does India look into the issue of Taliban regaining its power in the larger context of regional peace, security as well as probable rise of religious extremism?
I am not the authority to voice India’s policy on Afghanistan, I am the man posted here in Bangladesh, but our statements on the issue have been abundantly clear. The question of inclusion, the question of inclusion of all political shades of opinion, the rights of women, all of these are important questions that are yet to be answered, as well as the process of formation of government. All of these are critical questions and there aren’t any answers yet.
Obviously the question of what happens in Afghanistan is crucial to the peace and stability of the entire region and beyond. Bangladesh may be somewhat further away, but it has an impact on Bangladesh just as it has on India.
In the political arena of Bangladesh, the influence of Delhi is no secret and a significant number of the people in the country believe that Delhi prefers Awami League in the power of the country. What is your take on the notion?
If we had that kind of influence, it’s news to me! Quite frankly, we are close neighbours. It is logical for both of us to be interested in what’s happening in the other country. We think it is perfectly reasonable for both countries to spend a lot of time studying each other. We should be doing that because obviously developments in each other’s countries have an impact.
If you look at the history of the last 50 years, we have engaged consistently in Bangladesh. We have never said we will not talk to anybody. Bangladesh is our neighbour. It is a country of 170 million people. It’s a big country, among the top 10 in terms of population. How can we not engage in Bangladesh? Obviously, we hope that whoever is in charge in Bangladesh, whoever the people in Bangladesh elect and put in power, will also want a good relationship with us. Whoever has been in power in Bangladesh, even in the past, even in the military period, had had to engage with India. So it seems logical to me that whichever government is in power, will want good relations with India. And we want relations with whoever is in power.
I must say here the current government has been extremely consistent in giving the message that they want good relations with India. So obviously we want to be able to reciprocate that desire, but Bangladesh is a whole country. We don’t see it binary terms.
We understand the complexities of a country this size. And we can deal with as much of the opinion that is founded in the idea of ’71 and the idea of an independent, sovereign Bangladesh, based on certain values. So we will engage with the whole of Bangladesh and we try our best to do that.
This December marks 50 years of bilateral ties between India and Bangladesh. Where do you see this relationship over the next 50 years?
Just as we feel now in India that relationship with Bangladesh is a bipartisan matter, all major parties in India when they have been in power have emphasised the importance of Bangladesh the friendship with Bangladesh. We hope in the next 50 years we can take the politics of the relationship out. There will always be some political currents. Obviously we are far too close culturally, politically and geographically, for there not to be some kinds of ups and downs. But if we will be actually able to park those at one place and focus on what actually brings us together, which is the opportunity for people to so business together, haggle, study, engage in frontier areas of technology, IT and IT services. If we can progress in that direction, I think the future of the relationship is secure. Once we are doing business together, getting richer together, the habit of cooperation grows, then politics will be something on the side and not be the primary driver of the relationship.
I don’t think in our interests that politics is always the primary driver of relationship. Business, people-to-people ties, culture, education should be the drivers of the relationship, business mostly. If we succeed in that, then the next 50 years will be a much more consistent trajectory of progress than the ups and downs we have had, particularly in the very tumultuous decade of the establishment of Bangladesh.
Thank you too