Flip sides of Bangladesh-India friendship

The two neighbouring countries, Bangladesh and India, are bound together by multidimensional mutual interests. It all began during the darkest days, when Bangladesh was embroiled in the War of Liberation. India’s all-out support and cooperation built a firm foundation of bilateral relations.

The two countries are deeply connected by historic, geographical, economic, political and security context. That is reality. This relationship is extremely important to Bangladesh, and to India too.

There is much progress in these bilateral relations, but also a long list of failures and misunderstandings. The people of the two countries share friendship, but also have a volley of criticism against each other too. Mistrust and suspicion prevail.

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The most significant success in Bangladesh-India bilateral relations in the signing of the unsettled Ganges water treaty during the 1996-2001 term of the Awami League government.

India’s main concern was security. It needed Bangladesh’s cooperation to control the insurgents in its northeastern states. When Awami League came back to power in 2009, within a very short time, with the assistance of Bangladesh, this problem was completely eliminated. The safe havens of the rebels were smashed and insurgent leaders on the run were handed over to India.

Another demand India had made was for transit through Bangladesh to its northeast states, which was essential for the economic development of those states. Bangladesh provided these transit facilities to India by land, river and sea.

Trade between the two countries is also escalating. The trade balance is hugely in favour of India, but, admittedly, that meets the requirements of the Bangladesh market.

There is ongoing cooperation in the interests of the two countries regarding power import and production. However, environmentalists are greatly concerned about the construction of a coal-fired power plant near the Sundarbans.

India has given Bangladesh several credit lines to import goods from India. The terms of credit, however, are not very easy. These hard terms have led to excessive delay in the release of funds for many projects. But India has provided Bangladesh with some grants too. There are, for instance, the 10 railway engines recently received by Bangladesh.

On the Bangladesh side, the list of discontent and unfulfilled needs is long. The hope generated by the Ganges water treaty has long faded in the horizon over the past 24 years.

The water sharing deal for river Teesta, the important source of water in Bangladesh’s northwest region, has been delayed repeatedly and now is on the shelf. India is using the entire water of Teesta in the dry season.

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Bangladesh is a huge market for Indian products. But while giving providing duty-free facilities for Bangladesh’s goods, it has put a spanner in the works with non-tariff barriers.

India has attained transit through Bangladesh to its northeast states, but the 14 miles of its Siliguri corridor remains closed for Bangladesh to transport goods to Nepal.

The Rohingya issue is the biggest problem Bangladesh has faced since its independence and the people are unhappy with India’s indirect support for Myanmar which is responsible for this situation. The people and the government of Bangladesh also find it unacceptable that the Indian Citizenship Act identifies Bangladesh as a country like Pakistan that oppresses its minority communities. The National Register of Citizens in Assam has served to ‘identify’ Bangla speaking Indian as foreigners. And the question as to which country these ‘foreigners’ come from, hangs above Bangladesh’s head like Damocles’ sword. The Bangladesh people have been hurt by top leaders of India using insulting references to ‘illegal Bangladeshi migrants’.

Bangladesh’s people were not happy either with the lack of courtesy on the part of India’s central government when Bangladesh’s prime minister visited Kolkata at the invitation of the cricket board.

Meanwhile, India’s border security forces (BSF) continue to kill unarmed people on the border. And India’s politicians and diplomats continue with their lame excuses to justify this.

There is another peculiar propensity about Indian analysts and journalists. Whenever there is any positive development between the two countries, they make it out as India’s munificence or benevolence towards Bangladesh.

India is our friend. But no matter how deep and friendly the ties between the two countries may be, there are always some tensions and conflicts of interests between neighbours. Talks and negotiations will continue and any negative impact will naturally not be made visible. In official statements, the bright side of relations will be highlighted, hope will be expressed for problems to be resolved. That is only natural too.

The general people form their own opinions on the relations between the two countries, based on what they observe. So those outside of the government who analyse the relations, will be a bit more open and impersonal. They will certainly highlight the successes, but more important is to bring the actual problems to light. Unfortunately, on both sides of the border there is reluctance in this regard. Even in a democratic country like India, other than a handful of analysts, many experts are so caught up in extreme nationalism that they dispense of their duties by simply echoing the government’s words.

In their writings and statements, these analysts airily profess that all problems between the two countries have been resolved and now it the time to bask in the success of the golden ties. Even a section of the media suffer from this affliction.

However, in the interest of developing bilateral ties, it is much more important for the problems between the two countries to be brought out in the open. Rhetoric and complacence do not solve problems.

There is another peculiar propensity about Indian analysts and journalists. Whenever there is any positive development between the two countries, they make it out as India’s munificence or benevolence towards Bangladesh. The land boundary agreement is the biggest example of this.

When the Indira-Mujib treaty was signed, Bangladesh immediately got it approved by the parliament. India took 42 years to do the same. It took them 18 years for them to open for just 6 hours the 185 metre Tin Bigha corridor to Dahagram-Angarpota. I was in New Delhi at the time. The South Block bosses saw this as a great favour to Bangladesh. When India finally took steps after 42 years to release the albatross from its neck, this was presented as a great epoch-making step on the part of India.

Bangladesh has gone all out to alleviate all of India’s concerns. In exchange, unfortunately, India has visibly done very little.... This lack of reciprocation has had an adverse impact on the public mind in Bangladesh.

The land boundary agreement was signed in 2015, but even five years since then the Muhuri boundary demarcation remains unresolved.

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Using the Chattogram port to transport goods to Tripura is of huge benefit to India, but there is hardly mention of that. They prefer to magnify the fact that Bangladeshi trucks are being use to transport the goods and Bangladesh is getting the getting payment for this. It is not profitable to transport diesel produced in Assam’s oil refinery over India’s mainland. And it is costly for Bangladesh to transport oil from Chattogram to North Bengal. So exporting this oil to North Bengal is of benefit to both countries. This is totally a matter of business, but it is depicted as India’s great goodwill.

Every year around 1.6 million tourists from Bangladesh visit India. The Indian missions issue their visas. India portrays this as a huge act of benevolence. But there is no mention whatsoever of how many billions of dollars these tourists are adding to India’s economy every year.

‘Illegal entry’ of Bangladeshis is a favourite topic among all Indians, from politicians to journalists. They hardly mention that a significant number of Indian’s earn their living in Bangladesh and that Bangladesh is the fourth or fifth source in the world of India’s remittance.

Recently India’s foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla visited Bangladesh. Bangladesh’s media carried various speculations about the visit for a few days. Then again, analysts of both countries expressed their annoyance at the speculations. No one with the least bit of common sense believes that Shringla suddenly came rushing all the way to discuss the coronavirus vaccine and the progress of Indian-assisted projects and hold an exclusive meeting with the Bangladesh prime minister.

Any intelligent person would understand that he had brought a message from prime minister Narendra Modi. No one expects to know the nitty-gritty of the message, but simply acknowledging this would be enough to allay speculations. It would have given a plausible explanation to the exclusive meeting between an Indian bureaucrat and Bangladesh’s prime minister.

Mutual trust and confidence is the foundation of friendly bilateral relations between two neighbouring countries. This trust doesn’t grow by itself overnight. This trust and confidence was rooted in momentous event of Bangladesh’s Liberation War. This was shaken by the killing of Bangabandhu in 1975 and subsequent events.

In 1996 Awami League came to power and soon after the Ganges treaty was signed. This helped to overcome the blow to the relations and the stage was set to rebuild that trust and confidence.

Over the past 12 years Bangladesh has gone all out to alleviate all of India’s concerns. In exchange, unfortunately, India has visibly done very little. No matter what complimentary statements are issued by the two governments, this lack of reciprocation has had an adverse impact on the public mind in Bangladesh.

The lack of tangible trust and confidence is not conducive to sustainable friendly relations. Both countries must set their minds to address the deficiencies, but in today’s context, the responsibility lies more with India.

Analysts often say that Bangladesh-India relations have passed the test of time. There is substance to this statement. However, time flows like a river and the test of time is also a continual process. This must not be forgotten.

* Touhid Hossain is a former foreign secretary of Bangladesh. This report, appearing in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir