C3S Paper No. 0107/ 2015
The Indian parliament in a show of rare solidarity with Bangladesh ratified (May 07) Indo-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) of 1974, removing a major impediment to the development of bilateral relations. What is important to note is the fact that there was no opposition to the Constitution Amendment Bill, signifying that all political parties across the board in India are unanimous in accepting the importance of a friendly and secular Bangladesh as India’s partner in an united surge in the development and security of the region – South Asia and SAARC.
The euphoria was on both sides of the borders. Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sk. Hasina who reciprocated enthusiastically, thanking all concerned. The LBA could have been realized earlier during the UPA regime in India, but the BJP which was in the opposition, opposed. This time around, the BJP overcame some of its political compulsion and pushed it from the front. Lessons of larger interests of geopolitics is being learnt. Prime Minister Modi is walking his talk of taking the neighbourhood along with India.
Another lesson learnt is that there has to be some give and take in border settlement. But this must be on equitable terms, not in the way of square kilometers of land but in strategic terms which sometimes can be priceless.
A third lesson demonstrated was India was not a “big brother” to smaller neighbours but a friend and partner to walk hand-in-hand with. For years, the Chinese carried out a relentless propaganda that India was a hegemon, intent upon swallowing its small neighbours in South Asia and beyond. This worked, as India’s opponents in the neighbourhood latched on to this propaganda, seeking China as a friend who was ready to help them to thwart India. It hurt India’s neighbourhood diplomacy badly. India still has a lot of work to do in the neighbourhood and beyond to clear its image.
In Bangladesh, the LBA ratification received wide welcome, but all may not be happy losing a stick to beat India with. The BNP thanked Modi, the government of India and all political parties. But a tinge of dismay or frustration is evident. BNP spokesman Asaduzzaman Ripon claimed that Bangladesh would lose around 500 acres of land, once the agreement was implemented, but did not mention how many more acres of land Bangladesh would get in the exchange. A little window was kept open for future use to attack India and Sk. Hasina. The Awami League government has been severely attacked by the BNP led opposition for selling out to India.
The LBA resolution has taken the wind out of the sail of the vitriolic anti-India parties and activists in Bangladesh for the time being. The Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) is yet to be heard. The opposition would be strategizing their position and reading the minds of the people.
The other left over issue is the sharing of river waters, especially the Teesta river. The interim agreement between the two sides have been prepared and is ready to be signed. It would have been signed in 2013 when then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Dhaka for the purpose. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee who has a role to play because the river runs through the state before flowing into Bangladesh, pulled out at the last moment, causing immense embarrassment to both India and Sk. Hasina.
Mamata Bannerjee’s decision related to narrow state level politics to score points with the center, but created a huge diplomatic setback to relations with a very important friendly neighbour. Her decision may not have hurt her politics in the state, but it strengthened the hands of the right wing political groups in Bangladesh, who are known protectors and supporters of terrorism.
Despite Bannerjee’s misguided and short sighted policy, which encouraged Muslim supporters of the Bangladeshi terrorists to open branches in West Bengal and elsewhere, both Sk. Hasina and the central government in India seem to have successfully persuaded her to see the bigger picture in India-Bangladesh relations.
The LBA was signed in 1974 between Indira Gandhi and Sk. Mujijibur Rahman. While Bangladesh parliament ratified it quickly, it took India a long time, and Sk. Mujib’s assassination in August 1975 vitiated bilateral relations. The sharp rise in anti-Indianism in Bangladesh affected the mindset in India. Things began to change finally after the Sk. Hasina led coalition government came to power in January 2010.
Prime Minister Modi’s expected visit to Bangladesh will trigger a new surge in the bilateral relationship. India is working to alleviate Bangladesh’s power shortage and engage Bangladesh’s Industrial sector. India’s one billion dollar aid to Bangladesh, $ 200 million of which has been converted into an outright grant, needs to see acceleration in implementation. Finally, the oft repeated charge in Bangladesh that India is high on promise and low on delivery, true to a significant extent, would be addressed adequately. This will also dent the opponents in Bangladesh to giving India road connectivity to the north-eastern states. The scope between the two countries is enormous.
The geopolitical potential of this relationship can, and should be, exploited. Terrorism is one area where the two countries have cooperated, with Sk. Hasina having raised it to very high priority. She is looking at it in the larger context of South Asia.
Bangladesh is well placed geographically to partner with India in New Delhi’s Look East policy, and the fledgling concept of Mausam. This, as the popular saying in economic diplomacy goes, would create a “win-win” situation for both the countries.
Having said this, a lot of work remains to be done and to be seen to be done. There is the issue of people’s perception. A positive perception must be created among the majority of the people of Bangladesh. And one must not be distracted by the nay-sayers. They will always be there.
Note: The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail email@example.com