All ties need constant nurturing. Challenges old and new will constantly require resolution.
This article is part of the series — India–Bangladesh Relations @50: Commemorating Bilateral Ties.
As the 122-member tri-service contingent of the Bangladesh Armed Forces marched in India’s Republic Day parade on 26 January 2021, it gave goosebumps to people on both sides of the border. India and Bangladesh had earlier marked the 50th anniversary of “Bijoy Dibosh” or Victory Day on 16 December 2020 that ended the War of Liberation in 1971; a virtual summit was held between the two prime ministers the following day. Bangladesh has planned extensive celebrations for the 50th year of independence and the centenary year of the birthday of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, marking the beginning of a year-long celebration from March 2021, in which PM Modi will also participate.
Since 2007, the upward trajectory of bilateral ties has gathered momentum and has continued under the stewardship of Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina. Both the Maritime Boundary and Land Boundary Agreements, in 2014 and 2015 respectively, ensured that sovereignty and territorial issues were removed from the list of lingering irritants. Acting on the growing strategic consensus, with an increased bilateral confidence based on trust and a shared vision of pursuing deeper engagement, both countries have embarked on an impressive expansion in bilateral ties in several sectors — connectivity, energy, trade, investment, development cooperation, educational and cultural exchanges, cyberspace, defence, security, and intelligence.
Adding impetus to the already existing bilateral ties between both the countries is India’s “Neighbourhood First” and “Act East” policies that have attempted to give more traction and substance to bilateral ties with neighbouring countries. The exception to this trend has been the hostile China-Pakistan axis that is built on Pakistan’s state-sponsored terrorism and China’s border incursions along the line of actual control (LAC). Connectivity, people-to-people contacts, trade and investment, and development cooperation have emerged as major sectors of bilateral cooperation. Cross-border investments in the energy sector have grown considerably, creating synergy in an overlapping area of national interest. Railway connectivity across several border nodes has been expanded. Several new routes have been activated along waterways. More passenger trains have been introduced and containers are being transported by rail across borders. This is an important trade facilitator, as containers reduce the cost of transportation of goods. A new bridge across the Feni River will facilitate movement of goods and passengers from Tripura to Bangladesh.
In a year or two, we can look forward to a high-speed passenger train connecting the two capital cities. An important connectivity node that will become operational is the multimodal road-rail link between Agartala in India and Akhaura in Bangladesh. When this happens, even a Delhi to Agartala train would be able to run. The much-awaited Padma bridge is on the fast track to completion and will provide a crucial road-rail connectivity between north and south Bangladesh and to India. With Bangladesh desirous of joining the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, connectivity for BBIN countries (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal) with the two BIMSTEC and ASEAN countries to the east will add to greater avenues for movement. However, the recent military coup in Myanmar is a setback that is likely to divert attention and could impede connectivity projects.
Waterway routes provide the cheapest mode of transportation for bulk commodities. New routes and “innocent passage” routes for barges have been identified. A section of the meandering Ganga, adjacent to Rajshahi district of Bangladesh, enters Bangladesh and then India. Riverine traffic has to cross the international boundary, while moving from one river port to another in either country. An agreement on “innocent passage” will permit this riverine traffic to proceed unhindered, reducing time and costs.
Dredging of the waterway routes is of the utmost importance to facilitate riverine traffic. Transhipment of goods via ports in both countries has the potential of creating more opportunities for the transportation sector. Goods from Kolkata can now reach Agartala via Chittagong, covering the sector from Chittagong–Agartala by road. The operationalisation of the BBIN Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA), even without Bhutan, will help integrate road transportation amongst the participating countries. The India-specific Special Economic Zones
Climate change has already impacted both countries adversely and this sector will demand more attention of policy makers in both countries. The Sunderbans, a UNESCO-recognised world heritage zone, is crying out for joint cooperation. Despite the bilateral agreement, bureaucratic silos and differing regulations seem to take precedence over the overarching objective of joint cooperation on the Sunderbans.
Bangladesh will graduate out of its least developed country (LDC) status by 2026. Bangladesh’s economic performance has been lauded globally. As India’s largest trading partner, the most important development partner, and the highest contributor to India’s foreign tourist/visitor traffic, both countries have become stakeholders in mutual economic development. India has extended her hand of friendship by providing Bangladesh with free doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and facilitated supply of vaccines commercially. The pandemic has been a huge economic setback but there is no doubt that both countries are well on the road to recovery.
All ties need constant nurturing. Challenges old and new will constantly require resolution. Sharing of river waters, trade facilitation, border management, illegal migration, terrorism, religious radicalism, Rohingya refugees, and the China factor are long-term issues that will demand sensitive handling and mutual accommodation. India’s ties with Bangladesh rest on a strong foundation and historical bonds with PM Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League remain durable. As new aspirational generations, nurtured in a digital age, inevitably rise in both countries, historical memories will fade. New political leaderships will also emerge in the future. Hence, both countries have to adjust to these new realties and plan for the next half a century.
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Pinak Chakravarty is a Visiting Fellow with ORF's RegionalRead More +