India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Dhaka was fruitful on multiple fronts. Twenty-two agreements and MoUs were signed covering their border, trade, investment, connectivity, infrastructure development, etc.
India will extend a $2 billion credit line to Bangladesh for development of its transport infrastructure and two Indian energy companies will invest $5 billion in its power sector. Bangladesh will provide India with an exclusive Special Economic Zones in Mongla. Indian investment here will help fill the gap in the trade deficit.
Besides, connectivity received a boost with launching of bus services linking Kolkata-Dhaka-Agartala and Dhaka-Guwahati-Shillong. Other deals include a coastal shipping pact and a pact to expand co-operation between the Coast Guards of the two countries.
Relations between Delhi and Dhaka were initially warm especially in the context of India’s supportive role in Bangladesh’s liberation war. However, bilateral relations began fraying in 1975 when its pro-India President, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country’s founding father, was assassinated. India got entangled thereafter in the battle between secular and fundamentalist forces in Bangladesh, and as authoritarian forces and Islamic fundamentalists gained ground in the country in 1980s, Delhi-Dhaka ties suffered. Conflicts over river water-sharing, migration of Bangladeshis to India and Bangladesh’s alleged support to anti-India militants based on its soil have kept the two neighbors apart. Modi’s visit brought them closer.
The centerpiece of his visit was a Land Border Agreement (LBA) that simplifies their land border and settles the status of the enclaves. During Modi’s visit the two sides exchanged instruments of ratification on the LBA. Although the LBA was finalized in 1974, it was only a month ago that the Indian parliament ratified it, paving the way for its implementation.
The agreement provides for a swap of enclaves that lie in each other’s territory. Thus India will now take possession of 51 Bangladeshi enclaves within its territory while 111 Indian enclaves will be handed over to Bangladesh.
Importantly, for the roughly 51,000 residents of these enclaves, the LBA marks the start of a new era. These residents were stateless hitherto. The LBA marks the start of a process to change that. Residents of the enclaves have the right to stay where they are or move to the other side of the border. This means that they will be able to choose being citizens of India or Bangladesh and to access the benefits of that citizenship.
Pacts made during bilateral state visits are usually deals that bring benefit to the business elite of the two countries. What makes the LBA different is that it will impact significantly on the lives of ordinary people who being trapped in the enclaves were denied basic civic services.
The exchange of instruments of ratification of the LBA has overshadowed the significance of another pact, which grants Indian cargo vessels use of Chittagong and Mongla ports in Bangladesh.
Chittagong port was developed by China and a section of Indian analysts describe it is one of the ‘pearls’ in China’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy, other ‘pearls’ being Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Kyaukpyu in Myanmar, etc. China’s heavy investment in the development of these ports is supposedly aimed at giving Beijing a foothold in these countries that will enable it to encircle India militarily if required.
That India clinched a deal with Dhaka that will see its cargo ships anchoring at Chittagong port stands testimony to the growing trust between the two neighbors. It also indicates that India may be over-reacting to China’s role in its neighborhood. After all, China did not pressure Dhaka to turn down India’s request for allowing its ships entry to Chittagong port and even if it did Bangladesh was able to resist it.
While India and Bangladesh have taken important strides towards improving relations, several old irritants remain. The two countries share 54 rivers and sharing of their waters not only impacts lives and livelihoods of millions of Bangladeshis but also, has the potential to derail bilateral relations. Amidst the optimism generated by the Modi visit was visible disappointment that a much anticipated deal on sharing of waters of the River Teesta did not materialize.
River water sharing is an emotional issue that forces inimical to India find handy to use to stir anti-India sentiment in Bangladesh. If Delhi is keen on deepening its relationship with Dhaka, it must address this issue soon, denying anti-India forces a powerful weapon.
Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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