Bangladeshi nationals pull their luggage as they cross the border into India. Relations between the countries are starting to thaw after a long chill. Photo: AFP/Diptendu Dutta

MUMBAI – India’s overdrive bid to regain long-standing good relations with Bangladesh seems to have gained traction, but the brief chill blowing between the two countries may have shown Dhaka the advantages it can gain from engaging more with China.

Over the past few months, India has initiated a series of measures to win back goodwill with its eastern neighbor. For example, the first container train service started last month to carry Indian goods to Bangladesh.

India gifted 10 broad gauge diesel locomotives to its eastern neighbor to help it tide over an emergency requirement. Its orders from the United States were taking time and it needed urgent replacements for its aging locomotives.

India requisitioned as many as 55 special trains to transport 125,000 tons of onions from Lasalgaon in Maharashtra to Dhaka. Bangladesh, which gets three-fourths of its onion imports from India, was upset at a surprise export ban last September.

A special train packed with 384 tons of red chilies also chugged 1,370 kilometers from Guntur to Bangladesh.

People line up to buy onions in Dhaka, Bangladesh, considered to be an essential food item. Photo: AFP/Mamunur Rashid/NurPhoto

Bangladesh exports to India rose 43% to cross the US$1 billion mark in 2019. Trade has played a significant role in getting the two sides’ relations back on track. India increased the frequency of two passenger trains – the Maitree Express and Bandhan Express – by one day each per week.

Last month, another significant event went almost unnoticed. India started using Bangladesh’s Chittagong port for transshipments to deliver goods to its northeastern Tripura state. India’s mountainous seven-sister states are difficult to reach from other parts of India because of the circuitous distance and tough terrain.

Bangladesh also opened up its Mongla port closer to the Indian border. The 1,650 kilometers from Kolkata to Tripura through Indian territories was cut short to 500km when traversed through Bangladesh.

Transshipments can also open up new opportunities for Bangladesh, when used by Myanmar, Bhutan and also Nepal, said Mohammad Arafat, chairman of the Suchinta Foundation, a Dhaka-based think tank.

Chittagong port is strategically located on the Bay of Bengal and has long been eyed by the Chinese. Bangladesh also opened two more inland water transport routes for India to reach its northeast in addition to the existing eight, and opened five more ports to make a total of 11.

Analysts say India’s response to Bangladesh was a realization and belated attempt to mend fences with its eastern neighbor, where ties have deteriorated over a series of incidents in recent years.

One initial turning point came when Indian politicians aired provocative election speeches, particularly from leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in Assam, a state grappling with an inflow of Bangladeshi migrants, who are mainly Muslim.

Intrusions have in the past led to violent and bloody clashes. Sending back illegal migrants from Assam and elsewhere in the country was a long-standing promise of the Hindu nationalist BJP.

Senior BJP leaders described illegal migrants, in a veiled reference to Bangladeshi immigrants, as “termites” in a bid to win more Hindu votes. The comments inflamed resentment in Bangladesh.

Similar references were repeated late last year despite Bangladesh’s leaders conveying their displeasure, driving relations down further. In response, hardliners in Bangladesh resurrected long-standing unresolved issues.

Protests in India against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, the National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register in February 2020. Photo: AFP/Muzamil Mattoo/NurPhoto

The sharing of the Teesta river water has been contentious since 1947. Bangladesh has been deeply resentful since the 414-kilometer-long Teesta floods its land during the monsoon and dries up to a trickle in most other months, when water is needed.

India uses dams upstream to generate electricity and needs water to irrigate farms in West Bengal state. A possible solution of building a canal from the mighty Brahmaputra to fill up the Teesta for Bangladesh’s use has not yet come to fruition.

Planned visits to India by Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister and Home Minister were canceled without convincing reasons. Similar expressions of hurt and displeasure were conveyed over the months.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had planned to visit Dhaka in March for the centenary celebrations of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who is revered as the Father of the Nation.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed, who has been in office since 2009 and was favorably disposed towards India, is Mujib’s daughter. Political parties and students protested against Modi’s trip to Dhaka. The spread of the coronavirus prompted Modi to cancel his visit.

The Suchinta Foundation’s Mohammad Ali Arafat, who also teaches management at the Canadian University of Bangladesh, said comments referring to Bangladeshis as “termites” were disturbing, but should not be taken too seriously since people understand they are meant for domestic political consumption.

Relations at the government level still hold steady, he said.

India saw widespread protests towards the end of 2019 and in early 2020 as it pushed forward with the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA), which promised citizenship to non-Muslims who fled Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh facing religious persecution.

It also vowed to push the National Register of Citizens (NRC) to identify and deport illegal migrants, estimated in the millions, increasing concern and bitterness in Bangladesh. The CAA showed Bangladesh in a poor light as intolerant towards minorities.

Deb Mukharji, India’s envoy to Bangladesh for five years until 2000, said relations may have hit a rough patch, but rejected suggestions that they have have been “spoilt.”

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) and his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina. Photo: Agencies

“We cannot repeatedly refer to the citizens of a friendly country as ‘termites,’ even if indirectly, and describe the alleged illegal migrants as threats to our national security, without repercussions in the public mind,” said Mukharji.

“As, I think, the Bangladeshi political leadership has pointed out, they too are answerable to their public opinion.”

While generally stable and positive, India-Bangladesh relations obviously lack the warmth and enthusiasm of a few years ago, said Mukharji. China has seen an opportunity in that downtrend.

In July, China made imports of 97% of Bangladesh’s products tariff-free, increasing exported items to 8,256 from 3,095. The move could also help to narrow the trade deficit heavily in China’s favor.

China has also been going out of its way to woo Bangladesh with promises of investment for building roads, ports and other infrastructure. Reports suggest Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, thought to be a Beijing ally, had also taken a personal initiative in making telephone calls to Dhaka to help facilitate China’s interests in Bangladesh.

Already concerned at the incursion and encirclement by China’s increasing presence in neighboring countries including Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, India is now moving to repair the damage.

“We should look within,” said Mukharji. “Obviously China and Pakistan would look at every opportunity to take advantage of India’s diminished relations not only with Bangladesh but any country, particularly in the neighborhood.’’

Instead of blaming China and Pakistan, India should look at its own behavior and failure to deliver on its promise of sharing the Teesta River’s waters, he said.

There are economic reasons for India to forge stronger ties. Bangladesh’s economy has been growing faster than 5% annually since 2004. In 2019, it grew 8.1% and this year when most economies, including India’s, are poised to contract, Bangladesh is projected to grow 4.5%.

Sheikh Hasina and Chinese President Xi Jinping in a file photo. Image: Facebook

The size of its economy has increased from $93 billion to $316 billion over the past 12 years, pushing electricity requirements to 23,000 megawatts from 3,300 megawatts over the same period.

“We are a confident and fast-growing economy,” said Arafat. “We need investment, irrespective of where it comes from, whether China, Japan, America or India.”

The United Nations confirms Bangladesh is on the way to graduate out of its current status of least developed countries by 2024.

To push ahead, its crucial ready-made garments exports would surely take advantage of China’s Belt and Road Initiative to facilitate more trade.

“I would expect Bangladesh to accept such investment if it is of benefit to them,” said Mukharji. “It would be foolish of Indians to object. The answer has to be in offering attractive investments to Bangladesh.”

India and Bangladesh share the world’s fifth-longest land border of 4,100km, which instead of inspiring confidence often gives rise to insecurity, suspicion and other issues.

Those issues could be intensified in light of recent border tensions between India and China and rising fears in Delhi that Beijing aims to encircle it by forging stronger ties with neighboring states, including Bangladesh.