Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shakes hands with Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina prior to a meeting in New Delhi on October 5, 2019. Photo: AFP / Prakash Singh

World leaders have begun to hold what are now called “offline” meetings to return to the “normal” ways of conducting diplomatic relations where personal chemistry remains the key to success. So after the whirlwind six-hour visit by President Vladimir Putin on December 6, New Delhi will be hosting next week (September 5-8) a four-day visit by Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. 

She will be accompanied by a high-powered delegation consisting of a number of ministers, advisers, officials and business leaders who will be traveling beyond New Delhi as well.

A press briefing by India’s Ministry of External Affairs said the visit aims to reiterate unique historical and cultural linkages that undergird the two countries’ innovative ways to enhance their multifaceted cooperation in such crucial sectors as bilateral trade, investment, energy, defense, connectivity, and above all the sharing of water. 

Also marking their strong cultural and societal linkages, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will visit the city of Ajmer in India’s northwest to offer prayers at the historic shrine of Sufi saint Moinuddin Chishti.

In New Delhi, other than meeting top leaders, her engagements will include awarding Mujib Scholarships to the descendants of 200 Indian Armed Forces personnel who were martyred or suffered critical injuries during Bangladesh’s Liberation War of 1971.

Golden chapter

To begin with, the positive message of this visit for the larger South Asian region cannot go unnoticed. It comes in the face of continuing economic and political instability in Sri lanka, Afghanistan and Pakistan and to some degree in Nepal and even Mauritius and Seychelles.

In addition to domestic fissures in these countries, a persistent pandemic and six months of the Ukraine crisis have triggered further economic, social and political disruptions. At the least, therefore, this visit is expected to bring respite from the stresses and strains in South Asia.

Indeed, recent years of India-Bangladesh relations have been described by some observers as their shonali adhyay (golden chapter). This is because of their economic successes.

On the one hand, international observers have been talking of the “Bangladesh model” of development and recognizing Bangladesh as the economic miracle of South Asia. On the other, India has been the the fastest-growing major economy of the last two years.

Indeed, creating some concerns of “overheating” and going way beyond World Bank projections of achieving 7-8% growth for this year, India’s gross domestic product hit an astonishing level of 13.5% growth for the first quarter of financial year 2022-23.

It is against this backdrop that India and Bangladesh will now begin formal negotiations for signing a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, or CEPA. India’s northeastern region has lately become a special driver of the Act East policy and especially of its increasing engagement with BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), which has its secretariat in Dhaka.

While India has lately been hyperactive in negotiating free-trade deals, this will be the first FTA for Bangladesh, which has granted this privilege to India while others such as China and Japan have been requesting similar negotiations with Dhaka.

Bilateral trade between India and Bangladesh has grown substantially in the last five years, expanding from US$9 billion for 2018 to $16 billion last year, making Bangladesh the fastest-growing destination for India’s exports. But this has also made their bilateral trade increasingly one-sided. For instance, Bangladesh’s $12 billon trade deficit in favor of India has be rectified to make quick further progress.

Water sharing remains their other major challenge.

Water sharing

Among a slew of agreements and memoranda of understanding (MoUs) to be signed in New Delhi next week, the two nations will also be signing an agreement on the sharing of Kushiyara River waters. Only last week the 38th ministerial meeting of the India-Bangladesh Joint Rivers Comission (JRC) held in New Delhi on August 25 had India and Bangladesh finalize the text of this interim agreement.

The JRC meeting of course also highlighted the urgency of resolving other bilateral water-sharing issues, including the need to begin working on the upcoming renewal of their Ganga (Ganges) Water Treaty

But the fact that this was the JRC’s first meeting since 2010 shows the changed milieu for making bold decisions. Teesta River water sharing has been their most difficult knot where Bangladesh has sought equitable distribution of water from India. The Teesta deal was all set to be signed during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bangladesh visit of September 2011 but was postponed and has still not yet been signed.

The Ganges treaty was signed in 1996 and is due for renewal in 2026, and work on its renewal has already begun.

Inspired by the Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan, India and newly liberated Bangladesh set up the JRC in 1972 as their bilateral mechanism for evolving shared understanding on common rivers. But more than India and Pakistan, India and Bangladesh share 54 rivers, big and small, of which seven have been identified for developing an earlier framework for negotiation water-sharing agreements.

But sustained warmth of leadership from both sides and now a return to post-pandemic interactions give hope of another upswing in India-Bangladesh relations with lessons for rest of the region.

Strategic upswing 

The recent past has seen overall strategic ties between India and Bangladesh on an upswing. In March last year, even in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, Modi made an exception to travel restrictions and went to Dhaka to attend events celebrating 50 years of liberation of Bangladesh from Pakistan and the birth centenary of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman

Indeed, marking India’s unique connection to the liberation of Bangladesh, New Delhi also hosted several events to celebrate the surrender of Pakistani forces in Dhaka to the India Army and “Mukti Bahini” on December 16, 1971. This was also a unique example of 93,000 Pakistani troops being taken as prisoners of war by India and then safely repatriated at great cost and effort, setting a unique example for the world.

There are other examples of India-Bangladesh cooperation, including demarcation of their land and maritime borders. This has greatly facilitated their developmental partnership. Dhaka now allows transit of Indian goods to India’s northeast, has approved the Agartala-Dhaka-Kolkata Maitri bus service, and imports electrical power from India.

These examples of the changing nature of their bilateral relations have lessons and implications for the larger region.

Follow Swaran Singh on Twitter @SwaranSinghJNU.

Swaran Singh

Swaran Singh is visiting professor at the University of British Columbia and professor of diplomacy and disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is president of the Association of Asia Scholars; adjunct senior fellow at the Charhar Institute, Beijing; senior fellow, Institute for National Security Studies Sri Lanka, Colombo; and visiting professor, Research Institute for Indian Ocean Economies, Kunming.