Reshaping Indo-Bangla relations

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By : Shamsul Huda

With the change of government, India appears to reset its ties with Bangladesh. Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, who arrives in Dhaka on June 25 on her first two-day official visit, is expected to put forward a series of proposals to reshape the relations. There is, however, little hope for a change in the status quo in the face of some core unresolved issues ranging from border killings to water sharing and ratification of land boundary agreement (LBA).

Relations between India and Bangladesh reached their highest levels during the tenure of Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, but they have showed signs of slacking after Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in May. It is mostly due to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s anti-Muslim image and his attitude toward Bangladesh, which was reflected during his election campaign when he said he would wipe out Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants, but not the Hindus who have already settled in India.

The BJP government has to step back from its previous stand and soften its approach to resolving the major issues by concluding the Teesta water sharing deal and land boundary agreement, which was opposed by the then opposition party BJP when Manmohan Singh government sought to ratify it and introduced it in the Parliament at the end of the last year.

The land boundary agreement was already inked by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during the former’s landmark visit to Dhaka in September 2011, but it needs to be ratified by the Indian Parliament in order to exchange adversely held enclaves occupied by both countries. If LBA is implemented, the enclaves’ residents could continue to reside at their present locations or move to the country of their choice. Enclaves are some portions of a country surrounded by the land of another country rendering those living in the enclaves stateless.

There are a total of 162 enclaves to be swapped, of which 111 Indian enclaves are located in Bangladesh and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves in India amounting to a combined land area of 24,259 acres, according to a joint study carried out by the India and Bangladesh governments in April, 1997. After the exchange of these enclaves, over 52,000 people will get rights and privileges as citizens with the improvement of human rights record on the Indian side.

Water sharing issue has long been a thorn in Indo-Bangla relations with India unilaterally slashing water supply from the upstream or putting a control over 50 out of 54 international rivers flowing through India to Bangladesh.

In 2011, during the visit of Manmohan Singh to Bangladesh, the two countries were about to strike a major Teesta water sharing deal, but at the last minute, it was not materialized due to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s refusal to assent to the agreement, although it was fully endorsed by the Indian central government.

During Singh’s visit to Dhaka, there was also a possibility of signing a land transportation corridor accord but it did not happen apparently due to India’s “no” to the Teesta water sharing agreement.
India acutely needs to use Bangladesh corridor at the Tetulia area which is supposed to reduce the travel length for the northeast Indian bound vehicles by about 85 km. Delhi also needs Bangladesh’s support to prevent its domestic insurgency from growing.

Swaraj’s visit to Bangladesh is taking place in the wake of Dhaka’s conspicuous tilt in its foreign policy toward other neighbors as it is evident following the recent visit of Shaikh Hasina to China and Japan and her apparent support in Tokyo’s attempt to become a permanent member in the UN Security Council.

It remains to be seen whether India will adopt a “carrot and stick policy” with little hopes of resolving the outstanding key issues with Bangladesh dragging them to the end of Modi’s government in order to woo voters for his second term.

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