When Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina landed in New Delhi for a four-day visit to India on April 7, she was received at the airport by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It was a rare gesture from India to the Bangladesh Prime Minister, hinting categorically, the importance that New Delhi attached to the visit, the first one after Modi became Prime Minister in May 2014.
New Delhi offered a line of credit (LoC) of worth US$5 billion to Bangladesh, for the purchase of defence equipment from India. This is in addition to the US$4.5 billion offered to the country for development of infrastructure, space and other programmes.
It is a large sum of assistance which no South Asian neighbouring countries have ever received from India. Bangladesh had earlier received over US$2.5 billion worth of LoC from its largest South Asian neighbour. Afghanistan has been given LoC of more than US$2 billion for its infrastructure development and also, the same amount of assistance has been given by India to Nepal in the past few years.
It indicates clearly about the compulsions of the geo-strategic situation in the region, which changed after Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Dhaka in October last year and extended a US$24 billion loan to Bangladesh. Following this visit, ties between China and Bangladesh were also elevated from “comprehensive partnership” to “strategic partnership”.
While this led to India raising red flags, yet, what sent shivers down Indian defence and strategic experts’ spine was Bangladesh’s decision to buy two refurbished submarines from China. The country of the fire-spitting dragon appeared to be prepared to spread its footprints in India’s backyard. A challenge which if remains unaddressed, could prove dangerous for New Delhi’s interests in the region.
Offering a red carpet welcome to the Bangladesh Prime Minister on her arrival, signing of 22 agreements and extending US$5 billion worth of the LoC—were done to preempt China’s move to win over Bangladesh and subsequently develop a base for its naval facilities.
Why Bangladesh is Important for India
Security is a dominant factor behind India’s aim to deepen relations with Bangladesh. The two countries share a 4,095 km long boundary. Till 2010, Bangladesh was the den for anti-India insurgents from the country’s north-east region. Insurgents from the United Liberation Front of Asom had made Bangladesh their hideouts.
But after Sheikh Hasina came to power in 2008, India heaved a sigh of relief. Her government took strong action against anti-India forces, which aided and abetted by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, were engaged in fanning violence in India.
Under the Khaleda Zia-led government, Bangladesh had become a hub of trans-border crimes like smuggling of arms, ammunition, explosives, drugs, fake currency notes, gold and cattle. But all this stopped when the Sheikh Hasina government was formed.
However, Bangladesh is also a key to India’s ‘Act East’ policy. Located strategically between South and South-East Asia, Bangladesh is central to New Delhi’s regional economic cooperation plans. It is also central to an ambitious road connectivity plan in which India, Bhutan and Nepal are other partners.
Brain-child of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the regional connectivity initiative on completion will facilitate seamless movement of passengers and cargo among the four countries. New Delhi and Dhaka are also planning to operationalise again the defunct trans-border rail routes, which would link them with Nepal and Bhutan.
Lying unused and damaged since the 1965 India-Pakistan War, the rail routes linking Bangladesh with Nepal and Bhutan are also part of the proposed Trans-Asian Railway Network. It is felt that once these rail routes get restored, it will boost besides tourism, sub-regional trade and commerce.
Then it should not be forgotten that when the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is not making headway due to Pakistan, New Delhi looks at Bangladesh to make the Bay of Bengal Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) a successful initiative.
Comprising countries like Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal, the BIMSTEC is a bridge between South and South-East Asia.
Area of Cooperation Between India and Bangladesh
From connectivity to energy to defence, India and Bangladesh signed 22 agreements in all. Under the defence cooperation framework, the two countries agreed to enhance cooperation in the field of strategic and operational studies. That means, apart from conducting regular joint military exercises and imparting training to Bangladeshi armed forces, India will share military-related expertise with the latter.
Together with offer of US$5 billion worth of credit to Bangladesh, especially for defence purchase, India’s move to set up manufacturing and service centres for defence products, will enable Dhaka to reduce its dependence on China.
So far Beijing is a major supplier of defence equipment to Dhaka. To augment Bangladesh’s energy security, New Delhi and Dhaka, for the first time entered in the area which has so far remained uncharted for Bangladesh. The signing of civil nuclear cooperation agreement between the two nations speaks volume of Dhaka’s desire to develop its civilian nuclear programme with help from India.
Besides providing nuclear know-how for Bangladesh’s nuclear projects, India will help Dhaka in the capacity building area, including nuclear safety and radiation protection. Further, India would provide additional 60 Mega Watt of power to the 600 Mega Watt of power already flowing from India to Bangladesh.
India is committed to help Bangladesh in achieving its target of providing power to all by 2021. The former has also agreed to finance a diesel oil pipeline from Numaligarh in India to Parbatipur in Bangladesh. In the area of connectivity, the two countries added a fresh chapter by restoring bus and train links between Kolkata and Khula (Bangladesh), and Radhikapur and Birole (Bangladesh). Information Technology and cyber-security were other major areas which saw signing of agreements between the two sides.
Indeed, India and Bangladesh have traversed a long diplomatic way to become trusted friends. Both have amicably resolved their land boundary disputes and other areas of concern. Yet, both sides failed to see signing of pact on the tricky Teesta river water sharing issue. This river flows from West Bengal before entering Bangladesh and joining the Brahmaputra river.
Because of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s rigid stand on the sharing of Teesta water issue, it couldn’t witness successful resolution. A move which could have helped the Hasina government when it is going to face parliamentary polls in 2018. Nonetheless, the visit injected a fresh momentum to the relations between the two nations.