By Shahab Enam Khan
Indian media analysis of Bangladesh-India relations tends to be hyperbolic, reductive, and misleading. Such coverage usually dilutes its complexity and sets an unrealistic bar for the relationship. What the Indian public remains deprived of as a result is a nuanced understanding of Bangladeshi policy and public opinion on key bilateral issues.
Bangladesh will never forget India’s contribution in its Liberation War of 1971. At the same time, we should remember that it was geostrategic compulsion that primarily motivated New Delhi’s participation. This history, which underlines the bulk of bilateral relations even today, has been overmined by India.
Ties soared significantly after the Awami League (AL) came to power in 2009, and Delhi continued supporting the Sheikh Hasina-led government through the 2013 and 2018 elections. As with every relationship, there have been successes and failures. The Prime Minister Narendra Modi government’s expediency in ratifying the long-pending Land Boundary Agreement in 2015 is certainly praiseworthy.
However, some political issues have emerged as serious irritants. India’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and Assam’s National Register of Citizens (NRC) have questioned the ‘eternal’ aspect of the bilateral relationship. Dhaka publicly acknowledged the CAA and NRC as India’s internal matters (although the prime minister’s office still expressed reservations). But critics have questioned whether the CAA is actually ‘internal’ to India when it calls out Bangladesh for minority persecution, tying the country with Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The then BJP president, now Home Minister, Mr Amit Shah’s 2018 comment comparing Bangladeshi migrants to “termites” did much perception damage in Bangladesh in this regard. Indian silence on the Rakhine issue and Bangladesh-Myanmar tensions, are included in this basket of political irritants.
SAARC remains hostage to the whims of India and Pakistan and New Delhi’s political inconsistency on regional cooperation. India has been an active party to SAARC, showed fluctuating responses to the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), pushed rather flawed initiatives such as the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) grouping, and excluded itself from the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) initiative. However, Prime Minister Modi’s attempt to revive SAARC during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic shows that multilateralism is still relevant.
Economy, Trade, and Connectivity
Bangladesh and India are natural markets for each other. Bilateral trade has grown steadily, making Bangladesh India’s largest trading partner in South Asia. Despite the potential, India’s exports to Bangladesh in 2018-19 was USD 9.21 billion, and imports clocked USD 1.04 billion. While lack of diversification in goods from Bangladesh is a significant reason for the trade imbalance, India’s non-tariff barriers and anti-dumping tariffs are also major impediments. The trade deficit is a key concern for Dhaka. In fact, Indian migrant workers remit USD 4 billion from Bangladesh.
Bangladesh has agreed to offer India transit and transshipment access to its ports. This was not met entirely positively by Bangladesh’s business community. In fact, Dhaka has gone to great lengths to facilitate New Delhi’s regional economic agenda. For instance, the government acquired 1,106 acres of land to set up three special economic zones (SEZs) exclusively for Indian investors. The Indian private sector however has been slow on investments.
Bangladesh’s interest in gaining access to the Nepalese energy market or facilitating investment in Bhutanese energy production have been stuck for a long time. India is the third country for transit in all these trade mechanisms. Efforts to set up a multimodal transport corridor linking Nepal and Bhutan have become complicated. Even joint attempts to build smoother connectivity between India and Bangladesh remain constrained.
In March 2020, for example, Bangladeshi railway officials claimed that the construction of the Khulna-Mongla Port Rail Line Project was being delayed due to slow approvals, and the sluggishness of the Indian Railway Construction Company (IRCON). The project’s financial progress is about 63 per cent, and physical development is approximately 61.90 per cent. The rail link project was sanctioned by a 2010 MoU, under which India extended a Line of Credit (LoC) worth USD 862 million to Bangladesh. However, in ten years, India has disbursed only USD 565.76 million, whereas Bangladesh’s infrastructure development requirement has grown to USD 320 billion. The slow disbursement has compelled Dhaka to find alternative sources for funding—not only from China, but also the US, UK, EU, World Bank, International Finance Corporation (IFC), etc.
While India and Bangladesh have had a fairly good mutual understanding on strategic issues, the boat has begun to rock.
Dhaka is concerned about India’s security collaboration with Myanmar, which poses a national security threat to Bangladesh. Delhi’s supply of an old Russian built Kilo-class submarine and other hardware to the Myanmar Navy in 2019, military assistance and training to the Tatmadaw, coupled with South Block’s abstentions and silence at UN platforms in condemning Rohingya persecution have raised eyebrows. The fact that China suggested a bilateral repatriation deal—albeit a fragile one—between Dhaka and Napyidaw perhaps made India’s passivity look even more glaring.
During his September 2017 visit to Myanmar, Prime Minister Modi termed the Rakhine crisis as “extremist violence,” and made no reference to Tatmadaw’s persecution of the Rohingya. Delhi’s silence and Beijing’s lack of proactiveness have compelled Dhaka to see both countries through the same realist prism. In this case, whoever offers better economic and political incentives will dictate the rules of business and bilateralism.
There were some negative Indian media reactions to Bangladesh acquiring two submarines from China. In fact, according to sources, India had also been invited to supply a (trainer) submarine, but there was no positive response. Bangladesh’s Ming class submarines are designed for defensive postures to ensure strategic autonomy in the Bay of Bengal. Dhaka has had to go to international tribunals to delimit its maritime boundaries with India and Myanmar. It is logical therefore for Bangladesh’s armed forces to fortify its defences.
Bangladeshi public opinion is also concerned about recent incidents of communal violence in India, including the February riots in Delhi, and the arbitrary killing of Muslim individuals on suspicions of carrying or eating beef. These incidents have cross-border ramifications. Since Bangladesh is already hosting nearly a million Rohingya refugees on its soil, there is general anxiety about developments in India triggering another influx of persecuted individuals into its territory. With this comes the continued killing of Bangladeshi citizens along the border, despite India’s repeated claim of bringing the numbers down to zero.
These sticking points notwithstanding, there is much to look forward to in the India-Bangladesh relationship. For example, tourism alone is significant. In fact, Kolkata’s major shopping malls and high-end stores are reportedly deserted in the post-lockdown period in the absence of Bangladeshi buyers. A prosperous Bangladesh and benefits accrued from regional trade would not only be mutually beneficial, but also help stabilise post-COVID-19 growth.
Bangladesh believes in multilateralism, and prioritises development. It requires cost-effective assistance to revive its health sector, urban governance and planning, and infrastructure development. To achieve these goals, support from friends and partners is crucial. India can facilitate change in these sectors, but there must be a clearer understanding of how the bilateral relationship is viewed in Bangladesh. The economic and social realities are not as same as in 1971 or 2009. Both countries must reach common ground on what their expectations of each other are.
*Shahab Enam Khan is Professor, Department of International Relations, Jahangirnagar University, Bangladesh, and Research Director at the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI).