India looks east to Bangladesh

Posted in India | 22-Mar-06 | Author: Siddharth Srivastava| Source: Asia Times

Siddharth Srivastava is WSN Editor India.
NEW DELHI - Tackling terror and building confidence are the two prominent themes of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia's visit to India. Zia, who arrived in New Delhi on Monday, is the first Bangladeshi premier to visit India in nine years.

"I look forward to very candid and constructive discussions with our friends in India," Khaleda said in a statement on arrival in New Delhi. "I hope that as a result of our discussions it [will] be possible for us to create conditions for perceptible improvement in the content of our cooperative relations."

New Delhi is looking at relations with Bangladesh in a new light with the twin goals of tackling terror in the latter country and implementing a series of confidence-building measures, including promoting trade relations. The aim is to replicate some of the efforts that have gone into the peace process with Pakistan, which has built a momentum of its own (through rising subregional trade), despite the known political differences.

Relations between India and Bangladesh have deteriorated in the recent past. Indian intelligence agencies have reported for quite a while that terrorist groups inimical to Indian interests were operating from various camps in the Chittagong Hills and that Bangladesh has become a hub of various terrorist groups, a fact the Bangladeshi authorities refuse to accept. Last year, the annual report of India's Ministry of Defense said that instead of Pakistan and China (against whom India has waged wars in the past), Bangladesh is the country that India needs to guard against the most, because of the fertile ground that terrorists have been provided.

India has long insisted that Bangladesh needs to come clean on the terrorists operating inside the country. New Delhi feels that away from the heat of US attention and troop presence, Bangladesh is providing a safe haven for terrorists and militants to hide, bide their time and reappear when things cool off. So far the US "war on terrorism" has concentrated its efforts in Pakistan and Afghanistan, thus providing a free run for extremists in Bangladesh. Proximity with the military regime in Myanmar with its poor record against terror outfits as well as a weak law-enforcing apparatus has made the situation worse. Last year, the 13th summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) at Dhaka was postponed after Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's refusal to attend because of threats from terrorists.

It is in this context that India has never been comfortable dealing with Zia. An indication of the misgivings is the fact that this is the first visit of Zia to India, despite being at the helm in Dhaka for more than four years. In the general election in October 2001, the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami emerged as Bangladesh's third-largest party, capturing 17 of the 300 seats in parliament. The secular and leftist Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina, which had been in power since 1996, was defeated. New Delhi was comfortable dealing with Hasina.

To New Delhi's chagrin, the new government headed by Khaleda included Jamaat-e-Islami in the government. While Jamaat-e-Islami may not be directly involved in terror attacks, being part of the government has meant that the extremists feel they have the protection of the authorities.

However, increasing domestic opprobrium, international pressure as well as strong evidence presented by India of terrorist operations in Bangladesh (including the plotting of recent attacks at Varanasi and Ayodhya) have forced Dhaka to rethink. General elections are due in Bangladesh next year.

Observers also point to a failure of India, which is predominantly a Hindu country, to address some of the concerns of its neighbor, thus making it easy for extremist groups to stoke anti-India feelings. While India has progressed as an economic power and made substantial efforts to build relationships with the United States and the European Union, its relationship with its much smaller neighbor, with whom it shares cultural affinities as well as borders, has been less than adequate. There is a feeling of hurt among Bangladeshis that while India has advanced, the nature of its dealings with its close, smaller and less powerful neighbor has been ad hoc and neglectful.

It is in this context that a range of issues between the two countries regarding Bangladeshi refugees, river-water sharing, reduction of tariff walls by India and opening rail and road connections will be discussed during Zia's visit. New Delhi is expected to extend concessions on a number of niggling issues.

India and Bangladesh share a 4,000-kilometer border, which India has been fencing off with barbed wire to stop illegal immigration and cross-border infiltration. Bangladesh sees this as a hostile move and the issue is likely to figure during the summit. The two countries share 54 rivers, and Dhaka has always been unhappy that a water-sharing accord has been limited to just one river.

Bangladeshi Foreign Minister M Morshed Khan has termed the Zia visit a milestone. "Our relations with India are very important economically, geographically and strategically too," Khan said at a press briefing ahead of the three-day visit. A senior Indian official has been quoted as saying, "We want to make sure there is sustained engagement with Bangladesh."

As the experience of Pakistan shows, rail and road connections give rise to trade of goods and people-to-people movement. Observers say that rather than aiming for a big push for transit rights and tariff concessions, India and Bangladesh should initiate local-level border trade as a first step, a move that is also being studied by India and China in the northern passes. Among the rail and road links on the agenda are revival of the Sealdah-Tongi and Agartala-Akhaura-Chittagong rail lines as well as a bus service between Shillong and Sylhet with onward connections to Guwahati and Dhaka.

Trade between India and Bangladesh is estimated to have crossed US$1 billion so far this fiscal year. Illegal trade between the two countries has been reduced by 50% with the implementation of the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) and an opening up of rail and road linkages, the Indian industry body Assocham said recently. The illegal trade, estimated to be $2 billion in 2004-05, is projected to have come down to $1 billion as of last month, the chamber said. On the other hand, official trade had increased by $400 million at the end of February.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.