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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 14, March 23, 2013 - Special Supplement on Bangladesh

Reconfiguring Bangladesh - India Relations: A Masochist’s Fantasy Or Tilting At Windmills?

Monday 25 March 2013

by TARIQ A. KARIM

At the time when the offer of this assignment as High Commissioner of Bangladesh to India was made to me in mid-2009, I was in a think-tank in Bangladesh1 where my primary focus of attention was on how to improve relations with India and how to promote sub-regional cooperation in the region which I inhabited for the overall betterment of the lives of its people. After consulting some close friends and my wife and children, I decided to accept the offer, knowing full well that while the position offered an unique opportunity of translating my vision for the region, or at least some aspects of it, into reality, I was also acutely aware that given the baggage that had bedevilled Bangladesh-India relations for many decades, the challenges posed would be humongous and dauntingly formidable. Some friends thought I was being a masochist, taking on so massive an undertaking to change deeply entrenched mindsets on both sides that would cause me great pain, while others thought I was being a modern-day Don Quixote tilting at windmills! Nevertheless, I decided to accept the offer and the challenges that it posed for me. I came to New Delhi in August 2009, determined to give my best shot at converting those challenges into opportunities that would prove themselves to be of immense benefit to both countries. So, little over three-and-a-half years down the road, where do we find Bangladesh-India relations?

Security issues

INDIA’S main concern for decades had been its perception that Bangladesh had, wittingly or otherwise, been providing safe haven for, or even abetting, elements of various militant groups from the North-East Indian States who were actively pursuing anti-India activities using Bangladesh as a launching pad. However, the ‘Mohajote’ (Grand Coalition) government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina considered these same elements as also being inimical to Bangladesh’s own security concerns and detrimental to its overall societal development. She assured India in clear, categorical and unambiguous terms that Bangladesh would not allow its territory to be used by anyone for carrying out activities inimical to India’s security concerns, and enunciated the policy of zero-tolerance towards any terrorist activity conducted in or launched from Bangladesh. The sincerity of that com-mitment, made in the very early days of her government, has since been more than palpably demonstrated. It has been deeply appreciated by one and all in India. Security concerns do not cast any cloud over our growing relations. Addressing the security concerns boldly and with demonstrable sincerity, in fact, served to set the foundations for reconfiguration of relations dramatically.

Notably, within the overall security rubric, the Home Ministers of the two countries signed an Extradition Treaty in Dhaka in January 2013. Earlier, during the landmark game-changing visit of the Bangladesh Prime Minister to India in January 2010, the two countries had signed an Agreement on Mutual Legal Assistance on Criminal Matters, another Agreement on Transfer of Sentenced Persons, and an Agreement on Combating International Terrorism, Organised Crime and Illicit Drug Trafficking.

Boundaries

INDIA’S largest boundary is not with Pakistan or with China; it’s with Bangladesh—4096 kilome-tres, somewhat tortuously (and insensitively) defined by Sir Cyril Radcliffe on the paper map he was given to draw the partition lines across India in 1947.

When I was last posted in Bangladesh as Additional Foreign Secretary for South Asia and SAARC in the mid-nineties, there were about 50 kilometres of this border still awaiting final demarcation. Along with this line that cut through the heart of communities (and at some places, incongruously, across what had once been homes), the border drawn by Radcliffe also left some people on both sides on the wrong side of the line: with strange land-holdings called enclaves (territory notionally belonging to one side but totally surrounded by the territory of the other), with India having 111 such enclaves in Bangladesh, and Bangla-desh having 55 in India; and Adversely Possessed Lands (APLs)—land that had been habitually used for cultivation or other agrarian activities by people of a community who suddenly found a fence drawn across it and they being technically in wrongful possession of it by virtue of the Radcliffe “award”.

When I joined my present post in 2009, there were still 6.5 kilometres of border defying demarcation. The problem of the enclaves had become more complicated, by virtue of increasing populations since 1947—some 50,000 people on both sides were virtually “stateless” on account of the fact that the government of the country they notionally belonged to could not reach them across the territory of the other, while the government of the “other” country in which they found themselves so haplessly ensconced would not reach them because they were citizens of another country! Effectively, the question of territory became increasingly irrelevant in the face of the denial of basic human rights and governance benefits to these people. As for the APLs, they also still remained unresolved and in a twilight zone, with forced cessation of traditional seasonal economic activities that used to define them prior to the Partition of 1947. In 1974, the Indira-Mujib accord on land boundaries had sought to resolve the legacy left behind by the Radcliffe Award, but this remained largely unaddressed after the assassination in 1975 of Bangladesh’s Father of the Nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and continued to fester and bedevil relations between the two countries.

Operationalising the provisions of the Land Boundary Agreement of 1974 became a priority agenda item for me, because I felt that unless this was resolved, we would not be able to move out of the vicious circle of mistrust and hostility manifesting itself and intruding negatively in the development of good-neigh-bourly relations. In the new atmosphere of trust emanating from having satisfactorily addressed hitherto vexing security-related issues, both sides were also able, together, to resolve all boundary related issues amicably and to their mutual satisfaction, and to this effect signed the Protocol to the LBA of 1974 on September 6, 2011 in Dhaka in the presence of the two Prime Ministers. However, “straightening” of the border line, that involves each country absorbing de jure the enclaves with their respective populations that they had hitherto held hostage de facto, and accepting the Radcliffe line largely (with minor modifications in the APLs), as well as signing off on all strip maps relating to the finally demarcated border, also requires constitutional ratification in Parliament by both sides. In Bangladesh, it is a relatively simple procedure, and has been done. But it still remains to be ratified by the Indian Parliament. We have been assured by the Government of India at all levels, including at the very highest level of the Union Government and State levels, that India would honour the agreement arrived at in September 2011. Bangladeshis await patiently, but eagerly, for fulfilment of that commitment.

Once you have an agreed-upon border, you also have to manage it, and basically the management had always been done by the uniformed people in battle khaki-green on both sides, namely, the BSF on the Indian side and BDR (now BGB) on the Bangladesh side. The job of these two forces is primarily to maintain the inviolability and integrity of the zero-line on the border. Both sides now felt that district administrations on both sides also had a major responsibility to manage activities along the border within the parameters of their respective legal systems. This required that different comprising units of the district administration (dealing with customs, immigration, narcotics, anti-terrorism, trafficking of all types of contraband, etc.) should not only be talking to each other within their own national spheres but also have periodic meetings at regular intervals with their counterparts on the other side of the border. The Home Ministers of both countries, therefore, so decided to reactivate a practice that had for long been discontinued. With this more holistic approach to border management, our borders henceforth will become a shining and outstandingly commendable border of peace, tranquillity and friendship rather than otherwise.

Another related but left-over problem from earlier times was the Tin-bigha corridor issue, which involved allowing unfettered access of Bangladeshis in the Dahagram-Angarpota territories of Bangladesh to the Bangladesh mainland around the clock from the previous very restrictive arrangement. In the end, simple traffic management principles were applied to a “problem” that need never have become a problem. Twentyfour-hour access by citizens of both sides to their respective territories is now available to both sides, and the arrangement has been working smoothly and harmoniously since it was initiated in 2011.

Waters

IN 1995, the sharing of the Ganges water had become the one issue which virtually held hostage forward movement on all other areas. “No Ganga, nothing else”. With the election of the Awami League-led coalition to power and forming the government in June 1996, the two sides, given mutual goodwill and the political resolve, were able to very speedily arrive at a 30-year Treaty on Ganges Water sharing within six months, on December 12, 1996. Resolving amicably the festering Ganga issue opened the space for also successfully resolving the cross-border insurgency problem with the signing of the Chittagong Hill Tracts accord in December 1997.

This time, in her second term in office after the elections that swept her and her Grand Alliance into power with an overwhelming mandate in December 2008, Sheikh Hasina’s government took on the task of arriving at an interim accord on the Teesta River (that flows from Sikkim, across West Bengal into Bangladesh). The two sides did arrive at an agreed draft in early 2011 for an interim sharing agreement for fifteen years that was initialled by the senior officials (Secretaries of the respective Water Resources Ministries) of the two sides, but it is still awaiting final signature pending the Union Government arriving at a satisfactory under-standing on the issue with the Government of West Bengal.

The Teesta issue is highly emotively charged and has become exceedingly politicised over the years. I have described it as an ungrounded and un-insulated political lightning rod standing on waterlogged ground in which both sides stand in knee-deep water—were it to be struck by political lightning, actors on both sides would have to bear considerable collateral political damage. We have been assured by the Government of India at all levels, again at the highest Union Government and State levels, that India will honour and fulfil all its commitments. We trust and respect our friends and accept their promise at face value, and have so far patiently awaited the fulfilment of this commitment as well.

Bangladesh and India share 54 rivers between them, and so far we have been able to resolve only the sharing of waters of one river (Ganges) and arrive at an agreed draft interim agreement on a second (Teesta). But our approach to addressing our waters issues has graduated from piecemeal and individually addressing questions of sharing of river waters to managing them basin-wise, together, in a more holistic manner. This stems from the realisation that while, rhetorically, “sharing” connotes a division of these fluid assets (in which one side or the other will always feel short-changed), “managing” connotes common ownership involving optimal management and use of a common resource. This change of the rhetoric, immediately, impacts on the way we look at the issue, psychologically shifting the focus away from contentious division of resources to cooperatively optimising management and use of available waters, which then bind us together rather than dividing us against each other.

With this approach, already one notices manifestation of vastly improved communi-cation between our waters officials. Progress has been (and continues to be) made on a number of non-contested areas in other rivers. Flood mitigation measures have been undertaken, and now there is real time exchange of flood data sharing.

The proposed Tipaimukh hydro-electric dam in Manipur on the Barak river that we share was another festering irritant, governed by deep-seated mistrust in Bangladeshi quarters, India’s assurance of no-harm and offer to Bangladesh to become a shareholder in the project notwithstanding. The two sides have now figured out a way of how to address this issue by setting up a sub-committee under the Joint Rivers Commission to study and look into all aspects of this proposed project. Should the experts come to a consensus conclusion on it, the next steps would be contemplated.

Trade and Connectivity

THE hugely yawning trade gap has been always a rankling matter for Bangladeshis. When I came here, formal Indian exports to Bangladesh amounted to about US $ 4 billion (with an additional US $ 4 billion of “informal” exports to Bangladesh), while Bangladesh’s total exports to India was around US $ 350 million. The “trade gap” misnomer, to my mind, causes irrational heartburn—obviously, there are far many more things that India produces and the free market economy dynamics (of proximity, quality and price) dictates that we obtain from India than what we in Bangladesh produce or can sell to India. However, there was also a widely-held belief in Bangladesh that we could sell more of whatever little range of products we produced if India were to open its markets more to Bangladesh through removing various barriers and restrictions, whether tariff, non-tariff or para-tariff. During Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Bangladesh in September 2011, he announced removal of 46 textile items from India’s negative list which was hugely appre-ciated by Bangladesh. Soon after, at the SAARC summit in Male, India went the extra mile and announced virtually all but 25 items being removed from the SAFTA Sensitive list in respect of the LDC countries. In effect, this is a magna-nimous gesture by India extended on a virtually non-reciprocal basis. Already Bangladeshi exports to India have crossed the US $ 500 million mark, and may even reach the magical one billion figure in the foreseeable future. The positive effect of this far-sighted decision on the Bangladeshi psyche is incalculable.

To revive traditional community trading that used to exist prior to the 1947 Partition, Bangladesh and India also decided to open Border Haats, initially on a pilot basis. The first two haats were opened along the Bangladesh-Meghalaya border, and they proved very successful. Two more will be opened along the same border shortly, while the proposal of additional haats along the Bangladesh-Tripura and Bangladesh-Mizoram borders are under very active consideration. These haats are not only helping to convert the former “informal” trade into a formal trade now, but more importantly serve the most useful function of expanding the spaces of mutual trust and comfort with each other.

Any expansion of trade would automatically involve operationalisation of carriageways to facilitate movement of goods and services across, as well as meaningfully linking, our respective territories. Bangladesh is ready and poised to offer itself as the hub of connectivity whether it be by rail, road, waterways or air, reviving the most historically used routes that had existed prior to 1947 but had been almost totally disrupted or snapped following the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war. Bangladesh offers itself as a bridge as well as telecommunication hub, linking the North-East with mainland India, linking South Asia with South-East Asia and beyond, and opening up the vast potentials of trade
and economic interlocution that still remain untapped.

We have offered the use of Chittagong and Mongla ports by India and landlocked Nepal and Bhutan to facilitate trade; the construction of Akhaura-Agartala rail linkage is well under-way, while the resuscitation or revitalisation of several other formerly used but long atrophied rail links are under discussion. The Maitree passenger train service between Dhaka and Kolkata has already been under operation for the last several years, and reviving some other historically popular routes (like Khulna-Kolkata) and opening new ones (between Agartala in Tripura and Ramgarh in Chittagong) are under contemplation.

Bus services have been in operation between Calcutta and Agartala via Dhaka from the time of Sheikh Hasina’s first term in office (1996-2001). A similar service between Guwahati-Shillong-Sylhet-Dhaka is currently under discussion.

New ports of calls have been added in our Inland Water Transport and Transit agreement, and additional ports are under consideration. A coastal shipping agreement is under discussion, linking ports across our long but contiguously shared coastline on the Bay of Bengal.

These farsighted and visionary goals were set by our respective leaders at the highest levels, and work is well underway to putting in place the infrastructure and supporting the hardware needed to concretise that shared vision and transform it into reality. Most of the US $ 1 billion Line of Credit ($ 200 million of which was converted into outright grant) is being used towards fulfilment of that vision. When completed, one could well envisage a continuation of these connectivities to eventually heralding the revival of the ancient Silk Route that had once connected Asia with Europe.

Trade connectivity is inextricably intertwined and linked with increasing people-to-people connectivity. Towards that end, the two countries have, in January 2013, signed the Revised Travel Agreement which vastly eases travel restrictions that had hitherto existed and virtually held our peoples “boundary-locked”. Five years multiple entry business and investors visa, visa on arrival to diplomatic and official passport holders, two-years multiple entry educational visas to students (renewable on annual basis thereafter), long-term multiple entry visa for medical treatment with accompanying attendants, and three months multiple entry tourist visas are some of the prominent features of this new RTA.

During the visit of the Prime Minister of India to Bangladesh in September 2011, a compre-hensive “Framework Agreement on Cooperation for Development” that outlines the shared vision for durable and long-term cooperation to achieve mutual peace, prosperity and stability was signed by the two sides. In terms of this remarkable document, the two sides agreed to set up a Joint Working Group on Trade and Connectivity to look into all aspects of trade and related connectivity issues with a view to addressing them jointly. During the visit of the Indian External Affairs Minister to Dhaka in February 2013, the formation of this JWG was announced. The first meeting of this Group is likely to be held in a few weeks time from the date of writing this article.

A most remarkable development was the resounding reaffirmation of the deep cultural connectivity that had historically existed between the peoples of our two countries through jointly celebrating the Sesquicentennial birth anniversary of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, the ninetieth anniversary of Bangladesh’s national poet Kazi Nazrul Islam’s iconic work “Bidrohi” (the Rebel) and the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda.

Energy and Power 

THIS is a new area of trade which opens up vast and exciting possibilities for the future. For the first time, Bangladesh will be purchasing 500 MW of power from India. Purchasing power also requires that both countries need to connect their respective power grids. This too is underway, and everything should be in place to allow the power to flow by the middle of this year. We have also set up a Joint Working Group on power cooperation to identify and explore joint production as well as more such power exchanges. This Group will initially be looking at sourcing power produced in Sikkim, Meghalaya and Tripura.

In principle, Bangladesh has also agreed to linking our respective grids in our east (with Tripura) and more importantly in our north (with Meghalaya-Assam). The northern grid holds the most exciting possibilities for both sides. It will finally enable India to concretising plans to tap into the vast potentials of hydro-power in Arunachal Pradesh (estimated at between 50,000 MW and 90,000 MW) and also evacuate it economically across Bangladesh. In return, Bangladesh has requested to obtain a meaningful portion of the power so produced (whether jointly or otherwise).

Almost all or most of all narrated above was virtually unthinkable just a few years ago.

Sub-Regionalism

EXPANDING from bilateral cooperation to sub-regional cooperation on water management and hydro-energy harvesting has been one of the most remarkable outcomes of this new relationship between Bangladesh and India, enunciated in the Framework Agreement of September 2011. This new sub-regional cooperation paradigm envisages Bangladesh convening two sets of tri-nation meetings, first at the technical/senior officials’ level, to be followed at higher political level. One grouping will comprise Bangladesh, Bhutan and India to discuss the scope and extent of cooperation feasible along the Brahmaputra river basin that they co-share; the second group will comprise Bangladesh, India and Nepal to discuss the Ganges river basin that is co-shared by them. (Considering that while I had first put forward this idea in 1995 without much buy-in from many, one couldn’t have imagined until three years ago that India would finally decide, in its own greater interest, to step out of its box of bilateralism and agreeing to sub-regionalism embracing three or more countries, it would not be entirely inconceivable that at some future point of time, one could be excused for indulging in the audacity to hope that China too may be amenable to joining in the Brahmaputra basin collaboration — who knows?)

The basic idea is to look at management of each of these two basins, with their vast potentials still latent, in a holistic manner, that could envisage river training through dredging and building of embankments, and look into viable options of harnessing hydro-power through run-of-the river or pondage schemes as may be considered feasible. All these activities will demand considerable, continuous local employment, for initial works as well as continuing maintenance. Each three-nation group will determine its own pace of progress and its own scope of works that can be viably undertaken. While this is still in nascent stage, development activities so spawned by mutual consent of all parties could have profound impact on the development of the sub-region, from flood mitigation and planned irrigation, stemming and perhaps eliminating the continuous and large scale erosion of river banks every year that washes away entire villages at times and creates internal displacement and augments poverty, reforestation schemes which will help restore the carbon sequestration sinks that have been progressively depleted by massive deforestation over the last several decades, developing a network of primary and secondary roads contiguous with the embankments as they link villages and communities with each other, harvesting clean, renewable energy, and so on.

Bangladesh is all set to convene back-to-back meetings later this month of the two sub-groups, and has proposed dates to all sides concerned. This new process may even create the grounds for embarking on a third sub-group of trilateral cooperation comprising Bangladesh, India and Myanmar. Eventually, the hope is that these two or all sub-groups will wish to embrace each other to form one group of four or five. As I envision it, through these initially separate sets of sub-regional cooperation, a slowly expanding grid of symbiotic interdependencies will be created that will interlock the growing cooperation and make it an irreversible process demanding continuous expansion. Our separate sets of bilateral relations will have then become nested in this safety net of expanding sub-regionalism.

This has to be our agenda for the future. In the last few years, Bangladesh and India have achieved phenomenal success in reconfiguring their new relationship from being one of distance and mutual mistrust to transforming into trusting friendship and mutually beneficial cooperation that will help enormously in their common goals of poverty eradication. They are now looking to working together to enlarging this cooperation by setting in place a self-attracting and viable framework for sub-regional cooperation comprising Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal, and perhaps even Myanmar, transforming millions of lives and converting this sub-region into a major engine of growth. What is in place already presents an exemplary model for emulation by others in our larger region. There can be no looking back any more. 

[This is an edited and updated version of talk delivered by the author at the Association of Indian Diplomats, Sapru House, New Delhi on November 30, 2012.]

FOOTNOTE

Bangladesh Enterprise Institute where author was Vice-President and CEO.

The author is the High Commissioner (State Minister) for Bangladesh to India.

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