Recently, India announced that it intended to invite Bangladesh as a guest country, among others, during India’s presidency of the G-20 group of nations, which will be in effect for a year commencing December 2022. This is just another friendly gesture, which symbolises the close bonds developing between the two countries. India-Bangladesh relations serve as a model for emulation by other countries of the region.
India shares secular and democratic values as well as historical, linguistic and cultural commonality with Bangladesh. Both countries enjoy a special status in mutual relations due to India having facilitated and actively supported the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, an effort in which many Indian soldiers and Bangladeshi freedom fighters lost their lives. The 25-year Indo-Bangla Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Peace, signed by Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Mujibur Rehman on 19th March 1972, set out the terms for lasting friendship and cooperation between India and the newly liberated Bangladesh. It is also remarkable that despite differences in the past on a number of contentious issues of mutual concern, both countries have shown the maturity and good sense – to resolve even the most intractable of problems. The historic land boundary agreement of 6th June 2015, which settled decades-old border disputes, was just one example of that.
Despite Bangladesh suffering many challenges like frequent tropical cyclones, poverty, illiteracy, Rohingya refugee problem, radicalism, and attempts at negative influence by Pakistan-backed elements, the country has made significant strides in human development and economic growth, worthy of emulation by other countries of the region. It is one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Its per capita GDP of 2723 US $ is the highest in the South Asian region. Bangladesh is one of the world’s largest fashion garment exporters, ranking 3rd globally, only behind China and Germany.
India and Bangladesh are the largest trading partners in South Asia, with total trade between them estimated at over 18 billion US $. Bangladeshi apparels are its primary export to India, on the other hand, Bangladesh is one of the largest markets for India’s agricultural products.
India needs Bangladesh as a partner in its economic growth and security. To that extent, the move by Bangladesh in 2008 to prevent India’s north-eastern insurgent groups and leaders to seek safe haven in parts of Bangladesh was a positive turning point in mutual relations. The large-scale arrests in Bangladesh of Indian insurgents including their leaders like ULFA’s so-called Chairman, Arbinda Rajkhowa, NDFB’s so-called Chairman, Ranjan Daimary, ULFA leaders like Raju Baruah, Sasadhar Choudhury, Chitraban Hazarika, Manipuri outfit UNLF’s Chief RK Meghan, have given a strong message to insurgent groups from India’s north-east – not to use Bangladeshi territory as safe sanctuaries for anti-India activities. India seeks that Bangladesh restricts China’s defence cooperation with it as part of the latter’s efforts at strategic encirclement of India. India also looks at Bangladesh for support within the Islamic community of nations. Bangladesh’s cooperation is crucial for India’s shortest access and connectivity to its northeastern states.
On the other hand, Bangladesh needs India’s crucial support to achieve its aspirations at the regional and global levels. Such support may manifest through India’s influence within the G-20 and other organisations like BIMSTEC and IORA. Moreover, as a lower riparian state, Bangladesh needs cooperation from India in the sharing of waters of the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna rivers. Historical success in this regard was the signing in 1996 of the Ganges Water Sharing Treaty.
Other water-sharing treaties are under finalisation. Economic cooperation with India is crucial for Bangladesh to achieve its economic and developmental goals. Cooperation in the field of counter-terrorism is also important for internal security and stability in Bangladesh by addressing the persistent challenge of extremism in Bangladesh. Intelligence cooperation between the two sides has assisted Bangladeshi authorities to track or arrest a significant number of terrorists from outfits like Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh, also known as HuJI-B, Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh or JMB, and Ansar-ul-Islam.
India has been continuously providing assistance for the development of infrastructure in Bangladesh. It provided a loan of 750 million US $ in 2011 and another loan of 1 billion US $ in 2014. Lines of credit were provided for the construction of the bridge on the Padma River and for buying equipment and services from Indian entities like BHEL, RITES and other small and medium enterprises. The most significant of these was the 4.5 billion US $ line of credit extended to Bangladesh in October 2017 for infrastructure and social development. In 2019 India provided 500 million $ line of credit for the purchase of defence items from India. India has also provided 10 million US $ for the implementation of small developmental projects.
The military-to-military relationship between India and Bangladesh has been growing steadily ever since the visit of then Army Chief of Bangladesh, Gen Moeen Ahmed, to India in 2007. Since then, a regular exchange of visits and conduct of combined military exercises has been taking place between the militaries on both sides. The tenth edition of the Indo-Bangladesh combined Exercise Sampriti, which was conducted at Jashore, Bangladesh in June 2022, has further improved interoperability between the two militaries.
A significant number of officers and other military personnel from Bangladesh have been attending military courses in India. Similarly, officers from the Indian military are attending training courses in Bangladesh. Defence cooperation agreements have been signed in 2017, 2019 and 2022 to upgrade cooperation in technology transfer, supply of military equipment, training and joint exercises as well as closer ties in counter-terrorism. In August 2022, India and Bangladesh signed their first defence contract under the 500 million US $ line of credit extended by India to Bangladesh for defence purchases from India. This is a significant development, considering that Bangladesh, at 16%, is the second largest importer of Chinese manufactured military equipment, after Pakistan, having purchased 3 billion $ worth of equipment from China between 2011 and 2020. China has supplied a corvette and two submarines to Bangladesh and is in the process of setting up an ultra-modern submarine base at Cox’s Bazar port in Bangladesh.
Summit meetings as well as a large number of ministerial and official meetings are being held periodically between Bangladesh and India. More importantly, people-to-people meetings are being held regularly to bolster cultural understanding and friendship.
Still, there are a number of challenges:
First, though India and Bangladesh relations have made remarkable progress over the last 13 years, an unfriendly Govt in Bangladesh can stymie or reverse all the progress that has been achieved in improving this crucial relationship. Second, radicalism and violent extremism, though largely under control presently, can raise their ugly head again in case the levels of alertness go down. Third, the problems of illegal migration, cattle smuggling, drug trafficking and counterfeit-currency trafficking, some of these instigated by Pakistan, which has created problems between the two countries in the past, could well have adverse effects in the future too. Fourth, the water sharing issue can undermine friendly relations if they are not addressed correctly and within a reasonable timeframe. Fifth, China’s negative influence, enticements and supply of military equipment, in its quest to gain access to Bangladesh’s ports and military establishments, will remain a constant threat to India’s security interests.
So what is the way forward?
Firstly, India must make a very deliberate attempt to nurture and maintain good relations with Bangladesh in keeping with the letter and spirit of the principles enunciated in the Gujral Doctrine of 1996 and the Neighbourhood First policy of 2014. Secondly, India must continue to provide economic and other assistance to Bangladesh and help it in its efforts to improve the human development indices of its people. Thirdly, India must step up security cooperation, including intelligence sharing, between the two countries, with a view to supporting counter-terrorism as well as addressing other issues like radicalisation, smuggling, drugs & counterfeit trafficking, and so on. Military-to-military cooperation must remain an important vehicle of such engagement. Fourthly, India must continue multifaceted engagement with Bangladesh at every possible level and support/ facilitate cultural interaction at the people-to-people level. And Fifthly, India must continue to strengthen and promote its core constitutional values like freedom, democracy, human rights and pluralism so that countries like Bangladesh can continue to learn positive lessons from these, in the interests of peace and development of its people and the neighbourhood at large.
To sum up, friendly India-Bangladesh relations are crucial to peace and prosperity in South Asia. Both countries can contribute significantly to the achievement of each other’s political, economic and security needs. More importantly, friendly relations and resultant positive effects and contributions to economic growth can serve as a beacon for emulation by other countries. Undoubtedly, a secular, friendly, peaceful, and prosperous Bangladesh can convey a very powerful message to India’s other neighbours – that India-baiting doesn’t necessarily have to be the preferred option for its smaller neighbours, and that cultural commonality as members of the South Asian fraternity can transcend other differences and lead to benefits for the country and its people. But there is also a message for India as the larger neighbour. As India’s then External Affairs Minister Inder Gujral set out as the first principle of the country’s policy towards its smaller neighbours, “With neighbours like Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka, India does not ask for reciprocity but gives and accommodates what it can in good faith and trust.’ Even so, Bangladesh has been reciprocating India’s good faith and trust in India-Bangladesh relations.