Report on Seminar
On India-Bangladesh Cooperation
Research Centre for Eastern and North Eastern Regional Studies, Kolkata (Ceners-K)
Bangladesh Itihas Sammilani (BIS)
At the Bangla Academy, Dhaka, on March 27, 2016.
THE INTIMATE LINKAGES BETWEEN THE SUBCONTINENTAL neighbours, India and Bangladesh, of their shared history, geography, demography, language, culture, and traditions, and their common land and sea boundaries, make it essential for them to create a harmony of interests and concerns for mutual prosperity, peace and stability. The impetus for shared aims stems from the seminal historical event when the people of both countries, fighting against a travesty of justice, created the state of Bangladesh in 1971. The two countries need to cooperate to address problems facing their populations, and move towards sustainable development. In order to achieve this goal, the seminar recommended that an environment of security, peace and stability must be ensured in the region.
Participants from BIS and CENERS-K shared their thoughts on ways to strengthen Indo-Bangladesh cooperation, focusing on the important issues of border management, the development of suitable infrastructure aimed at instituting a “single window” concept at border checkpoints, cross-border co-operation relating to combating terrorism, water security, trade and commerce, and industry and ecology. The BIS, headed by Professor Muntassir Mamoon, is an influential research institution that advises the government. Three Bangladesh ministers and one ex-minister (Mr. Toffael Ahmed, Professor M.M. Akash, Dr. M.K. Alamgir and Mr. Anisul Islam Mahmud) addressed the seminar.
The Bangladesh government headed by Sheikh Hasina Wazed desires the closest possible relationship with India and their attitude is extremely positive. They were extremely appreciative of the recent land and maritime border agreements and Indian help in the supply of coal, oil, electricity, gas, and relaxation of tariffs on trade. They desire much more trade and joint ventures, and wish to resolve the trade deficit issue. They have, for this reason, set up two special economic zones wherein they expect Indian companies to invest, and Indian investments have begun entering the zones. Bangladesh has agreed, in principle, to grant India transit rights across Bangladesh to India’s North East Region (NER), but the modalities still need to be worked out. It was agreed that Border Haats, or markets, have been very effective and that many more should be set up. The two countries are actively cooperating within regional and sub-regional initiatives such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC); Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN), and the South Asia Subregional Economic Cooperation (SASEC).
Bangladesh lacks domestic supply of energy, and desires to resolve the problem by purchasing gas and oil from Tripura, Mizoram and Myanmar, by conducting joint exploration, and even by setting up the Myanmar-India-Bangladesh pipeline that Bangladesh had refused earlier. Dacca has now also agreed to the Tipaimukh hydroelectricity project in Mizoram and it hopes that it would be able to purchase electricity from there, as also from other such projects in the NER, Bhutan and Nepal.
Bangladesh participants want India to set up industry that could export products to the NER and the region. They agree that a Tripura-like relationship should also prevail between Bangladesh and all the NER states. They requested India to open up rail, inland water transport, and coastal and shipping connectivity. Indian participants expressed their appreciation over the improved bilateral relations and for Bangladesh’s efforts to clamp down on Indian insurgent groups still having sanctuary in Bangladesh, and requested that Dacca should continue to deny sanctuary.
The Bangladesh participants’ main grievances against India are related to sharing of the Teesta River waters, their difficulty in obtaining Indian visas and the choice of a port of entry, India’s continued allegations related to illegal Bangladeshi immigration, India’s border fences, and alleged killing of Bangladeshis attempting to cross the border (rather than apprehending them). The Indian point of view on these issues were put across emphatically: that illegal immigration must be brought under control and both countries must move towards a regime of more effective control over smuggling of cattle, fake currency and drugs. The Bangladeshi participants were hopeful that a solution to these issues would be found soon.
The Indian participants expressed their concern with the ministers separately over Bangladesh’s current closeness to China, including the Chinese aid and supply of weapons, including a submarine and other naval craft, to the Bangladesh Armed Forces.
They were also asked as to what would be Bangladesh’s stance in case hostilities ever broke out between India and China. Their reply was categorical—that their relations with China were purely commercial. They have voiced Bangladesh’s fears over the Chinese dams and other activities related to the Brahmaputra River, as well as their concerns over the trade deficit that was largely in China’s favour. They stated categorically that should hostilities occur between India and China, Bangladesh’s stance would be neutral.
The Bangladeshi participants were extremely concerned about Islamic fundamentalism and the possibility of a U.S. intervention and were, therefore, making all possible efforts to clamp down ruthlessly. It needs to be noted that the Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina is badly affected by factionalism and there is no clear successor to her. In the absence of an alternative leadership, in a post-Sheikh Hasina phase, the Islamists may well surge back into power. The Bangladesh Army, the most powerful force in the country, is feted strongly by her, and as a result, she currently enjoys their support.
In the overall context, the seminar was extremely productive. We strongly recommend that New Delhi should go out of its way to assist Bangladesh as this would pay rich dividends to India.