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Modi’s Forthcoming Bangla Visit – Consolidating Relations and a Sub-SAARC

Paper No. 5943                                    Dated 29-May-2015

By Bhaskar Roy

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s forthcoming visit to Bangladesh (June 6/7) is expected to be a game changer in relations among SAARC nations despite Pakistan’s efforts to be a spoiler.

It is time the leaders of these countries realized that using Pakistan and some big extra regional countries to stall India’s development (read rise) can only be self – destructive.  Prime Minister Sk. Hasina of Bangladesh has broken out of this syndrome.

Pakistan has apparently begun to feel the heat. Pakistani High Commissioner in Bangladesh, Shuja Alam met (May. 26) Dhaka University Vice Chancellor Dr. A. A. M. S. Arefin Siddique and proposed strengthening academic and research among Universities in Pakistan and Dhaka University. Shuja Alam also discussed strengthening of collaborative programmes including teacher and student exchanges.

Shuja’s decision to meet Arefin Siddique was an astute move, given the fact Siddique has enormous influence not only with Awami League led government but enjoys high regard among the people of Bangladesh. He is a staunch nationalist, pro-liberation and anti-Islamist. Getting him to soften on Pakistan will be a major success for Pakistani diplomacy in Bangladesh. While seeking improvement in bilateral relations Pakistan’s ISI continues to try and destabilize Bangladesh, including by fomenting radical terrorism. Police in Dhaka’s Gazipur recently arrested an ISI agent Khaled Mehmud who is a Pakistani citizen. Mehmud was staying illegally in the country and was trying to create an unstable situation in the garment factory in which he was working. This is clandestine economic warfare. Earlier in February, Pakistan was forced to withdraw one Mazar Khan, an Attache in the Pakistan High Commission in Dhaka, who was caught for terror financing and distributing fake currency. Khaled Mehmud was in touch with Mazar Khan. This is only the tip of the iceberg.

Modi is travelling to Bangladesh with the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) in his bag. The LBA, otherwise known as the Indira – Mujib pact, was signed in May 1974. The ratification of the agreement was held up in India, but successive governments in Bangladesh did not show any inclination to address this issue. Both the Bangladeshi Prime Minister and the government, and the opposition BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia, a former prime minister, have welcomed the Indian step, a rare consensus between the two sides. This has been appreciated in India. But Khaleda Zia’s criticism of the earlier Congress led government was a Freudian slip, revealing she may have opposed it if UPA government had done it. Carrying this kind of a rancour will not be conducive for a healthy bilateral relationship.

Another agreement that has not been talked about is the India – Bangladesh sea boundary agreement. An international tribunal ruled on the issue and Bangladesh was the main beneficiary. India accepted the tribunal judgment without any protest.

These two agreements stand out as examples on how to resolve boundary and territorial issues between countries. China should consider these examples if they the really mean what they say about a peaceful and stable Asia. 

Unfortunately, the Teesta river water sharing agreement between the two countries suffered a setback in 2011 when West Bengal Chief Minister Mamta Banerjee pulled back at the last moment. The agreement is ready to be signed, and Mamta Banerjee has shown some inclination to go along with it. Apparently she wants some tinkering if for nothing else but to show her supporters that she had some objections earlier and they have been addressed. Till the agreement is signed and the ink is dry, nothing can be said about the mercurial West Bengal chief minister. Modi has to be at his persuasive best to keep Banerjee interested. Latest information suggests she would be travelling to Dhaka with Modi, brightening the chances for the Teesta deal.

If the Teesta agreement is signed during Modi’s visit then all major bilateral issues would be resolved in one stroke. This would now pave the way for river water management between the two countries. There are 54 rivers that flow from India to Bangladesh, and the flow of some of these rivers may have to be augmented especially those that flow from Nepal into India. This would eventually lead to flood management.

Bangladesh may like to consider the flow of the Brahmaputra river. The river starts from the Tibetan plateau and is known in China as the Tsangpo. Taking a sharp turn known as the Great Bend, it enters India as the Brahmaputra in Assam, and flows into Bangladesh as Meghna. Any tinkering by the Chinese to alter the flow of this river will eventually destroy the ecology in Assam and desertify almost half of Bangladesh.

The Chinese are building a series of dams to generate electricity and claim that the run of water dams will not in any way alter the character of the river. This is not quite true. The Lancang river from Tibet which flows to the South East Asian countries as the Mekong, is already suffering ecologically by the run of river dams built on the Lancang. And if they go ahead and divert the Tsang Po to internal China, the disaster will be unimaginable.

The Indian government is in the process of giving an US $ 2 billion soft loan to Bangladesh, in addition to the US $ one billion soft loan already given. This is expected to be announced by Modi in Dhaka.

The US $ 2 billion is meant for building infrastructure like roads, bridges, power projects and ports. This will go a long way in improving connectivity in Bangladesh and Indian transport through Bangladesh. North East Indian states can access the Chittagong port which will help both sides.

The infrastructure construction will help in laying down road connectivity between Nepal and Bhutan to Bangladesh through India. A Motor Vehicle Agreement (MVA) is to be signed among all four countries on June 15.

The economic benefits that accrue from this connectivity will be tremendous. This will be the first SAARC sub-regional cooperation and will not be impacted by blocking policies of SAARC members like Pakistan. This will be a peoples’ project in which the interests of the people of all four countries are invested.

Members of this sub-regional body must ensure that a fifth country does not enter this body any time soon. An exception, however, can be considered in the case of Sri Lanka after its internal political situation stabilizes. This sub-regional body can be included in India’s Act East policy through Myanmar and Bangladesh to Vietnam. It must also be emphasized that this body remains independent of China’s maritime Silk Road project.

It is time that India starts military diplomacy in earnest with selected neighbours. Although Bangladesh is an important and friendly neighbour, military exchanges fall far short of its potential and necessity. A firm structure needs to be created.

There is a need for the Services Chiefs and Defence ministries including defence ministers to meet regularly. There are a lot of areas common to both. They include joint counter – terrorism exercises between the two armies, anti-piracy tasks, search and rescue missions among others. India must consider how it could help Bangladesh in military hardware and communication area. Naval patrol boats built in Indian facilities could be very useful to Bangladesh as Sk. Hasina is striving to modernise the Bangladesh navy. If India waits too long the gaps will be filled in by other countries. Military diplomacy should be on Modi’s agenda.

Terrorism is one subject that should be on the table, although there is good cooperation between the agencies on the subject. The footprints of the ISIS has been discovered in both the countries. The ISIS ideology is attracting educated young people. ISIS members appear to have had some experience with other Islamic terrorist organizations. The Hizb-ul-Tehrir (HUT) which targets educated and influential people and also dreams of an Islamic caliphate is growing quickly.

Both Modi and Sk. Hasina have proved to be strong leaders. Sk. Hasina in particular has faced severe internal challenges and western pressures and come out victorious. Her opponents, the BNP led 18- party alliance, is in a shambles. Western machinations for regime change appears to have abated to a significant extent. Sk. Hasina has given development to her people and the west is inclined to help. The World Bank has drawn a special programme for Bangladesh. But Sk. Hasina should apply herself to two tasks. One is the law and order problem. Disappearance of people cannot be expected from a country like Bangladesh.

Next, is to tackle the Islamists firmly with vigour. To think that it is a sensitive issue and be handled softly will only encourage terrorists. The killers of the secular bloggers must be brought to justice and membership of these terrorist organizations should be deemed as acts against the state.

There is euphoria and excitement in Bangladesh over Modi’s visit. They should not be disappointed.

(The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst.  He can be reached at e-mail