India, Bangladesh look to turn a corner
By Siddharth Srivastava
NEW DELHI - Ever since India intervened in the partition of Pakistan that led
to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, relations between Delhi and Dhaka have
been strained, with the latter ever-suspicious of its neighboring "big
brother", compounded by fears of Indian goods swamping Bangladesh's economy.
India, for its part, has been frustrated by Dhaka's penchant to "obstruct"
meaningful bilateral dialogue and is concerned about
Pakistan-backed terrorists and insurgents seeking shelter in Bangladesh.
India has of late conveyed to the United States that its global efforts against
terror in Pakistan and Afghanistan cannot succeed unless nations such as Nepal
and Bangladesh are strengthened, economically and politically. Weak governments
and security structures in India's smaller neighbors provide safe havens for
terrorists, given the heat of US military operations in other areas.
Some of these issues were addressed this week during the maiden visit to India
of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina following her electoral victory in
December 2008. She sought "a path-breaking and historic opportunity" to build a
"new and forward-looking" relationship.
Bangladesh looked at India as a "natural friend", said Hasina, and asked India
to "open new doors and a new era" in bilateral cooperation, even as New Delhi
conferred on her the prestigious Indira Gandhi Peace Prize.
Commenting on anti-India sentiment in Bangladesh, Hasina said, "Perhaps that
may remain. I cannot change that ... But common people want better lives and if
results are achieved [in India-Bangladesh cooperation], these sentiments will
Observers say that such statements are not mere rhetoric as the ground for
positive movement in India-Bangladesh relations has never been better, given
that it has traditionally been Dhaka that has been "prickly" about being
associated too closely with India.
First, Hasina rides on a large parliamentary majority, which means that her
government does not depend for survival on Muslim hardiners and India-baiters.
Former Bangladesh prime minister Khaleda Zia and her Islamist allies governed
the country from 2001 to 2006, a period during which India-Bangladesh relations
were particularly bitter.
Second, militants killed Hasina's former finance minister and have tried to
assassinate her; she has little sympathy for militancy. She is aware of the
situation in Pakistan, where former state-backed militants orchestrated attacks
in India and elsewhere, but now threaten the existence of their creators. A
reflection of changed thinking is that Dhaka recently delivered Arabinda
Rajkhowa, the chief of the banned rebel group, the United Liberation Front of
Assam, to India. (See
India buoyed by Bangladesh's 'gift' Asia Times Online, December 9,
Third, Bangladesh has become a bigger garment exporter than India, which gives
it some confidence to stand up for itself as an economy. Dhaka is also
considering inviting Indian software firms to set up in Bangladesh.
New Delhi has indicated that it aims to set in motion goodwill and structures
(business, transport etc) that last beyond the thinking of a political party or
an individual in power.
Thus, when Hasina met Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi, the
expectations were high. Manmohan was full of praise, calling Hasina an
"outstanding political figure of South Asia who has worked tirelessly for the
restoration of democracy in Bangladesh".
The premiers then got down to business, signing five agreements, including
three pacts on counter-terrorism and one on power-sharing. A combined front
against terror was at the top of the agenda.
"Terrorists do not have any religion or country and are giving a bad name to
Islam, which symbolizes peace," Hasina said, emphasizing that her country was
committed not to allow its soil to be used for terrorist activity against
The three pacts on counter-terrorism, including those on mutual legal
assistance, transfer of convicted prisoners, the fight against international
terrorism, organized crime and illegal drug trafficking, were aimed at concerns
about stopping insurgents in India's troubled northeast from spilling into
Importantly, Hasina said the countries were working on an extradition treaty.
Though a timeframe was not specified, officials said the modalities would be
worked out "soon".
New Delhi also announced a US$1 billion line of credit for infrastructure
development in Bangladesh, which is the highest grant to any one country by
India. India is also committed to supply 250 megawatts of power to its neighbor
from its central grid.
India also offered a reduction of items from its negative trade list; this will
benefit Bangladesh. Hasina's schedule included meetings with Indian business
groups looking to invest in Bangladesh. These included the Tatas, who were
earlier forced to scrap steel and power projects in Bangladesh worth US$3
billion, and India's biggest private telecom operator, Bharti Airtel, which is
making a foray into Bangladesh.
Bangladesh welcomed New Delhi's initiative to provide duty-free access to the
Indian market for the least-developed countries in the South Asian Association
for Regional Cooperation.
Apart from acting on terror, another major breakthrough could be the proposed
950-kilometer, $1 billion Myanmar-Bangladesh-India (MBI) gas pipeline.
With the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline stalled due to US-Iran geopolitical
issues, India has become a supporter of the MBI so that it can access the rich
hydrocarbon resources of Myanmar.
The MBI has been in limbo since a draft memorandum of understanding was signed
three years ago as Dhaka linked implementing the pipeline to a reduction of its
trade imbalance with India, to the establishment of a corridor for Nepalese
goods to go into Bangladeshi ports, and access to hydropower from Bhutan.
This irked New Delhi as it opposes resolving bilateral issues as part of a
All the same, Hasina has now granted India access to Mongla and Chittagong
ports for the movement of goods. In exchange, India expressed its intention to
give access to Nepal and Bhutan to Bangladesh through its territory.
The MBI was initially mooted by a Bangladeshi private company, Mohona Holdings
Limited, in 1997, a move approved by India and Myanmar. The pipeline is
proposed to cut across Shwe in Arakan province in Myanmar and then go on to the
Indian states of Mizoram and Tripura, and then to Kolkata in West Bengal via
Frustrated with the repeated failure to get the MBI off the ground, Myanmar
opted to supply gas to China, a fierce competitor for energy. China has since
begun the construction of oil and gas pipelines from Myanmar.
New Delhi, however, feels there will still be plenty left over after meeting
China's demand. Gas reserves of about six trillion cubic feet have been
estimated in blocks A-1 and A-2 off Myanmar's Arakan coast.
In the new climate, the MBI might yet be a goer; Bangladesh has an acute gas
shortage and could certainly use MBI gas, along with transit and management
Recently, Myanmar's ambassador to India, U Kyi Thein, said the project may take
shape in the near future. "Something could happen in two to three years with
Indian companies like GAIL, Essar Oil, ONGC and IOC exploring gas in Myanmar,''
Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached