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    South Asia
     Feb 1, 2013

India, Bangladesh ease cross-border travel
By Syed Tashfin Chowdhury

DHAKA - Two landmark deals signed between India and Bangladesh this week constitute a first step towards better connections between the two countries and increased economic ties, according to economists in Dhaka.

Other agreements may be reached between the two countries by mid-February following visits by then to Dhaka by three senior Indian government officials.

Indian Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, while in Dhaka on Monday and Tuesday, signed an extradition treaty and a revised travel arrangements agreement with his Bangladeshi counterpart, Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir, at the end of bilateral talks on

cooperation between the two governments to fight criminal activity and terrorism in both countries.

"These contracts will enhance ties in areas of security and people-to-people contacts," Shinde told a joint press conference after signing the deals. The extradition treaty will also allow transfer of the convicted and under-trial criminals.

India and Bangladesh are seeking to improve how to tackle and manage issues related to their shared 4,095-kilometer border, and the latest steps continue a trend of improving ties between the nations. Even so, several complex issues remain outstanding, notably on trade and personal cross-border transit, sharing of the waters of the Teesta and Feni rivers, major waterways that flow from India through Bangladesh, and ratification of the Land Boundary Agreement, which would lead to absorption of numerous Indian and Bangladeshi enclaves on either side of the border.

India is also seeking the use of Mongla port on the western side of the Ganges delta in Bangladesh and close to Kolkata, the commercial capital of eastern India, and of Chittagong port, in southeast Bangladesh, which would considerably ease access to India's isolated northeastern states. Bangladesh and India are also working towards an arrangement that would permit shippers to ply coastal trade in the other's country.

Bangladeshi Cabinet Secretary Mohammad Mosharraf Hossain Bhuiyan on Monday said the extradition treaty would not be applicable for people accused of "offenses of a political nature", but will be applicable for those facing charges such as murder, culpable homicide and other serious offenses.

Delhi last week approved the extradition treaty, which had been proposed by Bangladesh. It follows commitments by Delhi to track down two absconding and convicted killers of Bangladesh's first president and later prime minister, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and hand them over to Dhaka. Government officials in Dhaka believe that the two killers are hiding in India.

India, meanwhile, is seeking the deportation of Anup Chetia, general secretary of the United Liberation Front of Asom, a banned northeast Indian separatist group that wants to establish a sovereign Assam. He was arrested in Bangladesh in 1997 and sentenced to seven years in jail for being in the country without valid travel documents. Chetia, who has continued to be detained since completing his sentence in 2004, has sought asylum in Bangladesh for security reasons, making it legally difficult for Dhaka to execute Delhi's demand.

Bangladesh Home Minister Alamgir told reporters while visiting India last month that "Bangladesh will keep its pledge", made during a 2011 visit to Dhaka by Indian home minister P Chidambaram, that Bangladesh will do everything within its abilities to return individuals India is seeking, "[but] the matter [of Chetia] is now pending before a court".

Last week, Alamgir said that the extradition treaty specifically provides for handing over of criminals, but political asylum seekers "are a different category", bdnews24.com reported. The Supreme Court in Bangladesh will first have to dispose of the case, he said.

Chetia is on the top of a list sent to Dhaka in 2011 of 50 Indian nationals Delhi is seeking to have deported. On its part, Dhaka has listed 100 Bangladeshi nationals it suspects are hiding in India. An extradition treaty was required in order to make such exchanges happen legally.

"The extradition treaty will now act as a legal framework that will make it easier for both countries to combat terrorism and criminal activities," Delwar Hossain, professor and chairman of the Department of International Relations of the University of Dhaka told Asia Times Online.

Home ministry officials in Delhi said the extradition treaty will help the deportation of Chetia and others opposed to the Indian central government, including Tripura insurgent leader Vishwa Mohan Deb Barman, National Democratic Front of Bodoland leader Thulunga, alias Tensu Narzery, and other insurgents from northeast India who have been hiding in Bangladesh.

Under the "revised travel arrangements" agreement, there will no longer be restrictions on visits between the two countries by business people, tourists, journalists, professionals, officials, students, patients, citizens aged more than 65 years, children below 12 years, and those in medical categories.

Under the student visa, a person can now be issued with a one-year multiple-entry travel document. India has also agreed to waive a 60-day cooling off period for the second visit by a Bangladeshi national. The restriction is at present applicable to citizens of Pakistan, China and some other countries.

"This is good start towards better connectivity between the two nations," Mustafizur Rahman, executive director at the Centre for Policy Dialogue in Dhaka told Asia Times Online. "But more liberalization is required to ensure mutual trade and economic development."

Two secretaries and another minister from India are scheduled to visit Dhaka over the next three weeks. Indian Power Secretary P Uma Shankar was to land in Dhaka on a two-day visit on January 30 to strike a joint venture deal towards setting up a 1,320 megawatt coal-fired power plant in Rampal, Bagerhaat district, in Bangladesh. A memorandum of understanding for establishing the plant was signed between the two countries on January 10.

On February 9, Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai will visit Dhaka for three days to join the Foreign Office Consultations (FOC) between India and Bangladesh. The previous FOC was held in New Delhi last July.

Finally, from February 16 till 18, Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid will visit Dhaka to attend the second meeting of the India-Bangladesh Joint Consultative Commission, whose first meeting was held in New Delhi last May 7. Last week, Bangladesh's foreign ministry officials were quoted by Financial Express in Dhaka as saying that they are yet to plan agenda what will be discussed during Khurshid's visit.

Syed Tashfin Chowdhury is the Editor of Xtra, the weekend magazine of New Age, in Bangladesh.

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Delhi emphasizes mutual interests after Dhaka warning (Jul 12, '11)

India, Bangladesh look to turn a corner (Jan 16, '11)



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