Bangladesh’s largest and most significant neighbour is India. Relationship between the two neighbours is rooted in a common civilisation, culture, linguistic heritage and values defined by aspirations of struggle for independence and democracy. Though India’s humanitarian and material assistance was instrumental in Bangladesh achieving independence through a nine-month long Liberation War in 1971, Bangladesh’s relations with India, has not been smooth in the past four decades. Issues like sharing of trans-boundary river water, land boundary disputes, political controversiesand security concerns from both sides overshadowed the prospects of cooperation.However, significant efforts have been made to resolve the longstanding disputes through constructive bilateral engagements in the past few years through political initiatives and pragmatism from both sides. Under Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Neighbourhood First Policy and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s 21st century style of proactive diplomacy, the India-Bangladesh relationship has now entered a new age. With the Indo-Pacific emerging as the most significant region in global strategic discourse, this article aims to examine the emerging scope and potential of the relationship for securing mutual interests.
Overview of the Bangladesh-India Relations
During the 1971 Liberation War, India’s military and diplomatic support was crucial for the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent state. Moreover, India hosted about ten million Bengali refugees during the war and also delivered significant assistance for post-war reconstruction projects. As a result, a cordial relationship developed between Dhaka and New Delhi in the early years of Bangladesh’s independence led by the Awami League (AL) and its leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. However, the warmth in the relationship was short lived.
Following the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on 15 August 1975, Bangladesh went under several military and quasi-military regimes for more than a decade. Those regimes used ‘anti-Indian’ and Islamist sentiments to generate domestic support in order to legitimise and prolong their rule. Although a democratic transformation took place in Bangladesh in 1991, the country’s relations with India did not improve because the then ruling party—the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)—was founded by former military ruler General Ziaur Rahman. As a result of General Zia’s legacy, the BNP government continued to endorse ‘anti-Indian’ sentiments.
Bangladesh-India relationship improved significantly following the AL victory in the 1996 general elections. From 1996 to 2001, some crucial developments took place including the signing of the 30-year water sharing agreement for the Ganges. However, the level of cooperation from both sides reduced again after the BNP-led coalition returned to power in 2001. Insurgent groups operating in India’s northeastern states allegedly got support from Dhaka during that time. Moreover, the BNP-led alliance harboured two Islamist parties and was also supported by numerous conservative factions. There was a significant spread of Islamisation at all levels of Bangladeshi society and anti-Indian rhetoric got momentum across the political discourse. Moreover, there was a rise in radical terrorist activities in the country that threatened communal harmony and stability of the entire region.
State of Relations since 2009: A New Normal
Since 2009, when Sheikh Hasina became prime minister for the second time, the bilateral cooperation between Bangladesh and India began to achieve constant growth.One major agenda that has brought New Delhi and Dhaka close has been counter-terrorism as both the governments have been committed to crack down decisively on regional and trans-regional extremist groups. The improved cooperation resulted in the signing of a number of agreements during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s June 2015 visit to Dhaka. These included the agreement on the longstanding land boundary and ‘enclave’ disputes, India’s power export to Bangladesh, India’s usage of Bangladeshi sea-ports and Bangladesh’s export of internet bandwidth to India’s north-east region 3. New Delhi has given specific importance to improving connectivity and transit facilities to economically connect the isolated north-east region with the Indian mainland. During Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to New Delhi in April 2017, 22 agreements were signed in the areas of cultural exchange, nuclear energy, power plants and cyber security4. India has extended two lines of credit (LOCs), a USD 2-billion LOC in 2015 and USD 4.5 billion in 2017, for implementing 17 priority projects in various sectors including power, railways, roads, shipping and port infrastructures in Bangladesh5. In addition, the two countries signed three major defence agreements.These agreements include extending defence cooperation, collaboration between the naval forces, and a USD 500 million worth soft loan to Bangladesh for buying Indian military hardware6. In May 2018, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated Bangladesh Bhavana at Visva-Bharati University in West Bengal, as a symbol of the cultural ties between the two countries7. It houses a museum showcasing Rabindranath Tagore’s historical association with Bangladesh, Bangladesh’s Liberation War and Indo-Bangla relations. To facilitate people to people connectivity, new railway lines and bus services between Kolkata, Dhaka and Agartala have been inaugurated recently.
Significance of Bangladesh-India Relations
In general, geographical location, population, size of the economy, and socio-cultural orientation of a country determine the significance of its relations with its neighbour. The Bangladesh-India relationship is very significant for both nations, considering the emerging dynamics in today’s South Asian sub-system. From security, economic, and strategic perspectives, mutual interests of both the neighbours are mostly overlapping. Each country’s importance to each other is appended below:
Importance of India to Bangladesh
Bangladesh shares a 4,096-kilometre long land border with India, the fifth-longest international border in the world. It also has a 271-kilometre long border with Myanmar in its south-eastern part. The Bay of Bengal, with shared coastline with India and Myanmar, makes up its southern frontier. A roughly 20-kilometre wide Indian territory separates Bangladesh from the two landlocked Himalayan States, Nepal and Bhutan. A further 160-kilometre wide Indian territory separates south-western part of China from the northern frontier of Bangladesh. Therefore, India geographically surrounds Bangladesh on three sides. Moreover, the Indo-centric South Asian regional order has created an ‘India factor’ in Bangladesh’s foreign policy behaviour since its independence in 19718. In the past four decades, Bangladesh’s bilateral relations has faced ups and downs, but the ‘India factor’ has continued to remain constant in Bangladesh’s foreign policy endeavours within and beyond South Asia. Bangladesh always needs to remain sensitive to India’s legitimate security and economic concerns. Thus, cooperative relations with India is crucial for Bangladesh to ensure national security, sharing of trans-boundary river waters, economic development, and environmental protection.
Today, India is the sixth largest economy in the world and is expected to be the second largest by 2030. The growth of the Indian economy has captured the attention of Bangladesh as means to grow its own economy. Bangladesh wants to capitalise on this opportunity and benefit from the exceptional economic rise of it neighbour. Indian investments in Bangladesh are rising. During Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to New Delhi in November 2017, several Indian companies signed investment deals worth of USD 9 billion. Recently, Bangladesh has identified 13 sectors including agro-processing, automobiles, ICT, pharmaceuticals, and textiles where it is seeking ‘mega investment’ from India. Bangladesh has also agreed to set up special economic zones (SEZs) in designated locations across the country for Indian investors. In recent years, India has also emerged as a formidable export destination for Bangladeshi goods and services. According to Export Promotion Bureau (EPB), Bangladesh’s exports to India stood at USD 1.25 billion in 2018-19 fiscal year (FY), an increase of 42.91 percent over 2017-18 FY, where exports stood atUSD 873.27 million9.
Bangladesh has been trying to maintain a delicate balance with regard to India, China and the United States (US). Bangladesh has been pragmatic enough to endorse the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and welcomes loans from China while remaining committed to India’s core strategic interests in the region10. Increasing US and Chinese interests in South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) have offered Bangladesh a unique opportunity to actively cooperate with all crucial stakeholders. India is a key US partner in the Trump Administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy. Thus, Bangladesh needs India’s support to diversify its sources of investment, and position itself as an active security contributor to the Indo-Pacific region within the FOIP initiative11.
Importance of Bangladesh to India
Although Bangladesh is a relatively small neighbour, its importance to New Delhi in terms of security has been wide-ranging. First, Bangladesh almost separates India’s insurgent-prone seven north-eastern states from the rest of its territory. A roughly 12-mile wide strip, known as Siliguri corridor, is the only available land route between India and its north-eastern region. For India, Bangladesh provides additional options to connect with its North East Region. New Delhi also cannot ignore the importance of Dhaka in neutralising insurgent groups operating there. Secondly, both New Delhi and Dhaka need each other’s cooperation to fight terrorist groups linked to international terror networks. If any terror group finds a stronghold inside Bangladesh, it could have a spillover effect on India (and vice versa). Thirdly, New Delhi has inherited a security perception from the British Raj that considers India’s security in terms of the subcontinental security. Thus, Bangladesh falls under the internal security matrix of India and is important to India12, both on account of geographic proximity as also the very nature of India’s security perception.
Bangladesh’s economic importance to India is also wide ranging. After the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, India liberalised and de-centralised its economy to expand its market abroad. Since then, her exports to Bangladesh has been increasing significantly. Currently, Bangladesh is the largest export destination for Indian goods and services in South Asia. For almost four decades, India has sought transit facility from Bangladesh to integrate its resource rich but relatively less developed north-east region to its mainstream economy. But the lack of political will from Dhaka was a major obstacle for India’s transit. However, Dhaka’s policy in this regard changed when AL-led government returned to power in 2009. Since then, the two countries have come a long way to establish the transit facility which New Delhi has sought for decades. Moreover, due to Bangladesh’s relatively cheap labour costs and closer proximity to north-east markets, the country can be an ideal destination for investment from Indian manufacturing companies.
Bangladesh is situated between the Himalayan foothills in the north and the Bay of Bengal in the south. The country is the only geographical real-estate that connects South Asia with South East Asia. As a result, Bangladesh is an important country to operationalise India’s ‘Act East’ policy. With support from Bangladesh, land-based connectivity with South East Asian emerging economies gets enhanced. Today, Bangladesh is located in between India’s strategic backyard and China’s strategic periphery13. This unique geographic location of the country has resulted in a ‘Sino-Indian geopolitical tug-of-war’ to win over Dhaka14. With China’s increasing economic and maritime inroads into South Asia, India has started to provide aid and make strategic investments in Bangladesh to counter Chinese influence in its neighbourhood.
Opportunities for Future
Regional and sub-regional trade has been the primary incentive to introduce initiatives like Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor and Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) Motor Vehicle Agreement. Bangladesh and India should play the leading role to materialise the proposed initiatives (e.g. BBIN and BCIM economic corridors). These will facilitate integration of inter-regional and intra-regional markets for greater productivity.
Cooperation on Power and Energy
Industries in Bangladesh cannot run full time through the year due to lack of power supply. Currently, Bangladesh is planning to import 9000MW electricity from neighbouring Nepal and Bhutan and thus needs India’s help. Moreover, most of the power plants in Bangladesh are thermal (about 95.78%). The country is looking for alternative environment friendly sources to meet its domestic needs. So, India can provide technical assistance to Bangladesh in renewable energy production.
Trade with North-East India
India’s seven north-eastern states have access to the mainland only through the narrow Siliguri Corridor. Easing the process of Bangladeshi export to the region will be beneficial for both countries, since it will help boost the economy of the north-east by lowering product prices also. Moreover, many Bangladeshi investors are also interested in investing in north-east India. Therefore, Bangladesh also can play a direct role in the socio-economic development of that region.
In this age of blue economy, seaborne trade and commerce and freedom of navigation are becoming increasingly important to the littoral states of the Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh-India maritime connectivity has become a reality following the signing of a bilateral agreement on coastal shipping in June 2015. The agreement is a milestone in developing maritime connectivity between the two countries as it is aimed at facilitating commercial maritime activities for mutual benefits. Both the countries also signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in the field of ‘Blue Economy and Maritime Co-operation in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean Region’. According to Article II of the MoU, Bangladesh-India will focus on (a) Developing inclusive and people-centric ocean based blue economy and maritime cooperation; (b) Research & Development in marine biotechnology and the creation of centres of excellence; (c) Capacity building and skill development in the field of marine science and blue economy; (d) Sharing knowledge and expertise on marine aquaculture and deep sea fishing and safeguarding economic interests including fishing fleets in the areas beyond national jurisdiction; (e) strengthening maritime pollution response cooperation15. As both Bangladesh and India have shared security interest in the Bay of Bengal they can introduce a ‘Joint Naval Task Force’ for secure peace and security at the Bay. Both Bangladesh and India must play a constructive role in maritime cooperation in the Bay of Bengal region and beyond.
Both Bangladesh and India share the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest. The two countries signed a MoU on 16 November2015 to operate passenger and cruise services on costal and predetermined routes. On 29 March 2019 Bangladesh and India have started cross-border passenger and cruise services which are expected to create a new horizon for cross-border tourism. Further cooperation between the two countries is necessary to develop tourist infrastructure and facilities while also taking environmental sensitivityinto consideration. Moreover, India, Bangladesh and other BBIN partner countries can introduce a regional tourism circuit that will attract more foreigner tourists and thusgenerate more revenue.
Impediments and Challenges
High non-tariff barrier
Bangladeshi products face great trade difficulty to export in India for non-tariff barriers. Although there is South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) agreement but it has a very limited effectiveness. Moreover, India also imposes some other non-tariff barriers to Bangladeshi products. For example, India imposessome restrictionsoncertain Bangladeshi goods while importing the same products from other countries16.
Despite the growing warm relationship between India and Bangladesh, the longstanding agreement on the sharing of waters of the Teesta River has not yet materialised. Moreover, waters of more than 50 rivers come to Bangladesh through India. Thus, cooperation on trans-boundary water sharing will be a significant factor in the bilateral relationship in the coming years.
Bangladeshi and Indian border protection forces need to increase cooperation to halt the cross-border human trafficking, drug and small arms smuggling. Moreover, both the countries should introduce ‘zero killing’ principle in the border.
Following a militant attack, a military campaign was launched by the Myanmar armed forces in Rakhine State on 25 August 2017 against the country’s minority Rohingya community. As result, more than 723,000 Rohingya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, creating one of the largest humanitarian crisis of our times. Following the violent crackdown, Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her government faced condemnation by the international community for gross violation of human rights. India, while remaining neutral in the crisis, has provided humanitarian and economic aid to both Bangladesh and Myanmar17. More is however expected of India in terms of playing a constructive role by mediating between Bangladesh and Myanmar to resolve this highly complex humanitarian crisis.
To further foster cooperation and ensure the securing of mutual interest, the following is recommended:
• The recently demarcated Bay of Bengal provides the two countries a new avenue to exploit vast marine resources. India and Bangladesh could therefore establish an institutional framework for sustainable exploitation of oceanic resources in the Bay of Bengal.
• The sharing of the trans-boundary rivers has been a key point of disagreement between the two countries. Solving this issue through mutual talks and deliberations will improve the overall relationship between the two countries.
• Both India and Bangladesh can look into developing joint hydro electric projects in Nepal and Bhutan. This will help in meeting the energy requirements of both countries as well as remove mutual misunderstandings.
• Bangladesh is already in the process of fulfilling its promise of providing trans-shipment facilities. In this regard, supporting Bangladesh to establish road and rail connectivity to Nepal and Bhutan will be a good gesture of reciprocation from India.
• Removal of the non-tariff barrier has been the long time demand of Bangladeshi businessman. Taking further steps for the removal of non-tariff barrier will revitalise the psyche of Bangladeshi people and help improve the relationship between the two countries.
• Bangladesh will soon graduate from Least Developed Country (LDC) status and will no longer be able to enjoy certain benefits in Indian market. Thus, there’s a need for new bilateral trade agreement between the two countries.
• Because of sustained economic growth and political stability, Bangladesh is now an attractive destination for investment. Compared to Japan and China’s investments, the investment from India to Bangladesh has been significantly low. Indian stakeholders could consider investing in Bangladesh at a higher level with giving a particular focus in the IT and manufacturing sectors.
Despite experiencing different historical trajectories, Bangladesh and India share a common history. Their relationship should go far beyond strategic calculations. Recent developments in the bilateral relations demonstrate that political will and constructive engagement can be mutually beneficial. It is hoped that responsible stakeholders across the political spectrum in both the countries will recognise the emerging scopes and potentials to attain new heights in future Indo-Bangladesh cooperation. We should remember the statement made by former Indian Minister of External Affairs, Ms Sushma Swaraj, “Our desire is that India and Bangladesh should flourish together as two equal partners. We share not just our past but also our future.18”
1 Md. Sharif Hasan is a Lecturer at the Department of International Relations, University of Rajshahi, Bangladesh.
He is currently teaching international relations at University of Rajshahi, Bangladesh. Previously, he has worked as a Field Researcher at Centre for Genocide Studies, University of Dhaka. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
2 Taufiq –E- Faruque is a final year researcher at the Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. He can be reached at: email@example.com
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5 Kallol, Asif Showkat. 2017. “Bangladesh Signs $4.5Bn 3Rd LOC Deal with India”. Dhaka Tribune. https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/development/2017/10/04/bangladesh-signs-4-5bn-3rd-loc-deal-india/.
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8 Bhardwaj, Sanjay. 2003. “Bangladesh Foreign Policy Vis‐A‐Vis India”. Strategic Analysis 27 (2): 263-278. doi:10.1080/09700160308450087.
9 “Bangladesh Exports to India Cross $1Bn Mark”. 2019. Dhaka Tribune. https://www.dhakatribune.com/business/economy/2019/07/10/bangladesh-exports-to-india-cross-1bn-mark.
10 Chakma, Bhumitra. 2019. “The BRI and Sino-Indian Geo-Economic Competition in Bangladesh: Coping Strategy of a Small State”. Strategic Analysis 43 (3): 227-239. doi:10.1080/09700161.2019.1599567.
11 Carafano, J. James, and Jeff M. Smith. 2018. “How Bangladesh Can Improve Indian Ocean Security”. The Heritage Foundation. https://www.heritage.org/asia/commentary/how-bangladesh-can-improve-indian-ocean-security.
12 Pattanaik, Smruti S. 2010. “India’s Neighbourhood Policy: Perceptions from Bangladesh”. Strategic Analysis 35 (1): 71-87. doi:10.1080/09700161.2011.530985.
13 Xiaoping, Yang. 2018. “When India’S Strategic Backyard Meets China’S Strategic Periphery: The View from Beijing”. War on the Rocks. https://warontherocks.com/2018/04/when-indias-strategic-backyard-meets-chinas-strategic-periphery-the-view-from-beijing/.
14 Cookson, Forrest, and Tom Felix Joehnk, 2018. “China and India’s Geopolitical Tug of War for Bangladesh | East Asia Forum”. East Asia Forum. https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2018/04/11/china-and-indias-geopolitical-tug-of-war-for-bangladesh/.
15 Hossain, Delwar, and Md. Shariful Islam. 2019. “Unfolding Bangladesh-India Maritime Connectivity in The Bay of Bengal Region: A Bangladesh Perspective”. Journal of The Indian Ocean Region, 1-10. doi:10.1080/19480881.2019.1646570.
16 “Shows Ways to Cut Indo-Bangla Trade Gap”. 2018. The Daily Star. https://www.thedailystar.net/business/Analystanalyst-shows-ways-cut-indo-bangla-trade-gap-1560508.
17 Choudhury, Angshuman. 2017. “Opinion: China Leveraged Rohingya Crisis. India was Timid.”. WION. https://www.wionews.com/world/opinion-china-leveraged-rohingya-crisis-india-was-timid-28018.
18 “Speech by External Affairs Minister at Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (June 26, 2014)”. 2014. Mea.Gov.In. https://mea.gov.in/outoging-visit-detail.htm?23487/Speech+by+External+Affairs+Minister+at+Bangladesh+Institute+of+International+and+Strategic+Studies+June+26+2014.