India’s contribution in all dimensions – political, economic, diplomatic and military — to erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in the liberation war saw the inception of a bonhomie between the two nations, which only strengthened in the late 1960s and early 70s as then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, went all out in support of the liberation of Bangladesh — from giving refuge to the people, to travelling across the world to garner support for the movement. Succumbing to the pressure from India, both diplomatically and militarily, Pakistan then surrendered on December 16, 1971, giving rise to the new nation of Bangladesh.
Unfortunately, the India-Bangladesh relations have experienced vicissitudes over time owing to a range of issues, including trade, border dispute, and a maritime row. Also, issues pertaining to sharing of water had slowly mushroomed, resulting in minor ripples between the two nations post the birth of Bangladesh.
However, efforts made by New Delhi and Dhaka in the recent past seem to be taking bilateral relations to the next level. From Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to the neighbouring nation in June 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit in July 2015, to the recently concluded visit of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India, the high-level visits between the two countries have now taken the bilateral relations to a higher trajectory.
Boost to bilateral ties
In a bid to boost the bilateral relations between the two countries, the Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheik Hasina signed 11 deals and 24 MoUs with her Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, leaving the opposition back home red-faced.
During her visit to India after seven years, Hasina has not only inked several memoranda of understanding but also got a new line of concessional credit of USD 4.5 billion allocated by India for the implementation of projects in Bangladesh. India also extended its first-ever defence-related line of credit to a neighbouring country, by providing Bangladesh $500 million to purchase defence equipment, indirectly putting a check on north-eastern rebels, Pakistani agents and Islamist militants.
Answering queries about her visit to India, from her official residence Ganabhaban, the Bangladeshi PM said “I did not return empty-handed. I got something. Sometimes I jokingly say — I wanted water, but got electricity.”
“I went there to seek friendship. And I got that friendship,” she added, suggesting a successful campaign of camaraderie.
Though several bilateral irritants like land border and maritime boundary disputes have been solved, the sharing of the Teesta water remains problematic.
Teesta being Bangladesh’s fourth largest transboundary river for irrigation and fishing covers a floodplain of 2,750 sq km in the country. Of the river’s catchment — an area of land where water collects — 83 per cent is in India and 17 per cent in Bangladesh.
Negotiations on how to share the water have been going on since 1983. A 2011 interim deal, which was supposed to last 15 years, gave India 42.5 per cent of the Teesta’s waters and gave Bangladesh 37.5 per cent. However, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee who was scheduled to accompany then PM Manmohan Singh to Bangladesh to sign that deal in 2011 opposed it so it was shelved and remains unsigned to this date.
Condition on river water
On the other hand, Bangladesh wants 50 per cent of the Teesta’s waters between December and May every year, as the water flow to the country drops drastically during that period. According to Bangladeshi experts, the historical flow of the Teesta at Rangpur is 5,000 cusecs, but only a mere 500 cusecs of water is being received currently, affecting farmers and fishermen.
Paying heed to Bangladesh’s concern, Prime Minister Narendra Modi conveyed to Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina his hopes for an “early solution” to the Teesta waters dispute. However, water being a State issue, no pact can be inked without the West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s approval.
Meanwhile, Mamata Banerjee’s alternative proposal on giving Bangladesh water from four smaller rivers instead of Teesta will also be looked into.
Showing confidence in her Indian counterpart, Sheik Hasina said “Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged to sign the agreement. We can wait with patience for signing it”.
“They have to release the water; they’ll have no option during rainy days, so they’ll have to. And we have to find methods to retain it,” bdnews24 quoted her as saying.
Prime Minister Modi’s ploy to tackle the situation keeping the interests of both West Bengal and Bangladesh intact will now be worth watching and vital for New Delhi’s relations with Dhaka.
South-Asian Power Play
Though Bangladesh does not share its borders with China, it does enjoy a close diplomatic relationship with the Asian heavyweight.
Since the military took over in Bangladesh in 1975, China has been the biggest source of military supply to the nation. Though with unease, India on the other hand has always closely watched the soaring ties between Bangladesh and China during former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s reign.
Adding fuel to the fire, the Chinese President Xi Jinping, in his visit to Bangladesh, offered the country USD 24 billion worth of economic and development aid, and another USD 13 billion in private sector investment. With this, the ties between the two nations elevated from “comprehensive partnership cooperation” to “strategic partnership cooperation”.
However, things seemed to change after the Sheikh Hasina government came to power in 2008.
Change in equations
Bangladesh is seen to be increasingly gravitating towards India’s sphere of influence in recent years. A substantial evidence to India’s influence was seen during Bangladesh’s negotiation with China for the purchase of two diesel-engine Ming class submarines. Due to New Delhi’s objection, Dhaka scrapped the purchase and in an attempt to reciprocate the friendly gesture during his visit to Bangladesh Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi offered $2 billion worth credit line to Bangladesh.
Moreover, Narendra Modi’s new line of concessional credit of USD 4.5 billion to Bangladesh is a masterstroke in its own right as it helps strengthen India’s relationship with Bangladesh, which could create a strong alliance between the two South Asian nations.
If strengthened, the India-Bangladesh alliance could well turn into a strong force in the region and become a force to watch out for, for many South Asian nations, especially China and Pakistan.