Tale of two friendly neighbours
The virtual summit between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina on December 17, 2020, marked the Victory Day, which commemorates the war of 1971. During the meeting, the two leaders reiterated their commitment to pursue the vision of deeper engagement
Every year, Bangladesh and India celebrate December 16 as “Bijoy Dibosh” or Victory Day to commemorate the end of the War in 1971. On this day, Pakistan’s Army surrendered in Bangladesh to the joint command of the Indian Army and the ‘Mukti Bahini’. This historic and momentous surrender brought to a close the valiant struggle for liberation that finally led to the emergence of Bangladesh. Bangladesh’s determined march towards independence was a geo-political event of immense significance in South Asia. Bangladesh is celebrating this year as the golden jubilee year of its independence. This year also marks the 50 years of India’s victory against Pakistan in the 1971 war which is being celebrated as year-long ‘Swarnim Vijay Varsh’. Both India and Bangladesh have worked out an elaborate plan with a series of events and activities to jointly commemorate the landmark victory that gave birth to Bangladesh. The upward trajectory in Bangladesh-India bilateral ties in the recent years owes much to the commitment of the leadership in both countries to pursue the vision of deeper engagement and open new vistas of cooperation. When Bangladesh’s PM Sheikh Hasina and Indian PM Narendra Modi had their Summit meeting on December 17, 2020, in the virtual mode, it was a reiteration of this policy of building strong neighbourly ties “based on shared bonds of history, culture, language and other unique commonalities that characterise the partnership. They emphasised that relations between Bangladesh and India are based on fraternal ties and reflective of an all-encompassing partnership based on sovereignty, equality, trust and understanding that transcends a strategic partnership.”
Under the “Neighbourhood First Policy”, India has assiduously pursued productive ties with Bangladesh. India-Bangladesh bilateral ties have reached a stage where the template of multifarious sectors of cooperation has made impressive progress. The Joint Consultative Commission that held its 6th meeting in September 2020 has been guiding the implementation of this process. During the recent Summit, the two PMs inaugurated the 5th railway connectivity between Haldibari in West Bengal and Chilahati in Bangladesh. Railway connectivity between two countries was completely sundered by Pakistan following the war of 1965 between India and Pakistan. Partial railway connectivity was restored after Bangladesh became independent in 1971 but the process has gained momentum only in recent years with increased demand of cargo and passenger movements between both countries. There is a rising demand from the business community for reducing the cost of transportation and travel, as trade and tourism gradually regain their pre-COVID volume and numbers. India receives the largest number of foreign tourists from Bangladesh. As a result, both countries are now working on other trans-border railway connectivity nodes that will ease the congestion at the existing border points and facilitate hassle-free cross-border movement of goods and passengers in considerably much lesser time. Multi-modal Connectivity is another priority sector for both countries. Riverine routes for trans-border transportation have been expanded periodically. There are 54 trans-boundary rivers and these, wherever navigable, provide riverine connectivity under the Protocol on Inland Water Trade and Transit Treaty (PIWTT). Transhipment of goods from Kolkata to Agartala via Chittagong port, together with Sonamura-Daudkani additional riverine route will facilitate trade between both countries. A section of the River Ganges (Padma in Bangladesh) forms a part of the riverine boundary between both countries.
The river tends to meander, entering Bangladesh and then re-entering India through the Rajshahi district of Bangladesh. This creates challenges for fishermen and passenger traffic on the river because they have to cross the international boundary. India has agreed to consider Bangladesh’s proposal of “innocent passage” which will enable boats to enter India and re-enter Bangladesh while using the riverine passage without undergoing formal procedures for crossing international borders. The BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal) Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA) awaits finalisation of procedures. This will help vehicular movement between both countries seamless. Another road connectivity project is planned between Hilli (West Bengal) and Mahendraganj (Meghalaya) via Bangladesh. Bangladesh has sought its participation in the India-Myanmar-Thailand tri-lateral Highway, which will provide connectivity between India and ASEAN countries. Bangladesh and India share a long land border of around 4,097 km. There are several sectors along the border where rivers form the international boundary. Since rivers in the deltaic region tend to change course, the challenge of delineating fixed borders is discussed in the Joint Boundary Conference. After the Land Border Agreement (LBA) of 2014, follow-up on implementation measures and preparation of maps along riverine boundaries are underway. To prevent cross-border illegal activities, India had erected a fence in certain sectors of the land border. Owing to cross-border illegal activities, there have been clashes between India’s Border Security Force (BSF) personnel and people who indulge in illegal border crossings for smuggling. The fence has helped lower cross-border illegal activities and both countries have agreed to facilitate completion of the fencing along the shared border in Tripura in India. The Coordinated Border Management Plan (CBMP) has enable the border guards of both sides to interdict and reduce human trafficking and the smuggling of weapons, narcotics and fake currency. Facilitating legitimate movement of people via land ports along the common border is being streamlined.
As both countries grapple with the pandemic, the healthcare sector has risen in the priority list for bilateral cooperation. In this sector, there is immense scope for cooperation, particularly in medical education, manufacture of medical equipment and the pharmaceuticals. Facilitation for Bangladesh nationals coming to India for medical treatment has been in place for quite some time. PM Modi had assured PM Hasina that Bangladesh will be among the priority countries to receive the vaccines produced in India. Under the #VaccineMaitri initiative, Government of India gifted two million doses of the Made in India Covid-19 vaccines to Bangladesh in January 2021. This was followed by the supply of the first consignment of five million doses of Covishield vaccines from India under a commercial procurement arrangement.India-Bangladesh educational and cultural exchanges have had a long and rich history. The shared culture between both countries will be amply demonstrated during the year-long celebration of golden jubilee year of Bangladesh’s independence and the birth centenary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who is regarded as the “Father of the Nation”. Joint celebration also includes launching of commemorative stamps to honour Bangabandhu and Mahatma Gandhi by India and Bangladesh, respectively. A digital exhibition on the life of these two leaders is currently being screened in New Delhi and later will travel across the world.Bangladesh is India’s largest development partner, with India having committed around USD 10 billion in Lines of Credits and Grants to Bangladesh. Bangladesh is also India’s largest trading partner in South Asia with total trade volume of around USD 10 billion. Both sides are resolved to remove non-tariff barriers and other impediments to facilitate trade. Bangladesh is an important market for essential food commodities exported from India. On the other hand, the textile sector is crucial for Bangladesh as ready-made garments (RMGs) constitute more than 80 per cent of its exports. Both countries are working out the Bilateral Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) which is adding further momentum to bilateral trade.
The energy sector has also emerged as a key area of bilateral cooperation. Bangladesh’s energy shortage was being met with electricity from India. Two power plants are being built by private Indian companies for exporting electricity to Bangladesh. The pipeline, for delivering petroleum products and lubricants from India to Bangladesh is under implementation. Taking into account mutual interest to move towards cleaner fuels, both countries are now engaging in giving greater focus to efficient and renewable energy sources along with sub-regional coordination and cooperation with Bhutan and Nepal on clean energy.The influx of around 1.1 million refugees into Bangladesh, forcibly expelled from Myanmar’s Rakhine State, has remained a matter of mutual concern and India has expressed deep appreciation for Bangladesh’s generosity in hosting these refugees. India has extended humanitarian assistance for the refugees. Bangladesh and India have agreed to cooperate in the speedy repatriation and safe rehabilitation of the refugees. At the international level, both countries have also acted in concert on a host of issues like UNSC reforms, Climate Change, Sustainable Development Goals (SDs) and protecting rights of migrants.Bangladesh and India have gradually and carefully built a framework of integrated cooperation to achieve greater synergy in all sectors. For India, Bangladesh has emerged as a steadfast pillar in her “Act East Policy” which envisages greater connectivity and engagement with the ASEAN countries and other countries in the Indo-Pacific region. In the post-COVID era, the continuing trend in international power alignments, Bangladesh and India are building an enduring relationship, which will strengthen South Asian connectivity and cooperation for the greater goal of economic development and prosperity for the peoples of the region.