India-Bangladesh Economic Tie Maturing into Strategic Policy

Jayanta Ghosal

14th September, 2020 11:45:18 printer

India-Bangladesh Economic Tie Maturing into Strategic Policy

An elderly Indian journalist told me the other day about what he sees as my preference towards Bangladesh. According to him, I have repeatedly stated that India needs Bangladesh most. As to why, India is giving much importance to Bangladesh. But, after 1971 is there any occasion when India did not consider Bangladesh as a friend? When Bangladesh got less importance from India? Actually, some people in Bangladesh want to highlight that India is showing its friendliness out of fear for Chinese.  

My elderly friend also stated that there is no need to give so much importance to strategic partnership between the two countries. Strategic partnership is a simple diplomatic word. Such partnership of a small country with a vast country is always possible.

Here, I feel the necessity of clearly explaining both the issues. Before my explanation, I remember the telephonic discussion between Bangladesh foreign minister Dr A K Abdul Momen and Indian foreign minister Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. During the discussion they came to an understanding for holding a meeting of Joint Consultative Commission or JCC. Because of coronavirus pandemic, the meeting will be a virtual one. Efforts are underway for holding the meeting in the current month. Jaishankar informed that as soon as the travel ban is withdrawn he wants to visit Dhaka. His probable visit will add a new dimension after Indian foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla’s Dhaka tour.

Now, the issues raised by the elderly journalist. I agree that India has never shown any negative approach towards Bangladesh till now after 1971 and independence of the country. It is true that after Indira-Pranab era, those who have come to power everyone felt the necessity of Indo-Bangladesh friendship. The Gujral Doctrine too favours the ‘neighbour first’ policy. Bangladesh achieved many things during Narendra Modi regime. Signing of a long-standing Indo-Bangla Land Boundary deal was not an easy task. Indian Parliament passed it despite BJP’s opposition in the state of Assam. As far as I know Narendra Modi once termed Sheikh Hasina as his ‘Rakhi Sister.’ It is a ritual of Indian Hindus to honour any woman. So, he addressed the Apa (elder sister) of Bangladesh as Indian Apa. But I tell there exist some realities with romanticism of foreign policy. In foreign policy, there are many spheres. Just after 1971 war, Indira Gandhi signed the Simla Pact with Bhutto. Many Bangladeshi diplomats were astonished after the pact with Pakistan. A few days  ago, a Dhaka diplomat told that former diplomats of Dhaka are still against the hurriedly-signed Simla Pact. I opined that may be the pact was signed to rectify the mistake of Nehru who brought the issue of Kashmir referendum in the United Nations. This pact was indispensable to bring an end to the debate. After the Simla Pact, the question of internationalisation of Kashmir issue ended. Then that diplomat said friendship and conflict go hand-in-hand in diplomacy. It is true that Bangladesh is worried for Rohingyas and Indian Citizenship (Amendment) Act. So, ‘servicing’ is essential for even lasting friendship. Otherwise, its consequence may be harmful if friendship is ‘taken for granted.’ The example of Nepal and Bhutan is worth mentioning. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to present a bouquet of red roses to a friend on the occasion of his/her birthday. These are conditions of friendship. India is now very much conscious regarding the matter.

Why? The issue of strategic partnership lies in the answer to the question. We all are aware of the geographic location of Bangladesh. Indo-Bangladesh border stretches over the length of 4,156 kilometres. Today, in many cases barbed-wire border is non-existent. There have been many discussions over usage of Bangladesh land in anti-Indian activities by China and Pakistan. During Hillary Clinton’s visit to Kolkata and Dhaka, she expressed her intention to pay a visit to Bangladesh before expiry of her office term. This is because of the geo-strategic importance of the small country. After Mumbai blast, an elderly intelligence personnel told me that after the incident in the west coast, India has beefed up its security. So, Pakistan will now try to push militants inside India using Bangladesh through the border along the East coast. Everyone knows presence of pro-Jamaat elements in Dhaka. But, the government led by Sheikh Hasina has always taken a positive stance in a bid to quell militancy and terrorism.

However, Indian intelligence is dam sure about increased Chinese activities in Bangladesh. China is trying to increase its influence on Bangladesh media and even among its political leaders. New Delhi has already informed the matter to Dhaka. So, India is trying to increase engagements with Bangladesh. This is not unnatural or unjust! The Modi government has been playing an active role for the sake of Indian interest.

Jaishankar book: ‘The India Way - Strategies for an Uncertain World’ has been published. The book’s naming is significant which tells itself that contemporary world is very uncertain. Because of coronavirus pandemic, Jaishankar stopped his foreign tours. As per directive of the prime minister, he started his visits abroad one after another. Alongside his Moscow visit, his meeting with the Chinese foreign minister was very significant. Soon, he will visit Bangladesh. His newly-published book contains 213 pages. The book dwelt on the 1971 war and Bangladesh for 14 times. Jaishankar univocally mentioned about arbitral award over maritime claim in the United Nations in 2014. According to the verdict, Bangladesh achieved 19,467 square kilometre maritime area. There was a dispute over this portion out of 25,602 square kilometre area.

India has acceded to the verdict of the tribunal. It remained off from any feud over the issue. An incident happened on July 7, 2014. At that time China was not so aggressive, rather the Chinese leader was engaged in a diplomatic pursuit on the bank of the Sabarmoti River. The verdict over South China Sea policy that was announced by the UN in 2016 went against China. India and Australia asked China to leave the place. But, China stated that the UN verdict was unjust. So, it did not accept the verdict. Jaishankar wrote: “On the matter like maritime claims, India’s acceptance of an arbitral award regarding Bangladesh in 2014 contrasted with what happened to the South China Sea in 2016.” Jaishankar himself wrote: “We are making concerted efforts for Bangladesh’s greater access and connectivity with the north-eastern Indian states by turning “Look East Policy” into “Act East Policy.” But that is not all about. Jaishankar went on saying: “We are going to connect India’s north-eastern region with Bangladesh and Myanmar by forming “Act East Forum.” This statement carries much weight. Jaishankar further said, “This reflects the maturing of economic thinking into larger strategic policy.”

My university teacher taught me at a class on international politics, in diplomacy each and every word is stated and written giving due thoughts. This is not the language of politics for vote. The diplomat-turned-foreign minister Jaishankar said, “Economic relationship is being transformed into strategic policy.” India is not adopting a taken-for-granted-strategy in this respect.   


The writer is a senior journalist of India.


Translated by Z A M Khairuzzaman.