Strenthening India–Bangladesh Relations
Current Perspective: Two plus two INDO-US Ministerial dialogues
The two plus two talks between India and US were held successfully on 10 November at Sushma Swaraj Bhavan, New Delhi. The US delegation was led by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin. The Indian side was External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh. The talks were substantive and the agenda covered strategic partnership, elevating defence ties and moving forward on space, technology, future logistics and people to people contacts. They also exchanged perspectives on Indo-Pacific, South Asia, West Asia and the Ukraine conflict. It is pertinent to note that after the dialogue there was Press Conference on afternoon of November 10. During the event it was clarified that India had made the view on Bangladesh very clear. India had no place to comment on the policies of any third country. Election of Bangladesh is their internal matter. The people of that country will decide their own future. India remains a committed friend to Bangladesh.
It is almost 52 years and the country is developing at a steady pace. The current Government is in the post since 2009 and mentions India as a trusted friend and hoped that the relations will deepen further.They stood by India and stopped operations of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) from Bangladesh. Anup Chetia, a top leader of the militant group ULFA who had fled India about 28 years ago was handed over to India in November 2015. They deported Chetia unconditionally. The back bone of the ULFA movement was broken leading to diminishing insurgency in Assam. The Assam Government has expressed the hope that the ongoing discussions with the pro-talk’s faction of the ULFA will lead to a peace agreement shortly.
The biggest issue which has been resolved pertains to the exchange of border enclaves. These are pockets of land embedded entirely in the foreign territory of its neighbour, making it difficult for the country to exercise administrative control for about seventy years. In some cases, issues were complicated with existence of counter enclaves, where in the enclave of Bangladesh was trapped into India. The 2015 Land Boundary Agreement served an important role in the exchange of 111 enclaves (17160.63 acres) from India to Bangladesh and reciprocally the latter transferred 51 enclaves (7110.02 acres) to India. Further the choice of citizenship was offered by states to enclave residents. The Land Boundary Agreement also demarcated the boundary between India and Bangladesh in the Indian states of West Bengal, Tripura, Assam and Meghalaya.
The next aspect is the resolution of the Maritime Dispute with India. A United Nations (UN) tribunal gave a ruling in favour of Bangladesh regarding the maritime dispute. The decision was taken by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) based at The Hague in Netherlands. The conflict was largely over delimitation of the territorial sea. India wanted the determination of the boundary on equidistance method which means a nation’s maritime boundaries should conform to a median line equidistant from the shores of neighbouring nation states, Bangladesh was pressing for a solution that could be reached by keeping in focus all relevant circumstances. It is creditable that both countries have accepted the verdict. As per the award, Bangladesh has been given four-fifth of the total disputed area of 25,602 sq Km in the Bay of Bengal.
Economically, the country is progressing smoothly. This is creditable considering that Pakistan and Sri Lanka are facing stiff economic challenges. GDP of Bangladesh is US $ 420.52 billion. In the last decade it is a country which has developed considerably and is on the higher growth trajectory with a per capita income of $ 2,687 in June 2022.The country is expected to grow by 5.3% in the Financial Year 2023. Like all countries the country is impacted by the slow global growth following the war in Ukraine. The Government is doing its best to control inflation and has embarked on reform programs as precautionary measures.It would be interesting to mention the construction of the Padma Bridge as a great economic feat undertaken by Bangladesh.
Bangladesh is a riverine country and Sheikh Hasina with the help of all organs of the Government including security agencies completed the crucial Padma Bridge. It is way back in 1971 that the first feasibility report of the bridge was done to link Faridpur with Dacca. In order to construct this road, it was essential to construct a bridge over the River Padma. Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, the first President of Bangladesh announced the construction but due to his assassination the same could not be implemented. The World Bank initially agreed to fund the project but later withdrew due to corruption. Ultimately the current Government took a courageous decision to fund the project. The Engineering Support and Safety team was provided by the Bangladesh Army in consonance with other agencies.
It is to the credit of the Prime Minister who with the complete backing of the Bangladesh Army and all Government undertook the project. A visit to the project is an engineering marvel that would ensure higher economic growth. The steel truss bridge carries a four-lane highway on the upper level and a single-track railway line. It connects Kolkata to Dacca both by road and rail. Soon it would be possible to reach from Kolkata to Dacca in five hours. At the point of the bridge, it connects Louhajang Upazila of Munshiganj and Faridpur. The bridge consists of 41 sections, each 150.12m long and 22 m wide with a total length of 6.15 Km. it is the longest bridge in Bangladesh. It is the deepest bridge in the world, with piles installed as deep as 127 m. The construction of the bridge was considered to be especially challenging due to the width and depth of the Padma River.
The bridge is to boost the GDP of Bangladesh by as much as 1.23 percent. Bangladesh will receive benefits worth more than $ 10 billion which is three and half times more than the construction cost. Population density and wages in the southern districts connected by the Padma Bridge to Dhaka City will increase significantly and the bridge will help to lessen the impact of sea level rise in the region. This will possibly witness a greater influx of population to the Northern regions gradually. Ultimately the bridge will bring Kolkata and Dacca closer which would further intensify relations.
The economy of Bangladesh is a major developing market economy. As the second largest economy in South Asia, Bangladesh economy is the 37th largest in the World in nominal terms and 25th largest by purchasing power parity. The country is a member of South Asian Free Trade Area and the World Trade Organisation. Bangladesh is one of the fastest growing economies in the World. Modern Bangladesh embarked on economic reforms in the late 1970s which promoted free markets and foreign direct investment. GDP of Bangladesh is about $ 420.52 billion. The per capita income is $ 2740 and the Services sector occupies about 53.4 %. The country has exports of $ 52 billion. Garments form the major part of exports and it is interesting to note that neither cotton nor the machines for these garments is indigenous.
It is imported and the country produces world class garments. The main export partners are United States 15%, Germany 14%, United Kingdom 8 %, Spain 7% and France 7%. The country imports amount to $85 billion- figures of 2021. 31% of the imports are from China, 15 % from India and 5% from Singapore. The imports are mainly refined petroleum, cotton, natural gas, scrap iron and wheat. As per the Asian Development Bank, (ADB) GDP growth in 2022 despite COVID was 7.1%. Currently growth is dampened by the economic slowdown and special operations launched by Russia in Ukraine. ADB is responding to Bangladesh’s need for greater climate resilience, quality education, improved infrastructure and skills development to realise the country’s goal of becoming an upper middle-income country by 2031.
Armed Forces of Bangladesh consists of three uniformed military services. They are the Bangladesh Army, Bangladesh Navy and the Bangladesh Air Force. They are responsible to safeguard sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bangladesh by protecting land, maritime, air space and national cohesion against threats which may be internal or external. They also play a role in disaster management and maintaining peace in Chittagong hill tracks. They play a key role in nation building activities. Currently members of the Armed Forces are deployed in nine counties as peace keepers under the United Nations. It is indeed creditable that Bangladesh is the country that provides the largest peacekeepers to the United Nations.
Military Diplomacy: India-Bangladesh
India borders Bangladesh on three sides and was the first country to accord diplomatic recognition to the country. Relations are extremely close in all dimensions ranging from trade, transport, culture, connectivity and people to people contacts. However, there is a need to intensify relations in the area of Military Diplomacy. After all Bangladesh was created as a result of joint cooperation of the Indian Armed Forces (referred a Mitra Bahini) and Mukti Bahini.
Strategic relations exist between the two-Armed Forces. Currently there is reasonable interaction at the top level, what is needed is enhanced cooperation at the middle and junior level. Some of these could be :-
• Understanding Bangladesh’s strategic need and this could be primarily handling Rohingya refugees coming from Myanmar. The Indian Armed Forces could interact, advise and also learn how to solve the problem.
• Bulk of Bangladesh equipment is of Chinese origin. Closer interaction would lead to India understanding Bangladesh’s need and India could assist them with equipment which they need. We have sold our BrahMos Supersonic Cruise Missiles to Philippines, Pinaka Multiple Launch Rocket System to Armenia and very recently gifted a Missile Corvette to Vietnam. It would be a win-win situation for both countries.
• Joint exercising of troops from the Army, Navy and Air Force of both countries with a greater frequency.
• Marching contingents taking part in Republic Day parade and Victory Day (Bijoy Dibosh) celebrations in Bangladesh.
• Logistics Agreement to be signed for easy replenishment of Armed Forces of both countries. Military personnel of Bangladesh to be provided medical treatment in our Military Hospitals.
• Posting of instructors in training establishments.
• Disaster Management particularly Maritime Search and Rescue cooperation and joint exercises should be undertaken by the Navies of two countries.
• Training of specialists like pilots and submariners are skills which Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy possess and the same could be used to optimise skills of Bangladeshi pilots and submariners.
All these aspects mentioned above would intensify military cooperation between two friendly neighbours. Military diplomacy enables two countries to enhance cohesiveness between their Armed Forces and cooperation between the two countries. Strategic cooperation would automatically lead to better understanding and resolution of problems.
Bangladesh is a dear friend of India. Their principal language is Bengali which is spoken by people in India in the state of West Bengal and Tripura. Culturally they have deep links with our country. Over the years we have militarily become closer to each other and currently there is a need to step up this relationship to the next level. We can sit down and solve problems of water sharing and connectivity. It is amazing that the High Commission of India in Dhaka issues 15,000 visas in one day. Maybe we need a better system. The diesel pipe line from India is working well. Power connectivity from Arunachal must be routed through Bangladesh and we must use the deep-sea port of Matarbari near Cox’s Bazar for our goods of the Eastern region. This would further enhance the global trade.
Elections are due in January 2024. The current Government is a great friend of India. They should be allowed to conduct the next elections in a free and fair manner with no interference. People are sensible and will not vote for radical elements. The opposition possibly supports radical ideas and is pro-China. People of Bangladesh love India and they would elect a good Government left to themselves. This will assist in development of both countries and permit peace to prevail in this region.
Major General (Retired) Dr. PK Chakraborty is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Land Warfare Studies, Delhi. He is an analyst of geopolitics and military affairs. Dr. Chakraborty also associated with projects and articles of the Indian Council of Historical Research, New Delhi.