In a step aimed at furthering and enhancing the special relationship that Bangladesh has forged with India since 2009 when she assumed charge for her second term as Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, the country’s longest serving leader, paid a successful State visit to India, the neighbour that has stood like a rock behind Hasina throughout her remarkable political career that saw her serve a combined total of 18 years at the helm. The seven bilateral agreements that were signed in New Delhi and the new project inaugurations and announcements that were made during Hasina’s visit have set the ball rolling for the next few years of cooperation on many fronts, including economics, connectivity and defense. Bilateral trade has doubled to $18 billion in the last five years and several connectivity initiatives have been revived. The agreements and announcements were significant enough in their own right, but the real import of Hasina’s visit was the strong strategic undertone that was apparent throughout, and which continued to linger for days after Hasina returned to Dhaka on 8 September.
Announcing Hasina’s visit, India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) recalled on 1 September that she had last visited New Delhi in October 2019. Conveying the importance being accorded by India to the visit, the MEA listed out the dignitaries that Hasina was slated to engage with. She would call on the President and Vice President of India, Droupadi Murmu and Jagdeep Dhankar, respectively, and hold bilateral consultations with her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi. Hasina and Modi have met as many as 12 times since 2015. India’s External Affairs Minister (EAM) S. Jaishankar would also call on Hasina. Further, Hasina would address a meeting of the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII). The MEA averred that the visit would further strengthen the multifaceted relationship between the two countries that is based on strong historical and cultural ties and mutual trust and understanding.
Sheikh Hasina, in a 4 September curtain-raiser interview to news agency ANI, underlined the importance of bilateral ties and India’s historical contribution to Bangladesh, which continues even today. Referring to India as a “tested” friend, she said that the country had stood by Bangladesh in its hour of need, first in 1971 and then at later times too. She said, “We always remember their contribution during our 1971 war. And beside that even 1975, when we lost all my family members. So, the then Prime Minister, she gave us shelter in India. Besides that, you see, these two countries, we are neighbours, close neighbours and I always give importance and priority to friendship with our neighbouring countries”. Stressing on closer cooperation, she pointed out that “There can be differences but these should be addressed through dialogue”, adding that India and Bangladesh had precisely done that in a number of areas.
Two instances that Hasina marked out for special praise involved the Indian government’s recent support for Bangladeshi citizens. First was the evacuation of Bangladesh students, who like many Indians were stuck in Ukraine after the outbreak of the war there. Hasina said, “I really would like to express my thanks to Prime Minister Modi that during this war between Russia and Ukraine, many of our students were just stuck and they came to Poland to shelter. But when you evacuate your students, Indian students, they also brought our students back home. So it is really… You have shown a clearly friendly gesture. I thank Prime Minister for this initiative”. The other was the help extended by India during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hasina lavished praise on the Indian gesture of providing COVID-19 vaccines to neighbouring countries under its Vaccine Maitri (friendship) programme when the pandemic was raging. Hasina elaborated, “I really thank Prime Minister Modi for this initiative, and that way he… you know, contributed vaccines to not only Bangladesh, also some south Asian countries, and it’s really very very helpful. And it’s a really prudent initiative he has taken”.
Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dr. A. K. Abdul Momen, meanwhile, said on the eve of the visit that Dhaka expected it to be a very successful one that would “help achieve our goals”. He informed that issues related to security cooperation, investment, enhanced trade relations, power and energy sector cooperation, water sharing of common rivers, water resources management, border management, and combating drug smuggling and human trafficking were likely to be the focus during talks between Hasina and Modi, and that agreements in the fields of water management, railway, science and technology, and information and broadcasting were expected to be inked.
Arriving to a red carpet welcome on 5 September, the Bangladeshi dignitary and her accompanying high-ranking delegation got down to serious business the next day. After Hasina’s meeting with Modi during which the two leaders discussed connectivity, trade, flood management, counter-terrorism, food security, and nuclear energy partnerships, the two countries signed seven memorandums of understanding (MoUs) in various fields that were aimed at boosting ties between the two countries. These pertained to withdrawal of water from the cross-border Kushiyara river, cooperation in space technology, collaboration on IT systems used by railways in areas such as movement of freight, science and technology cooperation, training of Bangladesh Railway personnel and Bangladeshi judicial officers in India, and cooperation in broadcasting between India’s Prasar Bharati and Bangladesh Television. Among these MoUs, the one on withdrawal of 153 cusecs (cubic feet per second) of water from the Kushiyara was most welcomed by Dhaka. It was the first such agreement the two countries have inked since the Ganges river water-sharing agreement in 1996, and was seen as a breakthrough in addressing an issue that has cast a shadow on their otherwise close ties.
Apart from the MoUs, several bilateral projects were announced or inaugurated. These included the unveiling of the Maitree power plant and the inauguration of the Rupsha bridge and the Khulna Darshana railway line link projects, among others. Hasina and Modi also issued a joint statement, as per which the two leaders agreed to collaborate in new areas such as environment, climate change, cyber security, ICT, space technology, nuclear energy, green energy and blue economy.
In his statement to the press on 6 September, Modi expressed confidence that the India-Bangladesh friendship will touch new heights in the next 25 years. Modi said, “Bangladesh has made remarkable progress under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasinaji. In the last few years, our mutual cooperation has also increased rapidly in every field. Today, Bangladesh is India’s largest development partner and our largest trade partner in the region. Our close cultural and people-to-people relations have also steadily grown. Today, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasinaji and I had extensive discussions on all bilateral, regional and international issues. We both believe that by taking lessons from the COVID pandemic and recent global developments, we need to make our economies stronger. With the expansion of connectivity between our two countries, and the development of trade infrastructure on the border, the two economies will be able to connect more with each other, support each other. Our bilateral trade is growing rapidly. Today, India is the largest market in Asia for Bangladesh’s exports. To further accelerate this growth, we will soon start discussions on the Bilateral Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement. We also decided to increase cooperation in sectors like IT, space and nuclear energy, which are of interest to our younger generations. We will also continue to cooperate on climate change and on preserving a common heritage like the Sundarbans”.
Modi underlined that counterterrorism was an important topic that was discussed. He said, “Today we also stressed on cooperation against terrorism and fundamentalism. To keep the spirit of 1971 alive, it is also very necessary that we face such forces together, who want to attack our mutual trust”. He concluded by reassuring Hasina that “In realizing the vision of a stable, prosperous and progressive Bangladesh that Bangabandhu had seen, India will continue to walk step by step with Bangladesh. Our conversation today was also an excellent opportunity to reiterate this core commitment”.
Sheikh Hasina, on her part, said that India and Bangladesh have resolved many outstanding issues and all such issues, including the Teesta water-sharing treaty, will be concluded soon. She pointed out that India is the most important and closest neighbour of Bangladesh and the bilateral relations between the two countries were recognized as role models for neighbourhood diplomacy. After her return to Dhaka, Hasina said in a 14 September press briefing that “Throughout the visit, we observed India’s sincerity and commitment to continue cooperation between the two countries on the basis of equality and respect as good neighbours”. She asserted that if the decisions to solve the existing bilateral problems taken during her visit and the areas of cooperation identified during the bilateral talks were implemented, the people of both countries would stand to benefit. She explained, “After all, in the changed world situation, this visit would accelerate both the countries to move forward together in a new way. I firmly believe that this cooperation will continue for the welfare of the people of both countries. South Asia, including Bangladesh and India, will become a prosperous region soon”. She informed that the issues of Teesta water sharing, cessation of border killings, trade expansion, withdrawal of anti-dumping duty on Bangladesh jute products, repatriation of the Rohingyas, and import of electricity from Nepal and Bhutan via India, had been raised by Bangladesh.
In the economic sphere, Hasina said that the commerce officials of the two countries had been instructed to begin work for signing a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement within 2022. Terming the assurance of getting oil and gas from India as a major accomplishment of her visit, Hasina elaborated, “Bangladesh is going to get fuel from India. The oil will be transported from Assam’s Numaligarh to our depot in the north through a pipeline which will also be built by India. Once the supply of fuel starts, the economic activities of north Bangladesh and the wellbeing of the people living there will get a boost”. She added that Bangladesh had also discussed the issue of import of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) with India. “Khulna region faces acute gas crisis from time to time. We’re thinking of importing LNG from India through that region, so that people living in that part of the country can be directly benefited”, she said.
Bangladesh’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Shahriar Alam, said that Bangladesh was very happy with the outcome of Hasina’s visit. He emphasized, “It is another successful visit. (Last year) Prime Minister Narendra Modi went there (to Bangladesh) to express the love and affection of the Indian people towards Bangabandhu (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman) and 50 years of ties between the two countries… After many years we have signed a river water sharing agreement and we have opened avenues for many in future as well. We are very happy with the outcomes”.
While the outcomes may, indeed, have been good, the reality is that they were hardly likely at any stage to have been any different. That is because Sheikh Hasina shares a symbiotic relationship with India, and she is as important to India as India is to her political prospects. Hasina’s firm and unwavering crackdown against terrorism and militancy has been a boon for India, especially for its North Eastern states which had been plagued for several decades by China and Pakistan-backed militancy through Bangladeshi territory during periods when the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) has been in power in coalition with the radical pro-Pakistan Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI). Hasina’s long and uninterrupted 13 years in power has ushered in the stability within Bangladesh and in India’s North East that India needed to add substance to its Act East plans. For Hasina, India’s strong and unerring support has been one of the primary reasons why she has been able to successfully confront and deflect Western criticism of alleged declining democratic standards during her successive terms in office.
Sheikh Hasina’s trip to New Delhi was actually very well timed as it provided the right optics and sent the required messages to all concerned, both internally and internationally, at an appropriate time before next year’s general elections in Bangladesh.