An article link by Zainal Abedin was recently brought to my notice wherein he talks about numerous issues affecting India Bangladesh relations including as he claims Indian machinations to subsume the Bangladesh military, import of military equipment from India, treatment of minorities in India and a long running water dispute between both nations. Allow me to answer his allegations in the same format as in the article linked above
Why Should Bangladesh Trust India?
Zainal Abedin makes a laughable suggestion that India somehow wants to subsume or control the Bangladeshi military. This is a line that is often however spouted by many Sino centric observers that see India as a threat to them in Bangladesh. Truth is, India literally midwifed the birth of Bangladesh. If the Indian Army had not moved to decisively crush the Pakistani military occupation forces in the December of 1971 after more than a year of material, financial & moral support to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman & the Mukti Bahini, it is very likely then that Bangladesh would have been a stillborn dream still under the yoke of Islamabad. While it is true that this operation was a strategic victory for India & relatively secured our Eastern border from the machinations of Pakistan it is also true that India could have rather easily subsumed Bangladesh if it had chosen to do so. The USSR had already declared its unequivocal support to India & there was little any other nations would have done to prevent such an annexation. That India chose not to do so & grant the people of Bangladesh their freedom underwrites Indian sincerity towards the movement led by Bangabandhu. An allegation that India did not want Bangladesh to have its own armed forces raised by Zainal Abedin is refuted by the fact that India itself armed & trained the “Mukti Bahini” & later helped the nascent Bangladeshi forces refurbish & rearm using equipment left behind by retreating Pakistani forces as well.
As far as road & water connections between India, Bhutan, Nepal & Bangladesh are concerned the BBIN framework was set up as early as 1996, unfortunately this was given the cold shoulder by all governments in the region till 2015 when deliberations on implementing a legal process to allow vehicles from Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan & India to cross into each other began & still remain in progress. The Government of Bhutan chose to pull out of the Motor Vehicles architecture in 2017 & remain suspended at the moment with the Bhutanese National Council, the upper house of Tshogdu (National Assembly) not ratifying this Agreement on grounds of ‘flouting immigration laws’, ‘risking environment and security’ & stating that Bhutan was too small to be swamped by the vehicles of three countries’. Hence Bhutan remains out of the purview of this sub-regional arrangement. The Representatives of Nepal, Bangladesh & India had their last meeting on this regard in February 2020 & a basic draft of the MVA (Motor vehicles agreement) has been finalized. This should come up for signatures once the current coronavirus crisis passes. That said Water connectivity between India and Bangladesh has been operationalized with multiple cargo vessels & a regular passenger service linking Dhaka & Kolkata as well.
Mr. Abedin further writes on concerns regarding river water sharing & management. While some of his concerns are legitimate the fact that Water is essentially a state subject in India will create roadblocks that even Delhi will need much in terms of time & hard work to facilitate unless the state government of West Bengal under Mamata Banerjee comes to an understanding on the same with Bangladesh. It is worth noting that even though India and Bangladesh share 54 trans-boundary rivers the majority of the water that flows into Bangladesh via India comes from the GBM (Ganga Brahmaputra Meghna) network, even here the majority of concerns Bangladesh has is limited currently to the Farakka Barrage in West Bengal & water it withholds from flowing into Bangladesh. It is worth noting that a joint study in 2012 mapped out the flow of the Teesta & allocated equal shares to both India & Bangladesh, essentially ending the argument on paper. That agreement however remains unimplemented on the ground due to the refusal of the west Bengal government.
Does India want to sell military hardware to Bangladesh?
Mr. Abedin goes on to talk about how India wants to sell Military hardware to Bangladesh but has no good quality equipment to offer. While that may have been true earlier events in the recent past primarily due to sloth & lack of enterprise in India’s massive state owned arms public sector the entry of a growing private sector is rapidly changing that paradigm and Bangladesh should it so wish can choose to benefit from cheaper costs & easier logistics to acquire Indian Military equipment. Firms like Tonbo & MKU have been working with & supplying body armor & sights to the US & other allied militaries for years now. Also Indian Firms like Tata Motors & Ashok Leyland are world renowned in the field of logistics , their military trucks regularly operate in terrain as varied as the +50C Thar desert & -50C Temperatures of Ladakh, both terrain and temperatures that outclass anything the Bangladesh military faces. It would be most prudent for the Bangladesh military to look at these options as a lower cost replacement for their fleet of heavy and medium trucks which are currently imported from France, China, Ukraine & Germany. In the field of offensive equipment as well India is making fast gains with Artillery barrels sourced from Bharat Forge being used by BAE, the ATAGS breaking international range records for a 155/52 howitzer and the Bharat-52 being shortlisted for evaluation by Saudi Arabia would add that easy convertibility of the Rupee & the Taka would help Bangladesh save a lot on dollar/Euro conversion costs as well.
The argument that Bangladeshi forces would not be able to use Indian equipment to deter a fancifully imagined Indian military aggression or that Bangladeshi military officers training in India would be somehow brainwashed does not hold much water in my view. Fact is India has bent over backwards to accommodate Bangladesh in all mutual disputes including the 2015 land border agreement where India transferred to Bangladesh an area of 17160.63acres while gaining only 7102.2 acres essentially gifting 10,000acres of land to Bangladesh.
India also respected & adhered to a maritime boundary dispute resolved in 2014 wherein Bangladesh was given possession of 4/5th of a then disputed area of 25000sqkm . India could have chosen to not ratify the agreement like China with respect to the dispute involving China & other SCS nations in the South China Sea but instead chose to step aside in the interests of mutual friendship between India and Bangladesh. Such overtures on the ground clearly demonstrate that India has no desire to indulge in any sort of military confrontation with Bangladesh & instead wishes to conclude all disputes peacefully. Also any suggestion of brainwashing in the Indian Military academy paints an unfavorable allegation on “Bongobir” Mohammed Ataul Goni Osmani & other foreign military officers from Vietnam, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka & elsewhere that trained at Indian military academies and must be condemned outright.
The Article goes on to claim that China was a good friend of Bangladesh that had pledged 38 billion dollars to Bangladesh in infrastructure funding as part of its belt & road initiative. While it is true that Indian development credit pledged at some 8 billion dollars pales in comparison it is also true that global experiences in nations as varied & as far apart as as Sri Lanka and Greece do not paint the Belt & Road in an essentially favorable light. That said this money is being loaned by China to Bangladesh & Dhaka has full rights to choose credit from either source it as it sees fit. It is worth mentioning that a lot of Indian credit has also been converted into grants ($200mn in the case of the second Bhairab Bridge project) essentially making them gifts for the people of Bangladesh. A similar pattern has yet to been observed in Chinese credit.
The Way Forward
India and Bangladesh are today the two largest economies of the Indian Subcontinent and should merge their strengths to build a closer working relationship to benefit both nations. It is worth mentioning that Bangladesh being a large textile manufacturing & exporting nation can gain substantially from access to the Indian Economy while also gaining from lower costs & easier logistics on electronics, vehicles and other items imported from India instead of other nations. The very same PWC analysis that sees Bangladesh growing to become a $2.26Tr economy by 2025 also sees India grow into a $28.02Tr economic behemoth in the same timeframe. It is in the interests of both nations & the nearly 2 billion people they will house in the future to look at an EU type economic union along with a common anti-terrorism & security framework to take us into the next decades. Any Military concerns can be allayed by a mutual non-aggression treaty. A Joint maritime policing & Coast Guard mechanism could help fishermen on both sides as they could now call upon allied forces for support. It would immensely help in HADR efforts during the yearly cyclones as well.
Just like the EU such an arrangement need not be at the cost of sovereignty & without compromises with respect to national territorial integrity. The religious stress both nations face with Bangladeshis concerned with sporadic violence against minorities in parts of India and Indians similarly concerned about violence against Hindus in Bangladesh isn’t going to go away any time soon, neither is it something that should stop both nations from looking at Economic & strategic cooperation for the betterment & upliftment of both our people even as we look at making both nations more tolerant towards all faiths. Our common economic future makes it imperative that we find a way to work together for the greater common good of both our nations!
By Soumik Pyne,
About the author—Soumik Pyne is a Mumbased engineer and commentator on South-Asian affairs.