India and Bangladesh shares a warm and friendly relationship based on trust and mutual understanding. India’s flagship ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy places Bangladesh first making the country an important partner in the neighbourhood. Nevertheless, there are sections in Bangladesh who are suspicious of India’s intention and they consider India as the hegemony. Presence of asymmetries between the two countries in respect of territory, economy, military power and clout in the global arena can be ascribed to the critical mindset about the bilateral ties. Considering the concerns, it is pertinent to analyse India’s perception of the relationship and its approach in addressing Bangladesh’s sensitivities.
Seeds of the India-Bangladesh relations were sowed during the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. During the liberation war, India not only provided shelter to millions of people of Bangladesh who had to flee from their country to avoid inhuman torture of the Pakistani forces, but also the Indian army had fought along with freedom fighters. Besides, India provided financial support to Bangladesh for the post-war reconstruction of the country. In March 1972, Indian Prime Minister Ms Indira Gandhi during her first visit to Bangladesh clarified India’s intention of helping Bangladesh in the liberation war. Ms Gandhi foregrounded that India’s offer of cooperation was not to wield any influence but its desire to see Bangladesh grow as a self-reliant neighbour. Additionally, she said the basis of India-Bangladesh friendship is built on equality and mutual benefit of two free and sovereign nations.
In the past four decades, India and Bangladesh relationship have witnessed many transformations. From an exceptionally warm and cordial relationship during Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s tenure (1972-75) to that of military dictator General Ziaur Rahman’s regime (1975-81) filled with a feeling of suspicion and mistrust, India always emphasised on maintaining a cordial and peaceful relationship with the country. This was followed by the tenures of military dictator HM Ershad (1982-1990) and the BNP regime under Khaleda Zia (1991-96 & 2001-2006) during which India still maintained warm friendly approach and there were reciprocating visits also. The bilateral relationship went to higher levels steadily ever since Sheikh Hasina led Awami League government took office first in 1996 and later on in 2009 till date. Some of the major decisions were taken during all the sets of government in both the countries. The signing of the 5-year binding water sharing agreement of the Teesta River in 1977 confirmed India’s commitment to cooperation and resolving the dispute peacefully. Lease of the Tin Bighas corridor in 1992 during the BNP regime. The Ganges Water treaty was signed in 1996. India’s adhering to the verdict of the International Court of Justice‘s decision on the delimitation of the maritime border favouring Bangladesh in July 2014 resulting in India willingly giving away 19.467 square kms to Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal. Notably, it was a rare gesture and not many including Asian powers have disregarded verdict of the ICJ. The land boundary agreement, a watershed epoch in the bilateral relations, was signed in 2015.
Being neighbours, India and Bangladesh have many commonalities like history, language, culture, rivers. The commonalities have been a strength to the relationship but at times they pose challenges also. The challenges include- dispute over sharing of common resources like river water, border management issues like the illegal movement of the people across the border, smuggling of arms narcotics, trade issues etc. Giving priority to cooperation India and Bangladesh have established various institutional mechanism to have sustained dialogue for resolution. Around 50 institutional mechanisms have been established between India and Bangladesh in areas of security, trade, power & energy, transport and connectivity, science and technology, defence, rivers and maritime affairs. These mechanisms have been a major platform for sharing each other concerns.
India has been attentive to Bangladesh’s concerns and has been pragmatic in action. Given Bangladesh’s concern about the death of its nationals, primarily who are cattle smugglers, in the firing by Border Security Force (BSF), India has introduced of the non-lethal weapon in the border with Bangladesh. India’s initiative has reduced the number of deaths in the border but has emboldened the smugglers resulting increase in the attack on the BSF. Similarly, India unilaterally provided duty-free access to all Bangladeshi products (except 25 narcotic substances) in an attempt to reduce trade gap imbalance, which Bangladesh repeatedly complained. The measure by India has been fruitful is increasing Bangladesh’s export to India that touched US$1 billion in 2019.
Further, trends in the bilateral relationship suggest India has been careful of Bangladesh’s concerns and refrained from pushing any treaties without its consent. India not pursuing renewal of the25 year-long Treaty of Friendship and Peace of 1971 that expired in 1997 sensing Bangladesh’s reluctance is a telling example of the respect to Bangladesh’s opinion.
In this bilateral relationship, India has gone forward with an approach and attitude of close friendship and togetherness, beyond the calculation of profit and loss. India’s humanitarian support to Bangladesh in a telling example of its intentions. India has been one of the first to provide relief and assistance during Bangladesh’s hour of crisis – the experience of natural disaster like cyclone Sidr or health emergency like the Covid-19 pandemic are case in points. In the fight against Covid-19, India provided medical assistance to Bangladesh in the form of test kits, PPE and medicines.
The bonhomie between the two countries would not have reached such heights without the support of the Bangladesh government, especially, the present Awami League government. The government of Bangladesh has been upfront about the necessity of maintaining a good relationship with India. Its support in the arrest of leaders of North-eastern Indian insurgent groups who were operating from Bangladesh needs special mention. Bangladesh’s action contributed to curbing insurgency in the region. Along with the political steps, significant cultural exchanges have also been undertaken to enhance the age old linkages.
India and Bangladesh showcase a true spirit of neighbourly relationship based on shared growth and prosperity. Maintaining a friendly relationship with neighbour contributes to peace and development of a country. This has been visibly witnessed in this relationship where Bangladesh has become one of the booming economies of the region.
Author is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. View expressed are author’s personal.