Indo-Bangla relations

Posted in foreign policy by jrahman on September 24, 2009

The Bangladeshi Foreign Minister recently visited India, and the Prime Minster is supposed to visit New Delhi shortly.  This follows a highly publicised visit by the Indian Foreign Minister in February, after the new government took office in Dhaka, but before the Indian election.  There are media speculations about a ‘package deal’ being negotiated resolve various outstanding issues. 

There is no foreign relationship more important for Bangladesh than that with India.  Therefore, whatever is in this deal (if a deal is indeed being negotiated), it is imperative that it is scrutinised carefully.  And every conscious citizen — regardless of technical expertise, political affiliation, or access to the media — has a responsibility to participate in the discussion.  Indeed, a discussion needs to happen in India too, because if Bangladesh develops a permanent antipathy towards India, the consequences will be bad for everyone.

Any discussion on this topic should begin with two points.  

First, this need not be a zero sum game.  Bangladesh’s gains do not have to come at India’s expense, or vice versa.  India and Bangladesh are not locked in some Manichean, existential conflict.  Win-win solutions are possible on all the issues.

Second, it is easy, and pointless, to spend endless amount of time in a dialogue of the deaf discussing how one country has never done the right thing by the other. 

This post is an attempt to summarise the issues, with some tentative views.  They are by no means exhaustive.  Nor are they beyond debate.  In fact, I am actively soliciting debate.

With the long introduction out of the way, over the fold are what I think the issues that need to be resolved.

1. Water

The issue appears to be well understood.  There is a finite amount of water in the Ganges-Brahmaputra river system, the rivers run across international boundary, what happens upstream affects downstream, India is upstream and Bangladesh is downstream, and so forth.  Tipaimukh is the latest manifestation of the issue (see Akbar Ali Khan’s Prothom Alo series: here, here, here, here, and here).

The solution is an equitable distribution of water.  But what does that mean?  Diganta tries to answer.  My view is that the the answer will vary from case to case, with each specific upstream project requiring separate negotiation.   

There is a long-standing Indian proposal to link Ganges and Brahmaputra over Bangladeshi territory.  Not only will this bi-furcate Bangladesh, my understanding is that the Indian proposal will leave both ends of the canal in Indian territory.  This appears to be an extremely bad idea for Bangladesh.  Short of this, every option should be on the table, with specifics negotiated by technocrats from both sides.

2. Security

There is a strong perception in India that Bangladesh may pose a threat to India’s territorial integrity or national security.  Some believe that Bangladesh has actively assisted Indian militants — mainly separatists in the Northeastern states, but also Naxalites and jihadis.  There is a perceieved fear of India in Bangladesh too, where some still fear that India still wants to undo partition. 

Bangladesh ought to be make it explicitly clear that she has no territorial design on India.  Except for a few enclaves, Bangladesh has no territorial dispute with India (unlike Pakistan or China).  Bangladesh has nothing to gain by supporting any militant group in India.  As an aside, Bangladeshi politicians referring to the Indian militants as ‘freedom fighters’ do a gross disservice to the country because they know very well that these are not Bangladesh’s fights. 

These perceptions — often unreasonable — are exploited by demagogues in both sides, and as a result, the real security problem of decaying state machinery — not just in Bangladesh, but also in India — is seldom highlighted. 

Let me give you an example.  After the Pilkhana tragedy, for a long while, large parts of Bangladesh’s borders were undefended.  But undefended against whom?  The Indians?  Except for a few kilometres in nearly 2,000km border, India doesn’t want Bangladeshi real estate.  The threat here is not the Indian BSF will come and take our land.  The threat here is that criminals from both sides of the border had a free run.  The threat here is that Indian militants from the Northeast had a free passage to link up with jihadis and Naxalites in West Bengal and Bihar. 

BDR-BSF joint patrols are a good way to mitigate this security threat, but tell that to the Bangladeshi Indophobes, who’d rather recreate the Battle of Khem Karan at Benapole. 

More generally, strengthening state institutions is in Bangladesh’s own interest, regardless of how these may or may not help India.  But India has a responsibility too.  India’s militancy problems have deep domestic roots.  If Indian Muslims are attracted to violent jihad, clearly the Indian state and society is failing in some key ways (see here). 

India  and Bangladesh face common security threats from militants.  It makes sense to work for a common solution to the problem.  But it’s not clear that the current Bangladesh government’s idea of a Joint Force is the right approach.  The militancies are rooted in social and economic problems, and it’s not clear that joint forces escalating the conflicts will achieve anything.  But these discussions cannot be had so long as the perceived threats dominate the discourse.

3. Migration

India claims that there are millions of Bangladeshis living illegally in India.  And Bangladesh vehemently denies it.  But anyone who has travelled in any Indian city will know the truth in the Indian claim, and it will be pretty clear to them that the Indian official position of ‘push back’ is a ridiculous notion.  Whether as a rickshawallah in Delhi, cook in Mumbai, or a construction worker in Hyderabad, Bangladeshi workers contribute to the growing affluence of the Indian urban middle class. 

Isn’t it about time that this ugly little not-so-secret fact is openly discussed? 

4. Border killings

The single most important reason why we need to openly discuss the movement of people across the Indo-Bangla border is because of the cold blooded murder of hundreds of people by the trigger happy Indian Border Security Forces.   

The question is, what can we do to stop them?

Unlike water or security issues, private citizens actually can make a big difference here.  India has vocal and influential citizens’ movements.  Media is free.  It is, therefore, very much possible to build up a grassroot pressure against these killings.

5. Trade

This is usually highlighted a lot in the Bangladeshi media.  But as I argued here, trade trade deficit per se is not the issue.  We buy Indian goods because it is efficient.  If anything, we will be in trouble if India arbitrarily shuts off trade — India was one of the first countries to impose export ban on rice in 2007, leading to sharp spikes in rice prices.  We are a densely populated country, so there is no way we will be self sufficient in everything.  And self sufficiency — autarky — is an inefficient outcome anyway (this is not the place to get into the economics of comparative advantage). 

The point is not trade deficit, the point is market access.  Bangladeshi market is open for Indian business, and Bangladeshi consumers benefit from it.  But the Indian market is largely close to Bangladesh.  This need to change. 

6. Connectivity aka transit/transhipment/corridor

Among the Bangladeshi Indophobes, it’s an article of faith that allowing Indian goods/people to travel between West Bengal and northeastern states over Bangladeshi territory is a bad idea.  But why is it a bad idea?  If we take away the presumption that these countries are locked in a zero sum existential conflict (which I don’t believe to be the case), is there really any good reason to deny India transit? 

I don’t think there is any.  I think the argument really isn’t about whether transit should be allowed.  It should be.  The debate really need to be on what terms.

It would seem to me that reciprocal connectivity with Nepal, China and Pakistan should be a key part of any transit agreement.  If Chittagong port is opened to Indian northeast, there is no reason why it can’t be in principle open to China (through Myanmar perhaps). 

And just as the Indophobes can demagogue on this issue, we need to be aware of the Indophiles overselling transit.  If we don’t allow India transit, we will not be at a major loss.  Bangladesh seems to have done reasonably well without ‘connectivity’.  None of our manifold problems — decaying state machinery, infrastructure bottleneck, poor education/health services — will be solved by transit. 

The bottomline: there is no reason to deny transit, but it’s not a priority.

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7 Responses

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  1. Unheard Voice » Indo-Bangla relations said, on September 24, 2009 at 9:19 am

    […] (More at Mukti) […]

  2. sensible said, on September 24, 2009 at 7:44 pm


    Nice post. I agree with you completely that there should be an open discussion on each of these issues BEFORE any decision is made. But unfortunately that’s not the norm in Bangladesh. So we can all talk/write as much as we want, but most of it will be 1) about AL vs. BNP, 2) people who matter on these issues will not have a discussion of any kind. These are my predictions.

    Now about transit: The only question that is important to me on this issue is if we have the infrastructure for it. If you travel in two lane roads in Bangladesh in one of those buses, I know about you, I feel scared all the time. We really don’t have a highway system for long-range travel. The by-pass project failed mostly in that the city moved closer to the by-pass. So vehicles of all speed, nature, purposes travel on the same two lane road system. Add to that the nature of Bangladeshi bus-conductor’s system of stopping on the highway for that one last passenger. Now think the volume of traffic you’d add if we allow transit. I have seen the big 10/15 tons Indian trucks in Banglabanda. I’m not if our bridges are built with those big vehicles in mind.

    • jrahman said, on September 26, 2009 at 6:35 pm

      Sensible, I agree that most of the discussion will be on AL-BNP line, with predictable accusations (Bharater dalal vs razakar etc). But is it all that different from the US, where Obama’s health care reform is called socialism/fascism, and even anyone criticising him is called racist? But just as in US, so in Bangladesh, some people will make points that are not predictable — your second para is the perfect example, more on this below. And even if the people who matter don’t want to have a discussion, if there is a strong enough discussion, I don’t think people who matter will be able to ignore it. If the powers-that-be could ignore public opinion, Gen Moeen would be in Bangabhaban today.

      On your specific point, I agree that the infrastructure bottleneck is a serious constrain. You can add the pollution to it. But there is no reason whatsoever why these couldn’t be openly debated. One specific solution I could think of is using the rail link. We already have Hardinge/Jamuna/Bhairab bridges. Most of the lines have existed for over a century. Bangladeshi trains carry less than a 1,000 mil ton per km per year. In Pakistan, the number is nearly six-fold. It’s not at all clear that our railway couldn’t get a revival from rail transit, especially if Indians are asked to contribute to the maintenance costs. And no reason why the rail link should begin or stop in Kolkata or Agartala — one used to be able to take a train from Sylhet to Peshawar, no reason why this shouldn’t be on the card again.

      But surely these are debates about price/logistics/debates, not a high level rejection

  3. xanthis said, on October 2, 2009 at 12:17 am

    Number of issues comprised in one post, that’s the one a blogger may get scared to write and you have done it. Good post.

    I will like to take one of these, I mean if to talk about the border killing part, I don’t think that any movement from any of the sides has a lot to do. Because presumably the Indian authority does have a policy which secures rooms where it’s allowed to shoot indiscriminately at Bangladeshi frontier population or at least it ain’t forbidden to shoot.

  4. xanthis said, on October 2, 2009 at 11:23 am

    I think the argument really isn’t about whether transit should be allowed. It should be. The debate really need to be on what terms.

    I can guarantee that most of the Bangladeshis come with a despondence when it comes to a bargain or a negotiation with India. The group that’s been named ‘Indophobes’, become even more despondent if AL is the boss in the house. And the ratio of ‘despondents’ and the ‘optimists’ where the ‘despondents’ are presumably the majority, I believe is not decided by only the political beliefs they have.

    If someone asks for the reason of that, a summary of Indo-Bangladesh foreign relationship can be made saying that most of the deals or negotiations Bangladesh has had with India, it has left with an idea to the Bangladeshi people that India has almost always outwitted something out of what could have been the rightful claim of Bangladesh. Now the ‘idea’ can be results of a pile of outcomes those’ve been factually insubstantial for Bangladesh, or just an overwhelming Indophobic publicity.

    So the groups interested to sign and implement a transit, have to do a lot to make this “it should be” a general consent.

  5. Diganta said, on November 10, 2009 at 3:58 am

    Very well written article. I think to move the relationship forward, India needs to stop border-killings. That’s something standing out of others since it deals with human lives. All others, especially trade and water related issues, are complex in nature and would take years before we get to a good solution.

  6. […] But there is no reason why we at UV can’t discuss what was agreed by the two PMs.  Over the fold, I give my assessment of the Joint Communique (I’d urge everyone to click on the link and read it, as this will facilitate an informed discussion).  (The post is written on an explicitly ‘what it means for Bangladesh’ perspective.  This is less than fortunate, but somewhat unavoidable.  My personal views on the Indo-Bangla relations are here.) […]

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