In commemoration of the golden jubilee celebrations of the Liberation War of 1971 and of India-Bangladesh diplomatic relations and the centenary of the birth anniversary of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, the Indian government is taking special steps to further strengthen the bilateral relations between the two nations. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been invited as the Chief Guest to Bangladesh’s Independence Day celebrations on March 26, 2021. This will be his first visit to a foreign country after the outbreak of the pandemic last year.
As a precursor to the visit, India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla visited Dhaka in August 2020 and the External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar visited Dhaka on March 4, 2021 in preparation for the Prime Ministerial visit to Bangladesh. There are expectations of the launch and promise of more train, road, air and energy connectivity linkages between India and Bangladesh. While inaugurating the Maitri Bridge on March 9, 2021, PM Modi stated that such infrastructural development was opening up more gateways for Northeast India with the rest of India through Bangladesh.[i] The proposal of opening train connectivity between Siliguri and Dhaka would also facilitate movement of people in the region. However, it needs to be noted that there has been no immediate proposal of issuance of Bangladeshi visa facility in Siliguri, which might seem to be a hurdle. If someone proposes to travel to Dhaka from Siliguri, s/he will have to travel to Kolkata first for the issuance of a visa.
With regard to challenges in border patrolling, which in the past has seen exchange of fire between Bangladesh and India leading to death of civilians living in the border areas, External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar stated that “Every death is regrettable but we also have to ask ourselves why is there a problem, and the problem is because of crime. So, our shared objective should be a no crime-no death border and I am sure if we can get it right, we can address this problem effectively.”[ii]
India is also constructing the India-Bangladesh Friendship Pipeline from Siliguri to Parbatipur in Bangladesh for supply of high-speed diesel. There is also financial investment in building shallow water blocks intended for drilling of natural gas in Bangladesh. India is also exploring pathways for supplying LNG through cross-border pipelines as well as building LNG terminals in Bangladesh. The Indian Foreign Secretary has emphasized that India, along with Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar, can turn into an energy hub, enhancing cooperation in hydrocarbons by diversifying the value chains of the oil and gas sector.[iii] There is also discussion on creating an integrated and shared energy grid in the region that would not only facilitate strengthening existing energy cooperation between the countries, but would also cater to proper distribution of energy to the region. Foreign Secretary stated, “energy connectivity is one of the most dynamic sectors of cooperation in our relationship with Bangladesh. Our cooperation in hydrocarbons' sector is diversifying into the entire value chain of oil and gas sector.”[iv]
While there is also ongoing discussion between Foreign Secretaries, Power Secretaries, Home Secretaries, Police Chiefs, BSF-BGB and defence visits, there are also discussions proposed between commerce, water resources and shipping ministries. Building and strengthening transit of cargo not only within Bangladesh, but the creation and strengthening of road, train and inland waterways to access the states in North-Eastern India would significantly enhance bilateral trade volumes. Vaccines have also played an important factor in strengthening relations between the two nations, with India providing 2 million vaccines to Bangladesh. While developing trade facility in ports of Chittagong and Mongla, there might be an opening in providing transit for Nepal and Bhutan for accessing ports in Bangladesh, which would further port options for the landlocked countries, which till date have been using the Kolkata and Vizag ports only. Getting access to the ports of Mongla and Chittagong would also enhance trade and investment in the states of Northeast India.
India also looks forward to a larger role of Bangladesh in the Indo-Pacific region due to its geo-strategic location. It seeks to engage in defence cooperation and also promote free and rule- based maritime order not only in the Bay of Bengal region, but also in the Indo-Pacific.[v] External Affairs Minister Jaishankar had stated, “if we can get connectivity right between India and Bangladesh, I can tell you the geo-economics of the region will change. The Bay of Bengal will look very different.”[vi]
While the Bapu–Bongobondhu digital museum runs successfully, both the countries will be looking forward to strengthening people to people contacts through cultural and literary exchanges and strengthening tourism between the two countries.
It may however be noted that, while there is good chemistry between the leadership of the two countries, there are also signs of discontent amongst the common masses in Bangladesh who have been critical of the Awami League. Supporters of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jamaat remain extremely critical of the manner in which India has been alleged to be interfering in Bangladeshi politics, especially in maintaining the Awami League regime in power. The forthcoming visit of PM Modi to Dhaka could do well to counter such allegations, cementing relations between India and Bangladesh.
*Dr. Dhrubajyoti Bhattacharjee, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i] Syed Sajjad Ali, “Modi inaugurates ‘Maitri Setu’ between India and Bangladesh”, The Hindu, March 09, 2021, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/pm-modi-inaugurates-maitri-setu-between-india-and-bangladesh/article34026410.ece, accessed on March 17, 2021. The Maitri Bridge (friendship bridge) is a crucial bridge built over River Feni to link the Indian state of Tripura with Bangladesh.
[ii] Kallol Bhattacharjee, “Killings along India-Bangladesh border because of crime: Jaishankar”, The Hindu, March 4, 2021, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/jaishankar-arrives-in-bangladesh-to-prepare-ground-for-pm-modis-visit/article33986980.ece, accessed on March 17, 2021
[iii] “India, Bangladesh exploring proposal for cross-border refined-LNG pipeline”, The Daily Star, March 10, 2021, https://www.thedailystar.net/business/news/india-bangladesh-exploring-proposal-cross-border-refined-lng-pipeline-2058121, accessed on March 17, 2021
[iv] “India, Bangladesh exploring proposal for cross-border refined-LNG pipeline”, The Daily Star, March 10, 2021, https://www.thedailystar.net/business/news/india-bangladesh-exploring-proposal-cross-border-refined-lng-pipeline-2058121, accessed on March 17, 2021
[v] “Jaishankar in Dhaka ahead of PM Modi’s upcoming Bangladesh visit”, The New Indian Express, March 5, 2021, https://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2021/mar/05/jaishankar-in-dhaka-ahead-of-pm-modis-upcoming-bangladesh-visit-2272446.html accessed on March 23, 2021
[vi] Kallol Bhattacharjee, “Killings along India-Bangladesh border because of crime: Jaishankar”, The Hindu, March 4, 2021, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/jaishankar-arrives-in-bangladesh-to-prepare-ground-for-pm-modis-visit/article33986980.ece, accessed on March 17, 2021