In an unprecedented gesture that is bound to alter the political and economic relationships in the entire sub-continent, Bangladesh is offering the restoration of all trade and transit routes that existed before the 1965 war between India and Pakistan dropped an iron curtain between the various sides.
In a little-noticed speech at the North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU) in Shillong, in early April, Bangladesh High Commissioner to India Tariq Karim outlined such an ambitious vision for transforming the “land-locked” north-eastern region, which not only connected with Bangladesh but also used Bangladesh as a “gateway” to South-East Asia and beyond.
“We are ready and willing to help to reconnect not only the states of the Northeast to the rest of India, but also enable Nepal and Bhutan to gain access to the sea, and enable India to reach Myanmar and Thailand overland through easy terrain. Bangladesh is eager to serve as the hub of regional linkages in all its modes — air, road, rail and riverine,” Karim, a political appointee of the Sheikh Hasina administration, said.
For example, in the wake of the fully operational ‘Maitree Express’ train from Kolkata to Dhaka, Bangladesh would explore Indian suggestions to also connect Kolkata by rail to other towns of the Northeast through the Bangladeshi Northwest. Meanwhile, both sides were hoping to soon connect Akhaura with Agartala. As for land connectivity, Dhaka was ready to extend the Dhaka-Kolkata and Dhaka-Agartala buses to Shillong and Guwahati, while the West Jaintia region of Meghalaya could be linked by road to Mymensingh in Bangladesh to make Dhaka only a few hours away by road.
In an interview with Business Standard , Karim pointed out that it was not the 1971 war but the 1965 conflict between India and Pakistan which dramatically severed the communication linkages and trade routes that existed across the sub-continent for hundreds of years.
Asked if the promise to restore “connectivities” between India and Bangladesh that existed before 1965 meant Bangladesh was willing to give “transit facilities” to India, Karim smiled and said: “We don’t use the T-word in Bangladesh, but you can call it by any other name you like.”
He pointed out, before 1965, Bangladesh’s rich and affluent families used to send their children to study in Shillong or drive across the border to Tripura for weekend holidays. Steamships and boats on the Ganga and other rivers would carry people from Dhaka to Guwahati in Assam to Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh.
“After the 1965 war, it was as if an iron curtain had been deliberately dropped across the region. By the time India and Pakistan went to war again in 1971, which also midwifed the creation of Bangladesh, all the connectivities had been destroyed,” Karim added.
Asked why Bangladesh was now proposing to restore the linkages, he pointed out that the election of Sheikh Hasina as prime minister in the end of December 2008 had constituted the “biggest change”. India had reciprocated the special relationship by allocating $1 billion in credit in January (to build two bridges, upgrade railway lines and railway rolling stock, dredge rivers and improve their riverine capability), but the truth was that “a special moment was at hand, which both India and Bangladesh should seize” to transform the old bitterness that existed since the assassination of Mujib-ur Rahman in 1975.
But, Neelam Deo, a former Indian diplomat with experience in Bangladesh and co-founder of a Mumbai-based think tank called ‘Gateway House’, told Business Standard it was “important for India to reciprocate, sooner than later, Sheikh Hasina’s courage in addressing India’s core concerns, especially terrorism.” Deo pointed out that Hasina had returned Ulfa operatives, including Arabinda Rajakhowa, to India with minimum fuss.
According to Deo, the three most important concerns in the India-Bangladesh relationship today related to trade, border issues and the problem of water. Pointing out that it was critical to understand the significant political opposition within Bangladesh on improving ties with India, Deo said, if India removed all tariff and non-tariff barriers on Bangladeshi goods, most of the opposition to India would be deflated.
“On trade, India should treat Bangladesh with the same openness that we treat goods from Nepal,” Deo said.
On the border issue, she pointed out it was imperative to “decriminalise the border”, thereby eliminating the huge corruption and criminality involved in the border crossings. This could be done, supervised by Bangladesh Rifles and Border Security Force, which in turn would have enormous political implications on illegal immigration in states like Assam and West Bengal.
Both Karim and Deo emphasised that the riverine nature of the Gangetic delta meant that inland waterways could offer the most creative connectivities. “A river doesn’t recognise political barriers and divisions, so instead of dividing up the waters let us learn to manage them to our mutual advantage,” Karim said.
Deo accepted water had already become one of the most explosive political issues between the two sides, not only around major rivers like the Ganga and the Teesta, but other 25-30 medium and smaller rivers.
During Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India in January, Karim said, Bangladesh had allowed India to use the Chittagong and Mongla ports, thereby facilitating Indian goods traffic not only to the Northeast but also to South-East Asia.
In his speech at NEHU, Karim pointed out how Lafarge, the French cement maker, was already making full use of India-Bangladesh resources. In the north-eastern border district of Sylhet, Lafarge had set up a cement plant at a place called Chhatak, but the fact was that the raw material for the plant, limestone and shoal, was wholly quarried from mines across the border in Meghalaya. The cement plant provided employment to people on both sides, “generating interdependencies”, Karim said, warning, if the limestone supply was turned off, the cement plant in Bangladesh would have to be shut down.
Other Bangladeshi analysts who spoke requesting anonymity stressed that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should take up these issues in the upcoming Saarc summit in Thimphu later in the month. “India must understand that Sheikh Hasina is under a great deal of pressure from the opposition, which is accusing her of selling out to Delhi. India must quickly return gestures of cooperation so that Hasina is able to defang the opposition,” a Bangladeshi analyst said.