It makes strategic sense for India to prove a good neighbour to Bangladesh, given its strained ties with Pakistan.
The famous Bengali writer of nonsense rhymes, Sukumar Ray, has a piece in Abol Tabol that goes: “There sits the King on a pile of sun-baked bricks, munching roasted peanuts but not swallowing.” That’s what’s happening between India and Bangladesh with the latter giving the former transit rights through its territory: A lot of munching but no gulping down.
Bangladesh and India signed a trade agreement in 1978 which promises India the use of Bangladesh’s roads, rivers, and railways to send goods to its north-eastern states, avoiding a long detour through a narrow north Bengal corridor. That agreement has been routinely renewed every three years — the last time during Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s 11-hour visit to Dhaka this February — but the provision on transit hasn’t yet gone into operation.
To be fair, it partially has. But it’s only a very limited transit facility. Indian ships are allowed only up to the river port of Narayangunj, 16 km east of Dhaka, from where goods are transhipped by road to their destinations. It’s complicated, troublesome, and uncompetitive, and therefore hardly used.
India wants a full, long-term transit agreement using roads, rivers and railways, but Bangladesh isn’t playing ball yet, harbouring fears of its bigger neighbour and concerns about its national security.
Is this going to change, now that a more friendly government has come to power in Dhaka? Expectations are high, of course, but can these be realised on ground? I doubt it. Not anytime soon. In the wake of Pranab Mukherjee’s visit, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is being warned by various quarters — not all of them fundamentalists — not to rush into a transit agreement with India even though Bangladesh has a lot to gain from it. Naturally, she’ll have to tread cautiously. Besides, she can’t just wake up one fine morning and sign a deal. There have to be preparations — studies, meetings, and assessments, followed by more studies, meetings, and assessments — which take time and could easily outlast Hasina’s entire electoral term. So, let’s not expect anything in the next five years or speculate on what could happen afterwards.
Sheikh Hasina may have won a massive mandate and may be emotionally inclined to befriend us, but she can’t ignore the lingering doubts most Bangladeshis feel when it comes to dealing with India. Rightly or wrongly, they want to first see some positive Indian action on matters that have affected bilateral relations in the past, such as sharing river waters, fixing maritime boundaries, India’s lopsided trade with Bangladesh and passage for Bangladeshi goods through India to Nepal and Bhutan — something on the ground to prove that India means Bangladesh well. Unless that happens, the transit idea won’t fly.
It’s a question of rebuilding the trust that had once existed but is now practically gone. Let’s not argue why. If we desire to live as friendly neighbours, a blame game won’t help. Surely, with her huge mandate, Hasina is in a position to do her bit for the rebuilding exercise, but it’s in India’s bigger interest to lead that exercise and ensure that she doesn’t falter or fail.
There are three important reasons why India should turn away from its traditional negative position on dealing with neighbours — the we-move-if-they-move policy hasn’t been good for us — and take an approach that’s positive and proactive, where we seize the initiative and move to make others move.
First, Sheikh Hasina’s astounding victory is, for Bangladesh, like a return to its heady days of the early 1970s, full of hope, promise and goodwill; a new liberation of its spirit and a fresh beginning.
That gives us a second chance to rediscover our friendship. As we had then, we should once again be ready to open out our hearts and extend our helping hands. Only, this time around, it should be help they want to get and not what we wish to offer.
Second, the opportunity to mend fences comes at a time when our relations with Pakistan are at an all-time low. If only to prove to the world that we aren’t bad neighbours, it’s essential that we build up our relations with Bangladesh to an all-time high and take whatever steps need to be taken to make that possible. We can’t live with two unfriendly states on our flanks.
Third, if international terrorism is our enemy and we believe Pakistan, as its principal source, will use Bangladesh to make backdoor strikes, here’s one more reason why we should work proactively to improve the economic value of our friendship with Bangladesh and win the goodwill of its people. The forces that have brought Sheikh Hasina back in power would be prepared to fight extremists, too, but they must first be convinced that the fight is for their own good.