India-Bangladesh relations stand on a different level, says Veena Sikri

Veena Sikri, India’s former high commissioner in Bangladesh
Veena Sikri, India’s former high commissioner in Bangladesh and professor at MMAJ Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia, tells Aditi Phadnis in connectivity projects, there is strong business interest for both countries. She also explains why China’s growing overtures towards Bangladesh won’t affect its ties with India. Edited excerpts:

The PM is visiting Bangladesh later this week. What will be on the agenda?

PM Narendra Modi’s visit is extraordinary as a triple celebration. It is the Golden Jubilee of Bangladesh’s independence, the Golden Jubilee of Bangladesh India diplomatic relations and the birth centenary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Bangladesh and India have agreed to jointly celebrate these historic occasions, and this speaks volumes for the strength and closeness of our friendship.

 Fifty years ago, India and Bangladesh were shoulder to shoulder, brothers in arms against the genocide by the Pakistan army. In these 50 years, the friendship has deepened… The two prime ministers last week inaugurated the Maitri Setu on the river Feni which is a very special because it connects Sabroom in Tripura with Chittagong port in Bangladesh, which is only 80 km away from the Indo-Bangla border. This makes the whole of the northeast, just 80 km from the harbour. From Agartala, you have a railroad connection to the northeast, as well as a road connection… The two PMs are also going to inaugurate a new train connection between Dhaka and New Jalpaiguri. Today there is strong inter-connectivity in the power grids of India and Bangladesh. In all these connectivity projects, there are benefits and business interest for India, as well as Bangladesh. Transporting products on waterway, an environmentally friendly and cheaper way to transport goods, has begun. The World Bank has just released an in-depth study, pointing out that connectivity projects between the two can add 17 per cent to Bangladesh’s GDP and 8 per cent to India’s.

PM Sheikh Hasina has described India as “our true friend”. The extent of the joint celebrations bears this out.   

The overhang of domestic politics has affected India-Bangladesh relations, too. Could you outline some of the issues that have dogged relations?

In such a close and important relationship, there are bound to be differences. But the important thing is: whenever issues come up they are discussed and high level visits are exchanged. Everything is put in the right perspective, solutions are found…India and Bangladesh have solved to mutual satisfaction the difficult issues of their land boundary, including exchange of enclaves, and the maritime boundary. The Ganga Waters Treaty was concluded way back in 1996, and is working well, and the MoU on the river Feni was signed in 2019. Discussions are underway for preparing the framework of water-sharing arrangements for six more rivers.

 It is important that Bangladesh and India move ahead on concluding water-sharing arrangements on other common rivers, especially the Teesta, and there is goodwill at the highest level in India on doing this, but domestic politics at the state level has stymied this.

There was a time when the CAA and NRC were being talked about as issues of concern to Bangladesh. Look at it today! Nobody talks about it anymore. It is not even an issue in the West Bengal elections. 

India’s relations with China and Pakistan have their impact on relations with Bangladesh. Chinese investments in Bangladesh are growing. There is recent evidence of a thaw in Bangladesh-Pakistan relations. What does this mean for India?

India-Bangladesh relations stand on a different level altogether. The strength of our relationship comes from mutual benefit, and the bedrock of people-to-people relationships. India issues visas each year for more than 1.6 million Bangladeshis, most between any two countries. Can China and Pakistan replicate this?

 Under the leadership of PM Sheikh Hasina, the Bangladeshi economy is doing extremely well, and many countries are wooing Bangladesh. China is within its rights to want to develop relations with  it. China makes huge announcements, but on the ground, what percentage of those investments have actually materialised? 

 The reality of good neighbourly relations was visible during the Covid-19 pandemic, when India offered every assistance to our friends  in South Asia, whether through PPEs, masks, medical training for doctors, and now the vaccine. India has gifted 2 million doses of the vaccine to the people of Bangladesh, over and above the commercial arrangements made by Bangladesh to secure the vaccine from India. 

Pakistan talks about good relations with Bangladesh. In principle, Bangladesh encourages friendship with all, but only recently, it reiterated at the highest level the genocide and atrocities committed by Pakistan in 1971 can never be forgotten or forgiven.

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