Foundation series

Prime Minister Hasina’s next visit to India: Building ties based on history

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is said to be in Delhi at a time when global and regional geopolitics are experiencing unprecedented levels of tension and uncertainty. FILE PHOTO: REUTERS


Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will visit India at a time when global and regional geopolitics are experiencing unprecedented levels of tension and uncertainty.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is said to be in Delhi at a time when global and regional geopolitics are experiencing unprecedented levels of tension and uncertainty. FILE PHOTO: REUTERS

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s official visit to India, his third visit since his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi took office in New Delhi, comes against the backdrop of a visible improvement in bilateral relations between the two southern neighbors. Asians, a relationship conditioned by an irreplaceable geography and irreversible history.

It is reasonable to assume that the outcome of this visit will help advance bilateral relations on several fronts. Over the past few years, tangible – and in some cases exponential – progress has been made in a number of areas. The most notable of these have been in the area of ​​multi-modal connectivity including energy connectivity, trade with a surge in Bangladeshi exports to India, India-funded infrastructure projects, linkages defence, security cooperation, cultural cooperation and general people-to-people contacts. . These will most likely be reinforced as part of the follow-up to the visit.

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A positive outcome of the Joint Rivers Commission (JRC) ministerial meeting scheduled before the Prime Minister’s visit would provide additional substance. Significant progress on sharing the waters of transboundary rivers, an agreement for which only exists on the Ganges, is an area that deserves particular attention. The lack of visible progress on this crucial issue has cast a shadow over the state of bilateral relations. It is in this context that the CCR meeting, the first in more than a decade, takes on particular importance.

The number of deaths of Bangladeshis at the border, although reduced in recent times, is another issue that deserves due attention. The number of zero deaths, often assured, remains an unfulfilled promise. Realistically, any discussion of the issue of Rohingya repatriation would be more lip service than substance, mainly because the key to any solution to it doesn’t lie entirely in Delhi – it lies elsewhere.

Over the past decade, a new phenomenon has appeared on the horizon which has added a new dimension to the bilateral relations between Bangladesh and India. Dhaka and Delhi have come to recognize the importance for Bangladesh of expanding its multiple contacts with Indian states neighboring Bangladesh to the north and east. Of these, ties with Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura have been significantly strengthened, as these three states share common borders with Bangladesh. There is also a historical element to this: these three states played a major role in supporting the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971 and provided shelter to countless refugees fleeing the Pakistani genocide. The multifaceted and historic contacts between Bangladesh and West Bengal are an existing reality; they do not need to be repeated. However, there is an understandable expectation in Bangladesh that the government of West Bengal will do whatever it takes to solve the long-standing problem of Teesta water sharing. It is a thorn that must be removed for the benefit of both parties.

Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura offer immense opportunities for connectivity, trade and investment, more so for Bangladesh. The local governments of the three states are very interested in it. During my recent visit to Guwahati as head of a 25-member delegation of freedom fighters, youth and journalists, I saw firsthand the willingness of the people and government of Assam to deepen contacts with Bangladesh. During our extended meeting with Chief Minister Dr. Himanta Biswa Sarma in Guwahati, he made clear his intention to forge closer connectivity and economic and cultural ties with Bangladesh. On more than one occasion, he expressed deep gratitude to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, for ensuring that Indian insurgents who had threatened peace and security in Assam in the past found neither shelter nor support. in Bangladesh. His exact words were: “Thanks to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the people of Assam can now sleep in peace. This has contributed to the economic development of Assam.” He also hoped to restore air links between Dhaka and Guwahati soon. The Chief Minister has accepted an invitation from the Government of Bangladesh and plans to visit Bangladesh early next year. It is hoped that the need to maintain the momentum of the growing ties between Bangladesh and the northeastern states will find due prominence in the talks, with Delhi’s full support. For Bangladesh, expanding ties to Manipur, Arunachal, Nagaland and even Sikkim would be mutually beneficial and expand our overall bilateral relationship. After all, northeast India is our hinterland.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is said to be in Delhi at a time when global and regional geopolitics are experiencing unprecedented levels of tension and uncertainty, with commensurate fallout on the global geoeconomics.

Just as countries like Bangladesh and India were recovering from the scourge of the Covid-19 pandemic and its debilitating health and socio-economic consequences, the Russian-Ukrainian war and subsequent sanctions against Russia have launched a new series of more serious challenges. Global supply chains have faced severe disruptions, energy supplies have become uncertain and expensive, and new geopolitical lines have been drawn. As the heat in Europe refused to subside, there were political and military rattles in the strategically important Asia-Pacific region, a geographic space of which Bangladesh and India are a part. This brings security concerns closer to home. Bangladesh and India are close to this increasingly unstable theatre.

In such a scenario, a substantial exchange of views should form an important part of the agenda of the talks in Delhi. The need for a calibrated response to situations as they evolve takes on added urgency. Bangladesh has let everyone know that it stands for peace and security and advocates restraint, patience and peaceful settlement of all issues. These are values ​​to which Bangladesh and India adhere. Bangladesh has also been adamant in declaring its intention not to be part of any military bloc, but is open to any beneficial regional and trans-regional economic framework. The recently proposed Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), of which India is a part, is something that Bangladesh is ready to consider positively. Detailed discussions on this should be part of the speech in Delhi.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India in September should therefore be an opportunity for Dacca and Delhi to take their relations outside the bilateral framework and become part of the vast Asia-Pacific framework. Working as partners in the greater Asia-Pacific region should be a natural extension of existing ties.

Any visit between Bangladesh and India at the summit level has its own weight and is subject to special scrutiny. The next one will be no exception. Notably, this takes on heightened importance as Bangladesh and India head towards national elections in 2023 and 2024, respectively. The agreements signed and the understandings reached in Delhi could form part of a roadmap for the long-term future, as both sides are expected to reaffirm their commitments to further broaden and deepen historical and strategic relations, both bilaterally and globally. wider regional context. In this, the twin principles of mutual accommodation and mutual benefit should be paramount and should be seen as such.

Shamsher M Chowdhury, Bir Bikram, is a former Foreign Minister of Bangladesh.