Modi Visit Boosts India-Bangladesh Ties

By Jesmin Papri and Kamran Reza Chowdhury

2015-06-08
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150608-BD-leaders-620 Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (center) and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee attend the inauguration of international bus services in Dhaka, June 6, 2015.
AFP

During Narendra Modi’s first trip to neighboring Bangladesh as India’s prime minister, the two countries struck a host of bilateral deals and signed off on a protocol for a long-awaited borderland swap agreement.

Analysts applauded Saturday’s final resolution to the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA), as it is known, but some expressed disappointment that Modi and Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina made no public mention during his two-day visit about another bilateral sticking point: if and when the neighbors might strike a deal to share water from the Teesta River, which flows into northwestern Bangladesh via the Indian state of West Bengal.

“We really expected some sort of positive announcement about the Teesta Water-sharing issue, which is so vital for Bangladesh, but there was nothing,” Raziul Hasan, a former Bangladeshi diplomat who served in New Delhi, told BenarNews.

Bangladeshi hopes had been raised about a possible breakthrough on the issue, because West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee accompanied Modi on his trip. Her consent is crucial for such a deal.

Banerjee, who had refused to accompany Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh during his 2011 visit to Dhaka, remained silent on the issue during her 24-hour stay in Bangladesh.

But Banarjee’s presence was important, nevertheless, according to Devadeep Purohit, Delhi bureau chief of the Kolkata-based newspaper The Telegraph, who travelled with Modi to Bangladesh.

“She has realized on this trip that the issue is too important for the future relations of the two countries, and if Bangladesh doesn’t get its due share, it could hurt India’s interests,” he told BenarNews.

Modi did touch on the issue in a speech at Dhaka University on Sunday.

“Water cannot be a political issue; we need to solve the problem on the basis of human values,” he told the audience before returning to New Delhi.

Tasting freedom

The highlight of Modi’s trip was the signing of the LBA protocol, confirming the exchange of 9,822 hectares (24,270 acres or 38 square miles) of territory along the Indo-Bangladesh border.

The deal, which had been in place since 1974, was held up by political wrangling until the Indian parliament finally ratified it in May.

The LBA will allow 50,000 people living in enclaves on the wrong sides of the border to be absorbed into their respective countries. Many of the people living in these enclaves had been stateless for decades, and now they will be able to choose their nationality, Agence France-Presse reported.

“I have never dreamt that I would live to see myself become a citizen of any country,” Moinul Haq, a resident of an Indian enclave inside Bangladeshi territory, told AFP.

“We have finally tasted freedom after 68 years.”

Deals aplenty

Modi’s visit produced 19 other agreements, including on highway connectivity, security and energy. Altogether, these deals are expected to herald a new era of Indo-Bangladeshi cooperation.

On Saturday, Modi and Hasina jointly opened two bus routes connecting Shilong and Agartala to Kolkata via Dhaka. The new services will cut travel time substantially for travelers from the two cities in northeastern India, who had to take a long detour by bus in order to reach West Bengal’s capital.

“The agreement on connectivity is a big boon for India as it would benefit the northeastern states bordering Bangladesh,” Shahiduzzaman, a professor of International Relations at Dhaka University, told BenarNews.

Among other deals, India agreed to loan Bangladesh U.S. $2 billion for infrastructure development, Reuters reported. In addition, two Indian utility companies signed deals worth U.S. $4.5 billion with the state-run Bangladesh Power Development Board (BPDB) to develop power plants that will churn out 4,600 MW of electricity.

“But in all fairness, the agreements appear to benefit India more than Bangladesh,” Shahiduzzaman noted.

Yet at least one other expert said it was unfair to suggest that Bangladesh didn’t get much out of the bilateral deals signed during Modi’s visit.

“The agreements on renewal of bilateral trades, introducing coastal shipping, cooperation on maritime security, checking smuggling of fake currency, counter human trafficking are going to benefit Bangladesh a lot,” Harun-ur-Rashid, a former Bangladeshi ambassador who has written several books on Indo-Bangladeshi relations, told BenarNews.

A boost for bilateral ties

Overall, the visit clearly demonstrated Modi’s sincerity in improving relations with Bangladesh, observers say, especially after Sheikh Hasina displayed her resolve to drive out Indian separatists from Bangladesh.

“Security is a big issue for India and our prime minister has been able to convince them that they should have faith in her in terms of dealing with the security issue,” Mohiuddin Ahmed, a former diplomat, said.

In his speech at Dhaka University, Modi praised Hasina for her “zero tolerance” policy on fighting terrorism.

“They [terrorists] don’t have any country, any ideal or culture. Their only identity is that they are the enemies of humanity,” he said in Dhaka.

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