Walking the Talk
If Modi’s discriminatory views are translated into a concrete policy, the BJP government stands the risk of losing its support in Bangladesh.
Although Bangladesh and India have maintained good relations, they have been unable to resolve their disputes.
In May 2014, Narendra Modi, the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, became Prime Minister of India. Despite this victory, Modi has a long way to go before he can strengthen India’s relations with Bangladesh. The Muslim-majority population in Bangladesh views Modi’s victory as a dark hour for regional cooperation among South Asian countries.
From the outset, Modi’s electoral campaign appears to have unjustly targeted Bangladesh. While campaigning in West Bengal, he adopted a hardline against Bangladesh and vociferously supported the expulsion of ‘illegal immigrants’. Narendra Modi’s reaction to the presence of Bangladeshi immigrants in India appears ignorant, bigoted and completely unjustifiable. If the discriminatory views are translated into a concrete policy, the BJP government stands the risk of losing its support in Bangladesh.
At this critical juncture, India cannot afford to jeopardize its relations with Bangladesh since it needs the latter’s cooperation to control insurgency in its northeastern states and consequently to develop transit facilities in Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya states.
In light of the current political climate, it is particularly disconcerting that Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina did not attend Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony.
A historical overview reveals that relations between India and Bangladesh have always been cordial. During Bangladesh’s liberation movement, India assisted East Pakistan and was the first country to recognize Bangladesh as an independent state. In a similar vein, Bangladesh has maintained bilateral trade with India which stood at USD5.3 billion in 2013. Interestingly, India has a vested interest in maintaining good relations with Bangladesh as it wants to weaken China’s influence in the local business sector.
Although it has maintained good relations with Bangladesh, India has been unable to resolve its disputes with the country. According to Obaidul Quader, a senior cabinet minister, a change of government in New Delhi will not mitigate India’s relations with Bangladesh.
Sheikh Hasina believes her government has tried to resolve the long-standing disputes with India involving the Teesta River dispute and the disputed boundaries. However, the BJP has adopted a lax attitude to finding an effective solution to these issues.
Recently, Bangladesh has raised its concerns about both issues with India’s new premier. The main reason for addressing the Teesta water and the land boundary issues shortly after the new government came to power was to gauge Modi’s reaction. If the BJP is averse to reaching a compromise,
Bangladesh’s predicament would remain largely ignored. Sheikh Hasina has already blamed Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, for the failure of both India and Bangladesh to sign the Teesta River water-sharing treaty. In order to avoid an ongoing blame game and another failed attempt at solving the problem, there is an urgent need for discussion and debate.
The Teesta water-sharing pact and the land boundary dispute remain pending issues that require immediate attention. The speaker who represented Bangladesh at the swearing-in ceremony of Narendra Modi’s cabinet raised both issues with the new premier at a bilateral meeting. However, the discussion remained, at best, weak and unproductive. The issue of the Tipaimukh dam along the Barak River in Manipur was not explicitly addressed. Moreover, the BJP’s support for removing illegal migrants from Bangladesh was largely overlooked.
Apart from a series of half-hearted promises, Modi was unable to provide valuable diplomatic assurances. On the contrary, he paid lip service to good diplomacy and guaranteed that every possible effort would be made to resolve the situation.
Despite the new government’s diplomatic stance, it is unlikely that Modi will be able to walk the talk. Before the electoral victory, there was considerable opposition within the BJP regarding the land boundary agreement. The previous government made a consistent attempt to develop a political consensus on the boundary dispute. This ensured that the agreement come into effect and was not altogether discarded. Divergence of opinion within the BJP may hinder India’s diplomatic relations with Bangladesh.
Amid the doom and gloom scenario, the Bangladesh government has resigned itself to the fact that its efforts will bear no fruit. It has refused to set a date by which the Teesta River pact will come into force and is merely seeking to convince India to initiate progress. Once the dispute has been resolved, Bangladesh will gain considerable autonomy over its water resources.
Furthermore, the land boundary agreement, which has been pending for five decades, needs to be given serious attention.
However, it remains to be seen if any solution will be reached. Following the second budget session in the Parliament, the BJP has opposed several bills and impeded the legislative process. The Land Boundary Agreement 1974 between India and Bangladesh is also among the bills.
Further delays in ratifying the land boundary agreement could pose countless disadvantages. Once the bill has been passed, it would give India its longest demarcated land boundary and resolve the issues of adverse possession in certain territories. India currently has 111 enclaves in Bangladesh. On the other hand, Bangladesh has 51 enclaves on the Indian front. The inhabitants of the enclaves live in miserable conditions of poverty. The new government continues to cast a blind eye to their human rights. The BJP has falsely justified its opposition to the land boundary agreement on the grounds that India would lose several acres of land.
The refusal to pass the agreement could also weaken bilateral relations between Bangladesh and India. When general elections take place in Bangladesh, India’s inability to tackle these concerns would further eliminate any scope for progress. In fact, it would strengthen hostilities against India in Bangladesh. It is obvious that following the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, India cannot risk any further conflicts.
In order to develop an effective means of resolving issues that have been conveniently brushed under the carpet, the BJP government must adopt a more cohesive approach. Delaying decisions which should have been taken several decades ago is a sign of poor governance and lack of planning.
Bangladesh and India should cooperate with each other and ensure that the land boundary agreement is ratified. Similarly, the BJP must forsake its political agenda and give preference to national interests. Any new government that paralyzes the legislative process at the very beginning of its term cannot be relied upon to foster positive change.