By Akmal Hussain
The foreign policy of Bangladesh is very much characterised by its focus on the biggest neighbour India not only due to geographic location but also because of history, economic compulsions and security imperatives. But during the last four decades Bangladesh-India relations have progressed along a zigzag line. Bangladesh has sometimes come closer to India or maintained a distance, depending on the political preferences of the governing regimes.
The two major parties, Awami League and BNP, have different assessment about India and accordingly they take different approaches to formulate India policy. Public opinion in the country is critical of India as being hegemonic. Bangladesh foreign policy cannot be but India-centric in the existing strategic environment in South Asia. The governing elites either perceive India vitally important as an ally or a threat to our country's security for economic, military or environmental reasons.
In the foreign policy establishment of India, Bangladesh has not always been painted as a positive friend. In particular, Bangladesh has quite often been linked to what ruling elites in India say anti-Indian activities from its soil. There is an upward swing in bilateral relations during Awami League rule. But the relations quite often become strained during BNP rule and India's attitude to Bangladesh also gets stiffened. These two parties have not demonstrated any common approach on how to deal with India on issues like water, transit, trade and north eastern insurgents.
We should differentiate between Bangladesh-India relations at official level from the non-official or people's level. People in general in Bangladesh are keen to maintain cordiality and warmth with the Indian people. A steady rise in people-to-people contact in both countries has been noticed. But official policy makers are guided by assessment of national interest. The policy stance of successive regimes in India on bilateral disputes with Bangladesh has divided Bangladesh policy makers into what might be called "soft to India" and "hard to India" camps. Ironically, some opinions in India did not appear to be projecting the grievances of Bangladesh people objectively. They would call them "paranoia," "communalism" or "religious extremism."
There is no doubt that under the present Awami League government Bangladesh-India relations have gained new dimensions. Other than the official levels, visits at political level have been taking place regularly to push bilateral relations to a new height. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's visit to India in 2010 set this trend, which was claimed to have changed the "mindset about Bangladesh in India," "benefited Bangladesh more than India," etc. During the visit the two countries signed three agreements and two memoranda of understanding having significant implications for bilateral relations.
In continuation of this visit ministerial visits from both sides have taken place. The Prime Minister of India Dr. Manmohan Singh is scheduled to visit Bangladesh on September 6-7, during which some more significant issues are expected to be addressed. Awami League and Indian National Congress have had common political ideology and programmes since 1971. This identity is reflected in their attitude to each other when they are in office. In the post-1975 acrimonious phase of bilateral relations this commonness disappeared and Bangladesh and India accused each of ignoring the other's interest.
There is much hope and aspiration centering on bilateral relations in both countries. It was visible during and after Sheikh Hasina's visit, and it is expected that the Indian prime minister's visit will further cement bilateral relations. However, one should not be swayed by emotion and euphoria in calculating the political and economic dividends of such visits. The present Awami League government has proved to India that it is a dependable ally by taking the Indian insurgents issue very earnestly.
Before Sheikh Hasina undertook her visit to India in January 2010 her government handed over ULFA insurgents to India. The Indian credit of $1billion has been publicised as a gesture to benefit Bangladesh. On realistic assessment of the projects to be undertaken this point seems more superficial than real. The building of infrastructure facilities with Indian credit benefits Indian transit through Bangladesh. Bangladesh commitment to allow India use of Mongla and Chittagong ports is vitally significant for India.
Because of its location, Bangladesh bears vital importance for transit with the northeastern states for India. The two sea ports of Chittagong and Mongla are similarly important for sea-borne trade of Indian east and northeastern states. It should be pointed out that India gives more weight to fulfilling its interest in Bangladesh than addressing Bangladesh's interests. Issues like water- sharing and lessening the trade deficits with Bangladesh do not get adequate attention from India. The waters of common rivers should have been equitably shared though, in practice, Bangladesh remains hostage to upstream use by India. Quite often, Indian planning regarding rivers, like river-linking or Tipaimukh project, inject bad feelings and vitiate the relations.
Considering this point the granting of transit to India may appear to be a one-sided action without any reciprocal gesture. The government advisers and officials engaged in negotiations with India regarding transit have not been able to identify the likely benefits, either in economic or political terms, of making transit concessions to India. The economic adviser does not make sense when he reportedly says that Bangladesh cannot be "uncivilised" by asking for monetary gain from India. Transit is not only an economic issue, it has ramification as a political issue too. Bangladesh could have used this as a bargaining point with India regarding India's reciprocal gesture.
We have learnt that border issues will be addressed in the forthcoming visit of the Indian prime minister. There is no doubt that the two neighbours can create a new environment along the border by sorting out the outstanding border problems. But, unless the highhanded attitude of BSF towards the "trespassers," that spills over to innocent Bangladesh citizens on Bangladesh soil, is stopped one cannot be quite hopeful about a peaceful border.
There is no doubt that visits at the highest political level can strengthen bilateral relations, but unless it benefits Bangladesh equally its significance will be little.
The writer is a Professor, Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka.
Source: The Daily Star, Dacca