Bangladesh-India Relations and the New Horizons of Possibilities
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On the 21st of June, 2022, the Vivekananda International Foundation organized a talk on ‘Bangladesh-India Relations and the New Horizons of Possibilities’. Ambassador Shahidul Haque, former Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh, delivered the talk that was followed by round of discussions. Through touching upon Bangladesh’s geostrategic location and its geopolitical interactions in both a local and regional context, Ambassador Haque outlined the challenges and avenues of cooperation between the country and India.

Although a relatively young state, Bangladesh identifies itself as part of the ancient Indian civilization. In addition to its historical identity, Bangladesh also views itself through its critical geostrategic location in the Bay of Bengal. In the past, when it would engage in dialogue with other states, Bangladesh noted a dismissive narrative of itself- a small state with limited capacity to hold dramatic stakes in the economic development of the South Asian region. This narrative is slowly changing, with the likes of China, the United States and the European Union acknowledging the country’s economic growth and crucial geographic positioning in the Bay of Bengal.

While Bangladesh is both cognizant and appreciative of these new changes, it still harbours some reservations regarding global perceptions of its geostrategic identity. India, for example, does not necessarily view Bangladesh from the prism of the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GMB) Basin and as part of a common water ecosystem with itself. Since Bangladesh’s past, present and future are embedded in the waterways, it would like to be acknowledged as part of a mighty river ecosystem- going beyond solely trade and economic investment.

In terms of navigating its international engagements, there are two key issues over which Bangladesh disagrees with India. The first is over India’s membership in the QUAD and both countries’ current divergence in foreign policy and international relations specific to the Indo-Pacific. Secondly, Bangladesh is an active partner of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, while India is not. At this point, India needs to recognize that Bangladesh is strategically positioned in a region China wants to extend its sphere of influence over and that China is significantly dependent on Bangladesh to further these plans.

A similar discord between both countries is noted in the issue of connectivity. With connectivity being the manifestation of geopolitics, Bangladesh hopes for a level of connectivity spanning the linking of culture, people, reload-rail-air, the movement of goods and services and investment with India. However, by emphasizing physical connectivity, India has a more specific understanding of connectivity which is often at odds with Bangladesh’s take on the topic. While Bangladesh is highly aware and appreciative of the benefits it will reap from deepening physical connectivity, it hopes to particularly expand into the realms of technological and educational connectivity. This gap in understanding also trickles into some of India’s physical connectivity projects with Bangladesh. With more than 14 pending connectivity proposals, Bangladesh is keen on expediting these projects to establish the Bengal-Bihar-Orissa regional connectivity. All in all, there is a gap in framing, understanding and implementing connectivity between both countries, across academic and official discourse, that needs to be improved.

Regarding additional challenges to India-Bangladesh relations, both countries have noted a rise in ultra-nationalism within their domestic politics. Bangladesh has made conscious attempts to control the activities of Hefazat-e-Islam and would appreciate India doing the same. Secondly, both countries must discuss the issue of human mobility across borderlands, given India’s National Register of Citizens and Citizenship Amendment Act. Rampant corruption at border alongside deep cross-border cultural and societal linkages makes it challenging for both countries to manage borders. Additionally, it is also critical that Bangladesh and India hold a discussion of mutual concessions necessary to facilitate the easy sharing of water. Finally, India must consider Bangladesh’s changing terms and conditions regarding trade and business- given its imminent graduation from a least economically developed country.

Concerning the new areas of collaboration between both countries, rising tensions globally and in the South Asian region should translate to deepening security and defence engagements between India and Bangladesh. At the same time, both countries can explore furthering existing partnerships in the domain of energy security as well. Furthermore, it is also worthwhile to consider establishing a regional digital economy facilitating technological and educational exchanges between Dhaka and News Delhi. India should generously lift Bangladesh as it seeks to expand its influence into South East Asia and improve its levels of economic growth. It is critical that both countries determine sustainable solutions to the Rohingya issue promptly to prevent the growth of mistrust on this issue. Finally, India and Bangladesh could consider creating a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement to thrash out trade, business and connectivity challenges and strengthen the India- Bangladesh partnership.

Ambassador Haque concluded with a suggestion that the way forward for both states is dependent on removing misperceptions amongst people and facilitating open, uninhibited dialogue at all levels.

Event Date 
June 21, 2022

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