Menu Close

India Bangladesh Relations

India Bangladesh relations UPSC

Bangladesh is one of the most culturally and ethnically integrated country with India. The two countries share a long land boundary of 4096 km, the longest that India shares with any of its neighbours. They also share a maritime border. Besides, both countries have 54 common rivers. The national anthem of both nations was composed by the same Nobel laureate, writer and poet, Rabindranath Tagore. It can be said that India and Bangladesh share an organic relationship.

 In 2021, India and Bangladesh celebrated 50 years of their bilateral relations. There is widespread acknowledgement of and appreciation for India’s role in the Bangladesh War of Liberation. Thus, India enjoys a goodwill in Bangladesh.

However, like any bilateral relation, India-Bangladesh relation has also been a journey of ups and downs. In the last fifty years, the relations between the neighbours have evolved and matured, and as the axis of geopolitics shift towards Asia, the relations between these neighbour matter even more.

Evolution of India-Bangladesh Relations

The relations between India and Bangladesh evolved in different phases. The nature of the relations were mainly shaped by the developments  within Bangladesh. The broad phases of these relations can be said to be: 1) The Mujib era, 2) The period of military rule till 1990, 3) End of military rule and establishment of multi-party democracy 1991-2009 and 4) Phase of One Party Dominance

1971-1975 : Bangladesh’s Liberation and Mujibur Rahman’s Era

While Bangladesh was declared an independent nation on 26 March 1971, it took almost 9 more months for Bangladesh to become truly liberated from Pakistan. With end of Bangladesh Liberation War in Dec 1971, India was the first nation to recognise Bangladesh as an independent nation and establish diplomatic ties with it. India played a significant role in Bangladesh War and in 1972, India and Bangladesh signed the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation (expired in 1997).

The leader of new nation, Mujibur Rahman espoused the ideals of socialism and secularism, and emphasised on Bengali identity. He advocated for good relations with India. Thus, there was optimism regarding India-Bangladesh relations. India supported Bangladesh in its liberation war and thus it expected that the new nation would never cause Indian strategic concern in the east. In return, India would be unstinting in material and moral support to the nation.

1975-1990: Era of Military Rule

In 1975, Mujibur Rahman was assassinated in a coup. His daughters Sheikh Hasina and Rihana along with their family members found asylum in India till 1981.

The coup was engineered by elements in the army and civil society, supported by US, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and China. General Zia-ur-Rehman came to power who emphasised on the Muslim identity of Bangladesh. Thus, Islam was declared the state religion and the official policy of Dacca changed with respect to India. Now, the policy was to keep a distance from India. Meanwhile, the relations with Islamic forces like Pakistan and big powers like the US and China gained more importance for Dhaka. India, thus, got relegated from its position of an unique ally.

Several factors led to this shift. Firstly, the devastation of war along with the effects of deadly cyclone of 1970, internal displacement, famine, etc., made Bangladesh heavily dependent on foreign aid. By 1990, foreign aid had become a defining feature of Bangladesh’s foreign policy. Although India supplied various kinds of aid, it was completely absent in the index of leading donors to Bangladesh. Thus, countries like Saudi Arabia entered the picture whose aid, often linked to Islamic causes, increased Bangladesh’s dependence on these countries.

Further, having seceded from Pakistan, Bengali nationalism began to lose traction and the focus returned to religion. Islam became the primary national identity and a mobilizing force for the post-Mujib leaders. Thus, Bangladesh’s relations with Pakistan and OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) revived while it deteriorated with India. Indira Gandhi’s efforts to revive the relations did not prove to be much fruitful.

During this phase, the contentious issue of Farakka barrage gained traction.

Farakka Barrage

Farakka Barrage is a dam on the river Ganga in Farakka in West Bengal, about 11 miles from Bangladesh’s border. India began constructing this dam in 1976-77 without a formal agreement with Bangladesh.

The river Ganga flows into the Bay of Bengal after passing through India and Bangladesh. In West Bengal, the river diverges into two streams : Hooghly that flows through West Bengal, and Padma that enters into Bangladesh.

India maintains that it needs the barrage for the purpose of flushing the Hooghly river to make it free from silt and therefore keep the port operational. On the other hand, Bangladesh objects to this project citing that as a lower riparian country its demand for a fair share in the Ganga water should be fulfilled by India which is vital for its south-western districts.

In light of this issue, Zia-Ur-Rehman proposed the idea of SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation). The idea was to unite the smaller nations of South Asia to balance India. However, the idea could not materialise then as in 1981 another coup took place in which Zia-Ur-Rehman was assassinated.

Post Zia-ur-Rahman’s assassination, Bangladesh started transforming itself from a largely agrarian society to a manufacturing hub. Meanwhile, in India, accumulation of foreign debt was leading to an impending balance of payment crisis. In this scenario, SAARC turned out to be beneficial idea to both the countries. Thus, in 1985, SAARC came into existence with 8 member nations.

A positive note came into Indo-Bangladesh relations when India, along with other nations, contributed in Operation Sea Angels. This operation was being run to help Bangladesh after it was hit by one of the deadliest cyclones.

1991-2009: Era of Multi-Party Democracy

In 1991, Bangladesh returned to a multi-party democracy. Relations began to improve to some extent. However, the nature of relations depended upon the party that was in power.

There are two major parties in Bangladesh: Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Awami League (AL). BNP is headed by Begum Khaleda Zia (the widow of Zia-ur-Rehman), who emphasizes on Bengali nationalism and Islamic identity. It is not favourably inclined towards India.

On the other hand, AL is headed by Sheikh Hasina (the daughter of Mujibur Rehman). AL professes the ideal of liberation war, mainly Bengali nationalism, secularism and socialism, and has a more favourable outlook towards India. The relation between India and Bangladesh often witness improvement when AL is in the government.

In 1991, (BNP) came to power. While Bangladesh and India (LPG) we’re prospering economically and expanding their markets and economy, Pakistan on the other hand was dealing with unrest, military overthrow of government, bomb blasts in Islamabad, poverty, shattering economy, unemployment and negative growth.

In 1996-2001 the AL came to power under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina. In this period, the water sharing agreement on Ganga was settled after 30 years. Meanwhile, India gave tariff concessions to Bangladesh to help the nation economically.

From 2001-2006, a coalition government was formed in Bangladesh. The BNP-JeI led government provided refuge to outfits like ULFA (United Liberation Front Association), and sponsored several anti-India forces in and from Bangladesh. Terrorist groups like Let, HulJi, etc. established their bases in Bangladesh. India accused Bangladesh of ignoring these developments, if not actively promoting anti-India jihadism on its land, sponsored by Al Qaida and its allies along with Pakistan’s ISI and Bangladesh’s own intelligence services. Consequently, the relations deteriorated in this period

2009-Present: Phase of One Party Dominance

The fourth phase of India Bangladesh relations began with the return of Awami League in in 2009, and its successive victories in 2014 and 2019. Since then, there has been consistent improvement in Indo-Bangladesh relations. In this phase, both the countries have shifted from being neighbours to partners in growth and economic development.

During UPA II government in India, both the countries agreed to land boundary agreement and Teesta water sharing agreement. However, the agreement could not substantiate due to objection from West Bengal’s Chief Minister Mamta Banerjee.

Bangladesh coordinated with India in dealing with security issues and tackling terrorist groups and militancy. In 2013, an Extradition treaty was signed and Bangladesh deported number of militants to India.

In 2015, a Land Boundary Agreement was signed between the two countries that further cemented the relations. This agreement resolved the contentious issue of land boundary demarcation between the two countries which was impending from years. According to Radcliff commission, India owned 111 enclaves in Bangladesh (15,000 hectare) side while Bangladesh owned 55 on Indian side (7,000 hectare). The issue was settled by 100th constitutional amendment (2015). Conclaves on either side were exchanged. Citizens were given choice to retain their nationality or acquire new one.

The last few decades have seen increasing cooperation between the two neighbours in different arenas. These range from trade to strategic partnership to connectivity and energy supply.

Areas of cooperation between India and Bangladesh

Bangladesh holds huge significance for India. It can be gauged by the fact that Bangladesh is not merely central for India’s ‘Neighbourhood First policy’ but also crucial for New Delhi’s ‘Act East policy’ which aims to cement ties between India and South East Asia.

Geopolitically, Bangladesh is an important partner for India for the following reasons.

  • Security of North-East
  • Bridge to Southeast Asia
  • Securing sea lines of communication
  • Fighting terrorism and deradicalization
  • Balancing assertive China

However, India-Bangladesh relations is multi-dimensional and transcends mere geopolitical considerations. There are several other arenas as well where Bangladesh and India work in synergy.

Economic Engagement

Bangladesh is India’s biggest trading partner in South Asia while India is the second largest trading partner of Bangladesh. In FY23, the total trade between the two countries touched USD 14.22 bn. India has provided duty free access to Bangladesh on all goods except tobacco and alcohol under South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) since 2011. Six border haats have been approved by India and Bangladesh government.

In April 2023, both the countries agreed to settle a part of bilateral trade transactions in their own currencies. The two countries are also preparing to sign the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) for substantial enhancement of trade and commercial partnership between the two countries. This will increase job opportunities and raise the standard of living in both the countries.

However, there are some challenges too in the trade relations between the two countries including huge trade asymmetry, issue of non-tariff barriers, lack of proper infrastructure to ensure smooth flow of goods, etc.

Nonetheless, several areas hold immense opportunities for India and Bangladesh to further deepen their trade relations. These include cotton production, manufacturing of pharmaceuticals as well as trading of agricultural products.

Connectivity

Connectivity is vital for India and Bangladesh for a smooth flow of goods across the border. Better trade infrastructure benefits the bordering states of both the nations, raising the level of income. Besides, Bangladesh is India’s gateway to its North eastern states as well as South East Asia.

Currently, there are several operational rail links connecting the two countries. The Haldibari-Chilahati rail link is functional since 2020. Three train services are currently operation between countries namely Maitree Express, Bandhan Express and Mithali Express. Mithali Express, connecting northern part of West Bengal with Dhaka, was inaugurated by the Prime Minister’s of both the countries in 2021.

Apart from that, the Kolkata–Dhaka Bus (1999) and the Dhaka–Agartala Bus (2001) are the primary road links between the two countries.

Further, India uses Bangladeshi ports for northeast. In this, Bangladesh is also benefitted by the traffic coming through the ports.

BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal) Motor Vehicles Agreement is a multinational corridor aiming to enhance connectivity in the eastern states of South Asia. The agreement will permit the member states to ply their vehicles in each other’s territory for transportation of cargo and passengers, including third country transport and personal vehicles. Currently, Bhutan’s parliament has not approved the corridor. However, it is functional in the other three countries. (An existing bilateral agreement between Bhutan and India already permits seamless vehicle movement between the two countries.)

Energy

India and Bangladesh cooperate in energy sector as well. Currently, Bangladesh imports 116MV of energy from India. Joint Working Group (JWG) / Joint Steering Committee (JSC) have been established to provide institutional framework to provide bilateral cooperation in cross border trade of electricity.

Tourism

Tourism is a big aspect of India-Bangladesh relations, especially medical tourism. A large number of people from Bangladesh visit India for getting medical treatment. More than 35% of India’s international medical patients are from Bangladesh. That alone contributes to more than 50% of India’s revenue from medical tourism.

Cooperation at Multilateral Platforms:

India and Bangladesh are partners in several regional multilateral organisations such as SAARC, BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Multi-sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) and Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).  During COVID, both countries showed solidarity in setting up of SAARC Emergency Response Fund to counter effects of global pandemic in South Asian region.

On global platforms, India and Bangladesh show solidarity on various issues. For example, Bangladesh supports India’s bid for a permanent seat in UNSC. Also, both countries are working together in achieving SDGs.

Defence cooperation

Various Joint exercises of Army (Exercise Sampriti) and Navy (Exercise Milan) take place between the two countries. Unfortunately, India’s defence engagement with Bangladesh is much lower that that of China. China is the only country which has formal defence agreement with the Indian neighbour, while India’s efforts in the direction are always marred with suspicion.

Other Areas of Cooperation

India and Bangladesh also cooperate in promoting cultural unity between the two nations. Politically, India supports the democratic institutions and values in Bangladesh.

Highlighting that both Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina are talking about a ‘Shonali Adhyay’ or a Golden Chapter in the bilateral relations between India and Bangladesh, C Rajamohan holds that political stability and policy continuity have helped Delhi and Dacca deepen bilateral ties over the last decade. He also says that Delhi and Dacca have started finding ways to overcome the tragedy of partition to chart a new course of bilateral and regional cooperation.

Major irritants between India and Bangladesh

While India Bangladesh relations have flourished since 2009, there are certain issues that pose a challenge to these cordial relations. These include demarcation of land and maritime boundary, shelter to Indian insurgent groups, illegal migration, water sharing, human trafficking, drug trafficking, balance of trade, transit rights, the China factor, etc.

Illegal Immigration

A large number of migrants, including refugees as well as economic migrants from Bangladesh, enter illegally into India. This is a pressing issue in India, especially in the North-eastern states bordering Bangladesh who fear that their resources, security as well as culture is being compromised.

The Supreme Court’s direction to government to conduct a National Registration of Citizenship (NRC)  in the state of Assam raised concerns in Bangladesh. The Rohingya crisis has further complicated the issue.

Views of Vina Sikree

An ex diplomat, Sikree primarily comments on the issue of illegal migration. She highlights that “migration between the countries cannot be stopped, the aim should rather be to regularise it through better work visa regime.” Also, “the pull and push factor responsible for migration should be addressed.”

Further, she points out that “climate change is going to aggravate the issue. As a low lying state, Bangladesh will bear the brunt of climate change and thus pushing more population to migrate. Thus, only a long term solution can mitigate the problem.”

The China Factor

Since 1975, both AL and BNP have favoured good relations with China. Meanwhile with India, AL favours good relations while BNP doesn’t. Bangladesh leaning towards China would be detrimental for India’s regional standing and strategic aspirations.

In 2002, Bangladesh (BNP) signed a defence cooperation agreement with China. In 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a visit to Bangladesh where the relation between Bangladesh and China was elevated to being strategic partners. In 2017, China supplied 2 Ming class submarines to Bangladesh. Apart from this, Bangladesh is an active member of Belt and Road Initiative by China, under which China is investing heavily in Bangladesh.

Under its string of pearls strategy, China aims to encircle India by building strategic posts in India’s neighbour, to check India’s growing influence in the region. In this regard, the role of Bangladesh as a trusted partner of India becomes paramount. According to Muchkund Dubey, an ex-diplomat, “India needs to invest more in its neighbouring states to counter China.”

River Water Disputes

A long-standing dispute exists between India and Bangladesh over the appropriate allocation, and development, of the water resources of the Ganges River. A comprehensive bilateral treaty was signed by Indian Prime Minister H. D. Deve Gowda and Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in 1996 which talks about sharing of Ganges water at Farakka.

Currently, Teesta Water dispute is one of the major impediments in the cordial relations between India -Bangladesh relations. Teesta originates in Himalayas and flows through Sikkim, West Bengal to merge with Brahmaputra (Jamuna) in Bangladesh. While Bangladesh have sought equitable distribution of river water on lines of 1996 Ganga Water Treaty, the agreement has not been resolved due to objections from West Bengal government.

Apart from Teesta, negotiations are also underway for Feni and Barak river.

Drug Smuggling and human trafficking

There have been many incidences of cross border drug smuggling & human trafficking. Humans (especially children & women) are trafficked & various animal & bird species are poached through these borders.  

These issues need to redressed to strengthen the bilateral relations. Some measures could be the establishment of Joint Task Force to combat cross-border drug trafficking, implementing smart border management and establishing a digital connectivity corridor.

Views of scholars

S Jaishankar

In a recent interview, EAM S Jaishankar labelled India-Bangladesh relations as “model relationship” in the Indian subcontinent.

“All relations naturally rest on the historical foundations. The relationship between our two countries are in many ways a continuation of the bonds that were forged in blood, fifty years ago.”

C Rajamohan

C Rajamohan holds that there is need for both countries to continuously tend the relationship to realise the full potential of the bilateral ties.

He points that the first challenge is the strong state-weak state asymmetry. In this scenario, Delhi needs to be a more proactive player and engage Bangladesh. Meanwhile, keeping ‘enlightened self interest’ in mind, Bangladesh must realise that good relations with India is equally beneficial to Bangladesh as it is for India.

Keeping the geographical factor in mind, both the countries should work in synergy to sketch border and transit rights. “India and Bangladesh have normally worked against logic of geography. Geography naturally compulsates them to cooperate with each other.”

Muchkund Dubey

He holds that India has historically neglected its smaller South Asian neighbours. Now, India should increase its assistance to these states and start investing more. He cites China and says if China can invest billions in One Belt One Road initiative, India too should speed up.

S Chatterjee

Chatterjee draws attention to the role of domestic developments in shaping India-Bangladesh relations. In Bangladesh, for example, the change of power between AL and BNP bring inconsistency in India-Bangladesh relations. In India, on the other hand, regional governments like the TMC government in West Bengal have complicated the matters.

This needs to be addressed by accommodating them or subsuming then under larger national interest.

Conclusion

India and Bangladesh share an organic and a multi-faceted relation. A proactive involvement to increase cooperation and resolve impending issue will not only be beneficial for the two neighbours but for the whole region.

Posted in PSIR NOTES

Related Posts

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
2 Comments
Newest
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
suraj

thx sir but more current examples were needed ..hope u add them in next articles

Mayur

Thank you for your feedback Suraj. We’ll consider it under Current Affairs section.