Modi and Hasina on Common Sea


INDIA and Bangladesh have broken new grounds during the Modi visit. The understanding was borne out of the necessity for both countries to give top priority to their economic development. If India agreed to allow Bangladesh to use its territory to access markets in Nepal and Bhutan, Bangladesh agreed to allow Indian cargo vessels to use its Chittagong and Mongla ports. Indian ships loaded with cargo for Bangladesh currently have to travel to Singapore to offload it onto vessels that bring it to Bangladesh. This will be the first time India and Bangladesh will utilise their common sea. It will have strategic implications as the Chittagong port was developed by China and is part of its famed ‘string of pearls’. China could use the commercial port for strategic purposes, particularly because it is also developing a deep sea port off the island of Sonadia at Cox’s Bazar, a fishing port 150 km south of Chittagong. Access to the Chittagong port is a milestone for India’s international trade and also as an expression of greater trust with Bangladesh. Of course, we must wait and see how Beijing reacts to this.

The two countries also settled the thorny 4,096-km-long land border issue, and while the leaders were exchanging instruments of ratification, in the distant enclaves on Indo-Bangla border, new vistas opened up for over 52,000 virtually stateless people who finally got a national identity. Modi sweetened the deal for the eastern neighbour with a slew of economic pacts and a $2-billion line of credit before bonding with his Bangladesh counterpart Sheikh Hasina over some khaman dhokla and veg Hyderabadi biryani at a state banquet.

Sheikh Hasina played a bold and significant role in getting the agreements through. Ever since she came to power in December 2008 she has faced serious political challenges from right-wing parties and fundamentalist organisations such as Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen which enjoy Pakistan’s support. These groups are united in undermining her efforts to improve ties with New Delhi. Considering these factors, Sheikh Hasina deserves appreciation for not letting the Modi visit end up in the mere rhetoric of ‘strengthening bilateral economic and cultural ties’ and ‘resolving to settle all disputes amicably’. She knew India wanted a course correction in Delhi-Dhaka ties and she responded very positively, because she saw it was in her country’s interest too.

To put the final seal on all agreements there was Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee who Prime Minister Modi invited to accompany him to his Dhaka trip. West Bengal shares border with Bangladesh and many bilateral issues are intertwined. Back in 2011, former prime minister Manmohan Singh had faced stiff opposition from Mamata Banerjee on the Teesta water-sharing issue with Bangladesh. Singh had wanted to sign a pact Mamata said was not going to be in favour of West Bengal. Teesta runs through north Bengal and Bangladesh and how much share of its waters each country gets has always been disputed by the leaders of the countries. Modi, given his political discord with Mamata, could have travelled to Bangladesh without her and signed a pact on water sharing. However, India had learnt from the problems posed by the state government of West Bengal in the past, and they did not want the same thing to happen this time. It was clear that water-sharing issues could not be resolved without West Bengal’s involvement.

It is important to note here that while Teesta water-sharing might not be as significant as the Land Border Agreement in Modi’s scheme of things and India-Bangladesh diplomacy, it was an issue that was very close to Mamata’s heart because it is a highly sentimental issue for West Bengal and the people of the state have a strong sense of injustice on water sharing. It is fair to say that both Modi and Mamata put aside their politics in the nation’s interest in Dhaka. However, back in India, both the leaders would be adversaries again and try to make as much political capital out of their Dhaka engagement as possible. But that’s fair. It should be left to the people of West Bengal to judge whom to give credit for Teesta pact when the state goes to vote in 2016.

Good relations with Bangladesh are important to India. Better economic ties with Bangladesh can be a major stabilising factor for the South Asian region as a whole. The agreements signed during the Modi visit have created a cordial atmosphere; however, both countries need to do much more to reduce mutual trust deficit.  India, being the bigger and economically powerful of the two, should take the lead by initiating more generous and constructive steps to improve relations with Bangladesh in the coming years.