Sheikh Hasina’s India Visit: Gains and Gaps

Dr. Shahriar M. Shams

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has concluded her two-day official visit to India from 21-22 June. It was her first bilateral visit to New Delhi after Narendra Modi formed a government for a straight third term. Earlier in the month, Sheikh Hasina had attended the swearing-in ceremony of the Modi government along with several leaders from the South Asia region. During a bilateral meeting in New Delhi’s Hyderabad House on June 22, the two leaders discussed vital issues ranging from water deals to defense ties. After the meeting, the leaders expressed their determination to advance Bangladesh-India relations by strengthening cooperation in various fields, including trade and connectivity.

In a bid to strengthen bilateral relations, Dhaka-Delhi signed 10 MoUs in their presence, out of which seven are new. The new MoUs cover maritime economic cooperation and research in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean region, as well as digital partnership and rail connectivity to materialize the shared vision of the two countries’ green partnership for a sustainable future. In addition, cooperation in joint small satellite projects, Cooperation in postal, telecommunication and information technology and military education were included in the MoU. Besides, three MoUs in fisheries cooperation, disaster management, and health and medicine cooperation were renewed during this time.

The two sides agreed on forming a Joint Technical Committee to initiate discussions for the renewal of the Ganges Water Sharing Treaty of 1996. The treaty signed on December 12, 1996, stipulated a formula for the sharing of water of the Ganges between upper riparian India and lower riparian Bangladesh at Farakka Barrage, built in the 1970s across Bhagirathi, one of the headstreams of the transboundary river system. The treaty has a validity of 30 years but had a provision for both sides to renew it after negotiations. The issue has been discussed when New Delhi and Dhaka had more than two years to negotiate for the renewal. It reflects that both countries have prioritized the issue due time, which may pave a way for timely and sustainable solution for the Ganges water.

Both sides agreed to start talks on the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) to take forward economic ties. In his remarks to the media, Modi said Bangladesh is India’s largest development partner, and New Delhi attaches the highest priority to its relations with this country. It is worth mentioning that a handful of development projects in Bangladesh are running under the Indian LoC. Meanwhile, trade between the two countries reached $16 billion, making India as Bangladesh’s largest export destination in Asia. India grants duty-free, quota-free access to Bangladesh on all items except alcohol and tobacco, which would end after Bangladesh’s LDC graduation in 2026. CEPA would be instrumental in gaining duty-free access to the Indian market even after Bangladesh’s LDC graduation.

A significant decision has been made to expand power and energy collaboration and to develop intra-regional electricity trade through the Indian grid. An announcement was made about the commencement of export of 40MW of power from Nepal to Bangladesh through Indian grid. This would open up new opportunities for harnessing the untapped regional potential of hydroelectricity. India and Bangladesh have agreed to start a bus service between Chittagong and Kolkata, along with 5 operational bus routes. They have also decided to start a new passenger train service between Rajshahi and Kolkata. Bangladesh Railways is connected to the Indian Railway network at five operational interchange points. Additionally, commercial services between Akhaura and Agartala are expected to commence soon. Besides, two more rail connectivity projects between India and Bangladesh are in the survey stage.

In addition to these, India sought to start a new rail route between West Bengal’s Gede and Assam’s Dalgaon on the Bhutan border using Bangladeshi territory. Although a proposal was made earlier, a formal discussion was held between the two Premiers. Later, India’s Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra, in a press conference, stated that India is set to conduct a trial run through the Gede-Darshana and Chilahati-Haldibari border within the next month. The proposed route will be the first rail transit facility between the two neighbors. Although the rail transit will usher in a new chapter in Bangladesh-India connectivity, it has evoked mixed reactions among the people of Bangladesh. Since it offered India multimodal transit and transshipment facilities using its roads, railways, rivers, and seaports, it expected an equal gesture from India. The expectation didn’t come true as Bangladesh was not granted transit to Nepal and Bhutan, which would ease its trade and connectivity to the South Asian nations.

Using the route to transport goods between two parts of India would save both time and money. Bangladesh should negotiate for a fair share of the benefit as a toll for the use of its railways. Bangladesh will benefit if India bears the expenses of route development and management under the terms of the agreement. Also, the route could be instrumental in establishing direct rail communication with Bhutan.

During the bilateral talks, Bangladesh and India were agreed on military and security issues. India extends its help to Bangladesh in defense production and modernization of the army. It implies New Delhi’s continuous efforts to counter Chinese footprints, as it believes China increased its engagement with Bangladesh. To fulfill India’s ambitious vision of emerging as a regional counter-power to China, India needs Bangladesh as its closest ally in the Indian Ocean Region. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s two consecutive visits in a month imply Bangladesh’s growing importance to India due to its geopolitical proximity. Explaining the importance that India attaches to its relations with Bangladesh, Modi said the country lies at the confluence of New Delhi’s Neighborhood First policy, Act East policy, Vision SAGAR and Indo-Pacific vision.

Like every other time, during the Prime Minister’s visit, the Teesta issue drew all the attention of the people in Bangladesh. Although the issue was discussed, it could not show any hope regarding the resolution. India ensures that a technical team will soon visit Dhaka for talks on the conservation and management of Teesta. It implies that New Delhi is eager to be involved in the Teesta River restoration project instead of sharing water. Though Bangladesh was eyeing an alternative solution named Teesta River Management and Restoration project with the help of China, it was always a second choice for them. An agreement to share the water is the best viable solution.

In conclusion, Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India underscores the evolving and multifaceted relationship between Bangladesh and India. Addressing the areas from maritime cooperation to digital partnerships and rail connectivity signifies a robust commitment to enhance bilateral ties and highlight both nations’ strategic and economic priorities. Balancing relations with both China and India, Bangladesh continues to assert its importance in the South Asian region, leveraging its position to foster development and regional stability. Despite unresolved issues like the Teesta water-sharing agreement, the willingness to engage in dialogue and cooperation across various sectors reflects a positive trajectory in Bangladesh-India relations. Thus, Sheikh Hasina stated, “India is our major neighbor and a trusted friend,” and Dhaka greatly values its relations with New Delhi which were born in “our war of liberation in 1971”.

[Author: Dr. Shahriar M. Shams, Ph.D. is a columnist and political analyst, a MEXT Scholar, and currently serving at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University, Bangladesh]

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinion of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of News Sense and News Sense does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.


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