A new era?

On 13 January, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had just returned home from New Delhi to face a barrage of accusations that she had "sold out" to India over a raft of concessions on bilateral issues. The main opposition was denouncing the joint communiqué; the extreme right was marching on Dhaka's streets. And then into the fray jumped Virender Sehwag, captain of the touring Indian cricket team, raising nationalist hackles by describing his opponents as an "ordinary" side that lacked the quality to take 20 Indian Test wickets – that, too, in a pre-match press conference. While most cricket-loving Bangladeshis knew the remarks to be brutally accurate, they saw the delivery as loaded with a haughty derision that seems to be a regular feature of New Delhi's dealings with its smaller neighbours.

Then again, there is perhaps no good season for mutual concessions in Indo-Bangla relations, even without the damage that cricketers' insults can do. Prime Minister Hasina undertook a fierce political gamble when she headed to Delhi in the middle of last month. Besides mutually discussing security, movement of peoples and trade were the highlights of the visit. What stands out is that Bangladesh has granted India access to the key Mongla and Chittagong ports, on the country's coast. While Bangladesh has expressed its wish to grant similar access to Nepal and Bhutan, the joint communiqué that emerged from the summit gives no indication that India has agreed to grant those countries the transit they need to enjoy this concession. The issue of transit alone has cast a dark shadow over bilateral relations for much of the past decade, despite the fact that both countries stand to gain significantly from the resulting increase in trade and infrastructure development. While New Delhi has repeatedly indicated that progress on transit must precede progress on other outstanding bilateral issues, Bangladesh had held out thus far, knowing this was its strongest bargaining chip to extract concessions on issues such as water-sharing and trade.

New Delhi would have known well that the Bangladeshi prime minister would be expected to return with concrete and reciprocal concessions in exchange for the transit she granted. And yet, Prime Minister Hasina came merely with a clutch of vague assurances on the issues that top Bangladesh's agenda. The concessions she did bring back (among them a USD 1 billion line of credit and a 250-megawatt power purchase from India's national grid), while significant, were not nearly reciprocal to the transit facility to the ports. Some in Bangladesh see this as the typical apathy with which New Delhi treats Bangladeshi concerns, while others have underscored the need for pragmatism and unilateral gestures for a change in foreign relations in the neighbourhood.

The business lobby and economic think tanks have by and large lauded the transit agreement, and justifiably so, for the trade and employment it will likely generate in Bangladesh. But the praise is qualified with the observation that India needs to do more to remove barriers on Bangladeshi imports. And while the latest set of pacts will undoubtedly be welcomed if they translate into concrete investment and jobs, blogger and activist Asif Saleh, in a recent piece indicative of the public mood, warned that the onus will now be on New Delhi. "[I]f it does nothing to remove the threats of upstream dam projects," Saleh wrote, "or to stop the killing of civilians by Indian paramilitary forces at the border, while the trade imbalance between the country continues in India's favour and the security rhetoric continues to reflect Indian perceptions and prejudices and not Bangladeshi reality, there will be a heavy political price to pay."

Mine the gap
Despite the porous borders that are a feature of many parts of Southasia, the low volume – only four percent – of official intra-regional trade is a telling indicator of the plight of regional relations. While much trade does occur between Bangladesh and India through illicit channels (below the radar of taxes and duties), this only further underscores the gains to be had by removing the existing non-tariff barriers, which not only weaken governments through shrinking revenue and regulatory irrelevance, but also strengthen illegal power centres in the same ways.

The new transit deal is also plagued with the uncertain subtext of how it will change New Delhi's interactions with some of the insurgent states of the Indian Northeast. "Will India's transit access allow it to move military hardware through Bangladeshi territory into states like Assam and Manipur?" asks veteran journalist Ataus Samad. According to Samad, the transit agreement has been drawn up in broad brushstrokes, while it is the fine print that will ultimately determine whether they bring justifiable economic gains for Bangladesh when adjusted for political costs. "My apprehension is that the movement of military hardware to the eastern states might also ruffle feathers in Yangon and Beijing, increasing the stakes for Bangladesh's involvement," Samad adds. As noted by Samad and others, there is also the worry that Bengali-speaking people in Assam could come under the scanner for United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) militants, should Dhaka be seen as becoming involved in internal matters.

The security deals that Prime Minister Hasina agreed to are similarly plagued with apprehensions, largely addressing New Delhi's growing concerns about crossborder 'terrorism', and allowing for extradition of detainees. There is little doubt that governments across the region need to be cooperating much more to combat the spectre of militant groups that are mining the gaps in neighbourly relations. However, the lack of a security pact had not stood in the way of Bangladesh secretly handing over two arrested ULFA leaders (Arabinda Rajkhowa, chairman of the ULFA, and its publicity secretary, Apurba Baruah) to Indian authorities in December. In certain ways, Bangladesh's cooperation on India's security objectives was inevitable, given that India is fast emerging as the franchisee of the US security agenda in the region. But in so doing, Dhaka also faces the risk of being equated with Washington (and New Delhi by proxy) in the eyes of radical groups – a plight suffered by regimes in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In this regard, the Hasina regime must better demonstrate how Bangladesh stands to gain from its security pacts with India.

Still, despite the outstanding issues that remain to be resolved, much of the brouhaha over Prime Minister Hasina's recent trip could be overblown. As journalist Zafar Sobhan recently pointed out, overly harsh critics are largely missing the point. Parsing the agreement's details is futile, he says, as the pact "is not a treaty. Nothing in it is binding. It is, at most, a statement of intent that reflects the atmospherics of the meeting." Sobhan and others have pointed out that the Bangladeshi prime minister's gesture to concede on a number of contentious issues presents an opportunity for India to reciprocate – and, possibly, to change how anti-Indianism polarises Bangladeshi politics.

The 250 megawatts of electricity that India has agreed to supply to power-starved Bangladesh will undoubtedly dampen some of the antagonism over the concessions granted. But ordinary Bangladeshis will also look for New Delhi's gestures in the areas of water-sharing and border killings as being reciprocal. Despite repeated assurances from Indian officials that the Border Security Force (BSF) will practise restraint, more than a hundred Bangladeshi civilians are killed every year, on average, by BSF fire. According to the Dhaka-based human-rights group Odhikar, between January 2000 and July 2009 a total of 789 Bangladeshis were killed, 846 injured and 895 abducted by the BSF. Despite the misery these deaths cause, and the anti-Indian sentiments this phenomena fans, New Delhi has failed to provide any substantial assurance that the killings will stop after the latest summit.

The Indian government has chosen to remain equally obtuse with regards to growing concerns over the devastation that the planned Tipaimukh Hydroelectric Dam, in Manipur, will visit on lower-riparian Bangladesh. To ordinary Bangladeshis, the joint statement that "India would not take steps on the Tipaimukh project that would adversely impact Bangladesh" reads like disingenuous diplomat-ese, masking outcomes that are already predictable for everyone. Water experts and ecologists have warned that the dam will cause desertification, water-logging and overall food security in the heavily populated Surma basin in Bangladesh. Unless the Hasina regime can show a substantial change in the traditional way that New Delhi has approached Bangladesh's bilateral agenda, it will be increasingly difficult for her government, not to mention South Block, to sell the idea of a new era of Indo-Bangla relations to a wary public.

~ Mahtab Haider is a Dhaka-based freelance journalist and a photographer for the Associated Press.

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