That the bilateral ties between the two South Asian neighbours have been on an upward curve is beyond denial. This is manifest in the fact that between 2010 and now there has been four exchanges of visits at the level of heads of government. Each has been laced with cordiality, warmth and fond utterances for each other. It is not surprising, therefore, that this relationship, rooted as it is in history and conditioned by geography, finds its rightful place at the top of the foreign policy agenda in Bangladesh and a priority one in India.
The two major issues that drew most attention in the build-up to the visit were a possible defence related deal and whether there would be any forward movement on the thorny question of sharing of the waters of common rivers with special focus on Teesta.
While the first was signed, sealed and delivered, the second was again marked off as work in progress, albeit progress at a glacial pace. The significant difference this time was a public pronouncement by Prime Minister Modi that a solution to this matter would be found during the tenures of the respective governments in Dhaka and Delhi.
West Bengal Chief Minister’s suggestion: An alternative solution, suggesting that water from threeother rivers(Torsa, Dharla, Mansai) in West Bengal be diverted to Bangladesh on the grounds that there was not enough water in Teesta to share. The redeeming feature here is that officials in India, and sections of the media, were quick to dismiss this proposal because of its sheer absurdity. Subsequently, Bangladesh officials also rejected it, stating that Dhaka would count on the pledge made at the highest level from India.
While the West Bengal Chief Minister’s concerns for her constituents is understood, the sustained forward movement of Bangladesh-India relations in all fields should not be held hostage to those concerns. Delhi sincerely understands that, and Dhaka believes it.
During his official visit to Dhaka in 2015, Prime Minister Modi commented that “rivers should nurture the India-Bangladesh relationship and not become the source of discord”. He went a step further this time by publicly committing his government to a deal sooner rather than later. Initial steps on this are already underway in India. This is heartening and needs nurturing.
- However, not even a reference to the Joint River Commission, JRC, which was launched as early as 1972 specifically for this purpose, was a surprise as was the absence of a firmer pledge to cut down to zero the killing of Bangladeshis at the border.
- A significant event during this visit was the belated formal recognition from Bangladesh of the supreme sacrifices made by members of the Indian Armed Forces during its Liberation War in 1971.
More than 20 deals of varying shapes and covering a wide range of issues were signed following the official talks.
- India also offered to sell an additional 6o megawatt of electricity to Bangladesh and connectivity was boosted with new rail and road connections.
- A credit line of USD 4.5 billion from India was signed to cover costs related to multifarious projects, boosting Indian investments in Bangladesh, and cooperation on peaceful nuclear technology and in outer space.
- Furthering the ongoing cooperation on combatting trans-boundary terrorism and violent extremism was also agreed.
- The much talked about defence deal materialised with the signing of two major documents, one a framework Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) and the other a USD 500 million line of credit for the Bangladesh military. In form and content, the framework MoU is not much different from the ones Bangladesh has with others. In any case, defence cooperation between the two militaries has been on a constant rise in recent times. The deal provided a framework for institutionalising these links.
On balance, the outcome of this visit weighed more on the side of optimism than otherwise.