Academic journal article Indian Foreign Affairs Journal

India-Bangladesh Relations: A Dramatic Turnaround

Academic journal article Indian Foreign Affairs Journal

India-Bangladesh Relations: A Dramatic Turnaround

Article excerpt

The Context

When I took up my assignment as the Bangladesh High Commissioner to India in mid-2009, I had set for myself the ultimate goal: to somehow kick-start cooperation in the SAARC sub-region, defined as the South Asian Growth Quadrangle in 1997, which had since become moribund.1 At the same time, it was painfully clear to me that before reaching that distant mountain - or even commencing its ascent - one would first have to overcome and, if possible, dramatically change the deeply entrenched mindset that was holding the relations between the two nations in this sub-region hostage. The relations between Bangladesh and India were quite protean since 1975 (the reasons for this can be debated elsewhere), and were, perhaps, at their lowest ebb ever in 2008.

Thus, I found on my arrival in New Delhi in 2009, that re-configuring the India-Bangladesh relationship was going to be of critical importance. By virtue of its large population that gave it gravitas in the regional context, Bangladesh perhaps held the key to redefining any form of regional cooperation and economic integration so desperately needed to liftthe teeming millions of this strife-ridden region out of abject poverty. Thus, getting Bangladesh- India relations right was of seminal importance, and the place to start for me. Today, six years later, the two countries have come to the place described in the concept note for this debate.

Even as I put the finishing touches to the draftof this paper, a historic event is taking place: the exchange of enclaves as envisaged in the Bangladesh- India Land Boundary Agreement, and its Protocol is also being implemented. Undoubtedly this marks the closure of the first ever post-colonial land boundary disputes that has bedevilled relations in the post-partitioned Indian subcontinent. The land boundary between India and Bangladesh is the largest that India has with any of its sovereign neighbours in the post-colonial era. It is also the fifth largest land boundary in the world. The decades old India-Bangladesh boundary dispute has been resolved amicably through bilateral negotiations between the actors involved and, without any external arbitration/mediation. This is the most remarkable indicator of the dramatic re-configuration of India- Bangladesh relations in the last six years: the barely concealed hostility and constantly underlying suspicion between the two countries has become a relationship marked by mutual trust and collaborative partnership in the interests of mutual and regional prosperity.

This turn-around is nothing short of miraculous, and enables me to hope that if it can be sustained and further built upon, my vision for the future will also come into the realm of the achievable. In short, cooperative bilateral relations between India and Bangladesh hold the key not only to making sub-regional cooperation feasible, but also to helping India meaningfully operationalise its "Act East" initiative. Both these goals are two sides of the same coin. Ultimately, one has the audacity to hope! The template of this new bilateral relationship may even serve as a model for the other SAARC countries that continue to be prisoners of the traumatic Partition of 1947. In my vision of the future, India and Bangladesh working closely together will be the key to a meaningful transformation of the larger regional relationships for the better.

The Dramatic Turnaround

During the last six years, India and Bangladesh have surged ahead steadily in multiple sectors. Security cooperation between the two has never been better; indeed it is exemplary. Both have amicably resolved disputes, and completed the boundary demarcation on the land, in rivers, and in the Bay of Bengal. India has unilaterally extended duty free and quota free access to virtually all but 26 Bangladeshi products in the Indian market, resulting in a substantial increase in the volumes of bilateral trade. Eight border haats (markets) have been set up, to date, along Bangladesh's borders with Meghalaya and Tripura, thus reconnecting and reviving historic economic connections that had existed between peoples and communities on both sides before they were disrupted. …

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