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If the 2010 visit of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was to arrest the decline in a bilateral relationship with India and to create a foundation for a positive India-Bangladesh relationship, her latest visit to India has been to take the relationship at a new level. It was the desire of both India and Bangladesh to further deepen a bilateral relationship which has become an example of friendship and cooperation in an otherwise conflict prone South Asia. Fortunately, in this effort both sides were quite successful, though minor irritants remain.

Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India was a long awaited one. Though she had visited India during the BRICS summit, at that time the objective of visit was very different. Then she was meant to attend the two-day BRICS-BIMSTEC outreach summit. The latest visit has been of a bilateral nature and was watched closely for its deliverables. This visit became further significant for two more reasons. This is probably the last visit of Sheikh Hasina to India before she faces the electorate in her country in early 2019. This visit was also important as it happened a few months after the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Bangladesh.

India is aware that it is historically, socially, culturally and economically linked with Bangladesh. It is difficult for any country to replace this kind of relationship only with money power. India has now wisely decided to depend less on money power and more on quality of engagement with its South Asian neighbours.

India supported Bangladesh during its Liberation War in 1971. However this contribution was not fully appreciated as the politics of Bangladesh took a different turn in 1975 after the murder of its founding father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Now in the changed circumstances, as India and Bangladesh come closer, both sides have decided to give due to attention to this legacy of the Liberation War. India decided to name a street in Central Delhi to honour Sheikh Mujib on the eve of Hasina’s visit. A Hindi version of his unfinished biography was also released.

 

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Both sides have also decided to jointly make a documentary of the Liberation War and a movie on Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Bangladesh has also decided to honour 1661 Indian soldiers who were killed during its Liberation War and has created a fund for this purpose. Prime Minister Modi announced that India would offer free medical treatment to freedom fighters of the Bangladesh Liberation War and scholarships to their children. Besides, Modi has also assured Sheikh Hasina that India would support Bangladesh’s demand for global recognition of Genocide Day on March 25.

India also extended an additional $ 4.5 billion line of credit to Bangladesh, over and above the existing $ 2.8 billion line, to fund infrastructure projects in that country. These will include 17 projects, including the upgradation of Payra, Chittagong and Mongla ports, and airports, highways, roads and rail links. Both sides also signed four defence Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs). India extended a first-of-its-kind $ 500-million line of credit to Dhaka to purchase military hardware. The four MoUs were part of 22 agreements signed. Another 12 pacts worth about $ 9 billion are taking place with Indian private sector. India appreciated Hasina’s zero-tolerance against terrorism and extremism.

The relationship has intensified in the area of energy cooperation. India has decided to give additional 60 MW of power to Bangladesh from Tripura. It already supplies 600 Mw electricity to Bangladesh. Another 1,000 MW will be offered to Bangladesh once additional interconnection points come up.

India also plans high speed diesel pipeline to Bangladesh. It will run from Numaligarh in Assam to Parbatipur in northern Bangladesh. India will finance this diesel oil pipeline and will supply high-speed diesel to Bangladesh by a rail link till the time it is completed.  A gas pipeline from Myanmar passing through Bangladesh to India is also in the offing.

New Delhi and Dhaka also decided to forge a formal civilian nuclear cooperation agreement, which is a “basic foundational agreement” for the transfer of nuclear material, developing nuclear plants, training of personnel and sharing of expertise. This is a new area of cooperation in the strategic sector, especially since Moscow has moved to build nuclear power plants in Bangladesh.

Bilateral trade between India and Bangladesh has been steadily growing in the last couple of years. However, trade deficit has been an issue for Bangladesh. India has now promised to look into the tariff and non-tariff barriers imposed especially on jute products of Bangladesh where it thinks it is quite competitive.

As the focus of the visit has also been on enhanced connectivity, the two sides have also restored bus and train links between Kolkata and Khulna, and Radhikapur and Biral. Both sides have agreed to optimise inland waterways and take steps to put in place a coastal shipping agreement. This is likely to further enhance people to contact between the two countries.

Though the agreement on Teesta water sharing was not signed this time, Modi did underline its importance to the burgeoning India-Bangladesh relations and expressed his commitment on this to the Bangladeshi people. He also underlined that his government and Hasina’s government in Bangladesh were best placed to find a solution to this vexed issue. It is also being felt that Modi might surprise Hasina with an agreement on the Teesta before Bangladesh goes to the polls in 2019. If this happens then the agreement will remove the last major hurdle from the India – Bangladesh relationship.

Anand Kumaris associate fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi.

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