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Bangladesh Relations with India

Bangladesh and India share close bilateral ties, but a raft of issues from water disputes to religious tension have sowed mistrust and hurt the relationship. India's poor relations with its neighbors may have pushed Dhaka towards Beijing, though it is too early to predict a permanent shift in Bangladesh's foreign policy in siding with China over India. In September 2020, Bangladesh asked India to resume onion exports to the country, after New Delhi abruptly slapped a ban on exports. India is the biggest supplier of onions to Bangladesh, which buys a yearly average of more than 350,000 tons. Following the export ban, onion prices in Bangladesh jumped by more than 50%, prompting the government to procure supplies from elsewhere and provide onions at subsidized rates.

India is Bangladesh's most important neighbor. Geographic, cultural, historic, and commercial ties are strong, and both countries recognize the importance of good relations. During and immediately after Bangladesh's struggle for independence from Pakistan in 1971, India assisted refugees from East Pakistan, intervened militarily to help bring about the independence of Bangladesh, and furnished relief and reconstruction aid.

Although India played a major role in the establishment of an independent Bangladesh on April 17, 1971. New Delhi's relations with Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, were neither close nor free from dispute. In 1975 Bangladesh began to move away from the linguistic nadonalism that had marked its liberation struggle and linked it to India's West Bengal state. Instead. Dhaka stressed Islam as the binding force in Bangladeshi nationalism. The new emphasis on Islam, combined with Bangladeshi concern over India's military buildup and bilateral disputes over riparian borders, shared water resources, and illegal immigration of Bangladeshis into West Bengal, made for fluctuations in India-Bangladesh relations.

Bangladeshi defense planners have long regarded India as a regional bully, a perception shared by the Bangladeshi public in the late 1980s. According to this perception, governments in New Delhi continued to regard South Asia as an integral security unit in which India played the dominant role because of its size and resources. Thus, New Delhi's ability to project power gave India a self-assigned responsibility for ensuring the security of smaller states and maintaining stability and peace in the area. Aside from the potential threat of direct military intervention, Bangladeshi leaders also believed India had the capacity to destabilize the country by extending covert assistance to tribal insurgents, the Bangladeshi Hindu minority, or the regime's domestic political opponents.

Bangladesh has been the object of three main Indian security concerns since independence: Bangladeshi internal stability, its strategic position in relation to China, and Dhaka's alleged involvement with Indian tribal insurgents. India denied any intention or desire to destabilize Bangladesh and argued that a stable Bangladesh is a critical component of India's eastern defenses. Bangladesh was strategically located near the India-China disputed frontier in the north. In the event of a border clash with China, Indian lines of communication would be restricted to the narrow Siliguri corridor between Bangladesh and Nepal.

Moreover, as a worst-case scenario, Indian defense planners feared that a desperate regime in Dhaka might grant military base rights to the United States or China. These security concerns were compounded by Indian charges that Dhaka turned a blind eye to Indian tribal insurgents using safe havens in eastern Bangladesh and allowed a tide of Bangladeshi emigrants to move into the Indian states of Tripura and Assam. India also expressed the concern that serious instability in Bangladesh could trigger another exodus of refugees into India.

Bangladesh's capacity to mount a conventional defense against India was extremely limited. India supported the world's fourth largest army, a sophisticated arsenal of weapons for all three service branches, and a population and economy larger than those of the six other states of South Asia combined. By necessity, any government in Dhaka had to rely primarily on diplomacy to deter India. Bangladesh's only military defense against a potential Indian attack was based on limited deterrence. Bangladesh's armed forces would try to stall an Indian advance until international pressures could be mobilized to bring about a cease-fire and a return to the status quo.

Geography also limited Bangladesh's capacity to mount a conventional defense of the nation. A paucity of roads, bridges, and railroads impeded cross-country military movements, particularly during the monsoon months of June through September. The army's lack of bridging equipment was a severe liability, especially for the armor brigades. In the mid-1980s, there were eighteen airports suitable for military transport operations, although the lift capacity of the Bangladesh Air Force was extremely limited.

As Indian, Pakistani, and Bengali partisan forces discovered in 1971, however, Bangladesh provides ideal terrain for conducting guerrilla warfare. The country's primitive lines of communication would slow an enemy advance and frustrate an occupying force. Jungles, rivers, and isolated villages would allow locally based guerrillas to hold out almost indefinitely. There were no indications, however, that Bangladesh had developed a guerrilla war fighting doctrine; the nation's defense rested primarily on a strategy of deterrence by conventionally equipped regular forces.

The Arunachal area of India that China lays some claim to, and Assam, are connected to India territorially, north of Bangladesh, by the narrow, 25-kilometer wide Siliguri corridor, while the larger northeastern area of India has been fraught for decades with tribal insurgencies. India worries about the proximity to the Siliguri corridor of a China-friendly Bangladesh, and is also afraid that Chinese assistance to the development of Chittagongport is part of the alleged “string of pearls” strategy.

Violence along the border with India remained a problem in 2010, and the number of incidents increased by nearly 33 percent from the previous year. According to human rights organizations, the Indian Border Security Force killed 98 persons during the year 2010. There were also reports that Bangladesh Border Guards, the new name adopted by the BDR, engaged in shootings along the border.

Indo-Bangladesh relations are often strained, and many Bangladeshis feel India likes to play "big brother" to smaller neighbors, including Bangladesh. Bilateral relations warmed in 1996, due to a softer Indian foreign policy and the new Awami League government. A 30-year water-sharing agreement for the Ganges River was signed in December 1996, after an earlier bilateral water-sharing agreement for the Ganges River lapsed in 1988. Bangladesh remains extremely concerned about a proposed Indian river linking project, which the government says could turn large parts of Bangladesh into a desert.

The Bangladesh Government and tribal insurgents signed a peace accord in December 1997, which allowed for the return of tribal refugees who had fled into India, beginning in 1986, to escape violence caused by an insurgency in their homeland in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The implementation of most parts of this agreement has stalled, and the army maintains a strong presence in the Hill Tracts. Arms smuggling and reported opium poppy cultivation are concerns in this area. Occasional skirmishes between Bangladeshi and Indian border forces sometimes escalate and seriously disrupt bilateral relations. Much to Bangladesh's displeasure, India has erected a barbed-wire fence on part of its border with Bangladesh to prevent alleged illegal migration of Bangladeshis into India.

The BNP and other political parties view the Indian Government as a major benefactor of the Awami League and blame negative international media coverage of Bangladesh on alleged Indian manipulation. Former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, however, visited the Indian capital in March 2006 and reviewed bilateral relations with her Indian counterpart. Two agreements--the Revised Trade Agreement and the Agreement on Mutual Cooperation for Preventing Illicit Drug Trafficking in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances and Related Matters--were signed between the two countries during this visit.

Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee met with the Chief Adviser in Dhaka on February 26, 2007. Mukherjee invited Ahmed to the April 3-4, 2007, SAARC summit in Delhi, and both sides pledged to put Bangladesh-India relations on "an irreversible higher trajectory." Mukherjee again visited Bangladesh after Cyclone Sidr hit the southwestern coastal districts on November 15, 2007 and offered help to rebuild 10 of the devastated villages. Bangladesh Army Chief General Moeen U. Ahmed paid a 6-day visit to India beginning late February 2008 at the invitation of his Indian counterpart. He met with Mukherjee and the Chief Minister of West Bengal province, besides meeting military officials. During this visit, Ahmed announced that passenger trains could start running between Dhaka and Kolkata by April 14.

After the return of the Awami League government in January 2009, Prime Minister Hasina made it clear that improved relations with India would be a priority for her government. Foreign Minister Dipu Moni traveled to New Delhi in September 2009 to begin bilateral discussions. Prime Minister Hasina herself traveled to New Delhi in January 2010 to meet with Indian Prime Minister Singh, where they signed several agreements designed to further strengthen their bilateral relationship.

The return of the Awami League dramatically changed the nature of India-Bangladesh engagement on every front. A plethora of connectivity projects, unthinkable earlier, are either in place or in advanced stages of negotiation. While trans-shipment of goods using river ports and roads is on, many bus and train routes have been operationalised.

Although Sino-Indian relations have improved in recent years, India is threatened by China’s expanding presence through bases in Myanmar, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, leading to a possible encirclement around the Indian subcontinent as well as potential competition in the Indian Ocean area.

New Delhi and Dhaka signed an umbrella agreement to increase defense cooperation during Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's four-day visit to India, which began 07 April 2017. Some security experts, diplomats and others in Bangladesh thought the agreement would not benefit Bangladesh and could even go against the country's interests. Bangladesh long had a defense cooperation agreement with China, which is the country's largest military hardware supplier. With Chinese collaboration, Bangladesh also had been producing small arms and weapons for many years. India wants Bangladesh to buy Indian military hardware and thus become less dependent on China. India wants to enter the defense market in Bangladesh, preferably through a long-term pact, aiming to cut down on China's share there.

Maintaining stability is India’s first contribution to Bangladesh. There are about a dozen agreements amounting to $10 billion of Indian private investment in Bangladesh. A $7.5 billion Line of Credit has been approved for infrastructure and other projects in Bangladesh.

In December 2020, both countries held a virtual summit where they discussed topics like boosting trade, investment and transportation links, but avoided the thorny issue of sharing the water of the Teesta river, which flows into Bangladesh from the Indian states of Sikkim and West Bengal. Bangladesh, being the downstream country, wants India to share more water from the Teesta, but New Delhi has so far been unable to strike a deal on the matter, likely due to strong opposition from West Bengal state.

"The Teesta river is liable to dry up like the Ganga did when we inked the Ganga water sharing deal in 1996," said Sukhendu Sekhar Roy, a member of the upper house of India's Parliament from the Trinamool Congress (TMC), the ruling party in West Bengal. "Kolkata port has now become dead because of the diversion of water to Bangladesh. In addition, arsenic is being found in several areas as the ground water level has gone so low, endangering millions of lives. That experience has made Bengalis bitter, so they are apprehensive about sharing the waters of the Teesta," he added.

At the beginning of 2021, a controversy erupted over the delivery of the vaccine developed by Oxford University, and AstraZeneca, which has a partnership with the Pune-based Serum Institute of India (SII) to manufacture the vaccine. SII CEO Adar Poonawalla said that India had barred Serum from selling doses on the private market until everyone in India had received the vaccine.

The statement caused a flutter in Bangladesh, which had inked a deal with India in 2020 to receive 30 million doses of the vaccine. Many Bangladeshis felt that India was backsliding on its obligations as part of the agreement. Some took to social media labeling India as an untrustworthy neighbor. Poonawalla later issued a statement clarifying that exports of the vaccines were permitted to all countries, and Bangladesh's Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen confirmed that his country was on track to receive the vaccine. Still, the experience left a bad taste in Bangladeshis' mouths.

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Page last modified: 06-06-2021 18:23:56 ZULU