By Syed Muazzem Ali
Syed Muazzem Ali is the High Commissioner of Bangladesh to India. A former Foreign Secretary of the Government of Bangladesh, Mr. Ali was a founding member of the Bangladesh Mission in Washington DC, where he was serving the Pakistan Embassy in 1971 before declaring his allegiance to the Government of Bangladesh. He has worked for the peaceful resolution of conflicts in the South Asian region and beyond. A Science graduate from Dhaka University, he was directly involved in working towards US recognition of Bangladesh as well as the US, World Bank and UN participation in the massive reconstructions efforts in war-ravaged Bangladesh (1971-1975). Mr. Ali has also served in Bangladesh Embassies in Warsaw (1975-1978), and New Delhi (1986-1988), and in the Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York (1982-1986). He was Consul General in Jeddah (1988-1991) during the Gulf War, and later served as Bangladesh Ambassador to Bhutan (1991-1992), Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Turkmenistan (1995-1998), France and Portugal (1998-2000).
Indeed, the relations between India and Bangladesh have now reached the “best ever” stage, under the dynamic leadership of our two Prime Ministers Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi. It has gone beyond the strategic partnership level and now encompasses all aspects of our bilateral cooperation.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will be representing Bangladesh at the India Economic Summit in New Delhi from 3 to 4 October 2019. The Bangladesh Premier will also meet her Indian counterpart Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi in bilateral format after the Summit on 5th October 2019. The visit is very significant as this will be Premier Hasina’s first visit to India after her re-election in December 2018 and also the first visit after Prime Minister Modi was re-elected to office in May 2019. There have been a series of visits in last five years, both at Prime Ministerial and Presidential level between Bangladesh and India. All these visits are the manifestation of the current level of our partnership, which is “all encompassing” and goes “far beyond the strategic partnership” touching upon “virtually all areas of human endeavour”. We hope this visit of our Prime Minister would further strengthen our existing excellent level of bilateral cooperation.
Bangladesh and India are closest neighbors, as we share the longest border between us. It is a matter of happiness for us that during recent years our cooperation has expanded in multifaceted areas. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself has underscored that Bangladesh-India relations is passing through a “Golden Chapter” or “Sonali Adhyay” and has emerged as a “role model” for “Neighborhood Diplomacy” and countries in other parts of the world should follow this model for developing their “Neighborhood relations”. Indeed, the relations have now reached the “best ever” stage, under the dynamic leadership of our two Prime Ministers Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi. As noted earlier, it has gone beyond the strategic partnership level and now encompasses all aspects of our bilateral cooperation. We are confident that the reelections of both the Prime Ministers with landslide victories in the latest respective national elections will enable us to further consolidate and expand the everincreasing bilateral ties, based on shared vision and mutuality of interest.
Bangladesh-India bilateral cooperation had begun in the battle fields of 1971. The emotional bonds stemming from the invaluable contributions of the Government and the people of India during Bangladesh’s War of Liberation, led by our Father of Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, remain a dominant factor in the country’s political, cultural and social wave. It may be mentioned here that, as a gesture from Bangladesh in recognizing the supreme sacrifices made by the Indian martyrs for the liberation of Bangladesh, a special “Sommanona programme” was jointly organized by the Government of India and Bangladesh during the last summit level visit of our Hon’ble Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India.
A stable, strong and friendly neighborhood is a necessity for any country, big or small, and especially in our region where several armed terrorist groups are eager to exploit differences between the two countries to further their own objectives. Since assumption of power for the second time in 2009, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has consistently tried to improve mutual trust and cooperation and she has brought a change in our mindset in our bilateral ties. There is now a greater recognition on both sides that the destinies of our two neighboring countries are inescapably intertwined and we must grow together. Our stability and prosperity are inextricably linked with each other.
Happily, on the other hand, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, after assumption of office in his first term little over five years ago, had also expressed his keen desire to promote all-round bilateral cooperation. His historic visit to Bangladesh in June 2015 has taken our ties to newer heights. Sixty eight years after the partition of 1947, and forty-one years after the conclusion of the Indira-Mujib Border Accord of 1974, the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) between the two countries was concluded and ratified. Premier Narendra Modi had demonstrated how a long-standing complex bilateral issue could be resolved unanimously through consultation, compassion, and consensus-building. The successful conclusion of the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) also signaled fulfillment of the vision of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who had taken the initiative soon after the independence of Bangladesh.
During the last Summit level meetings in 2017, our two Prime Ministers Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi have taken our bilateral ties to a new level which is well beyond the “strategic partnership”. The Eleven Agreements and Twenty-four MoUs signed during the visit virtually encompass every important sector in our bilateral cooperation namely security, trade, connectivity, energy, civil nuclear agreement, defence and introduction of new bus and train services etc. In addition to the two earlier Lines of Credit (LOCs), India also extended a fresh LOC to Bangladesh during the visit to the tune of $5 billion which also includes $500 million for defence purchase. Our Private sectors also made their valuable inputs when they signed MoUs for the investment to the tune of $13 billion primarily in the energy sector. There is hardly any area which doesn’t reflect in the overall Bangladesh-India bilateral relations.
Security and Terrorism: Security has been a crucial area of cooperation between our two countries which has been consolidated in recent years. It may be recalled that the security issue had bedeviled Indo-Bangladesh ties in the past. Since assumption of power in 2009, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has firmly controlled the situation and did not allow any terrorist activities, or any terrorist group, to use Bangladesh soil to launch any attack against India or any other neighboring country. Likewise, Bangladesh received full cooperation from India. Since then, security cooperation has been the high point of our cooperation and it is based on our reciprocal desire not to tolerate terrorism in any form and not to allow our soil to be used for this purpose. This has significantly strengthened good neighborly ties between the two countries. Peace, however, does not come free and we have to be vigilant as various insurgent elements are active in our neighborhood.
Energy cooperation: Cooperation in the energy sector is the hallmark of our renewed engagements. There is a positive momentum in cooperation between our two countries in the power sector and the achievements in the past six years have been highly encouraging. Currently, India has been supplying 1160 MW of power to us. We have also started cooperation on renewable energy and nuclear power. Several projects in the power sector have been included in the new line of credit of $4.5 billion which was announced during the visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India in April 2017. Agreements worth nearly $13 billion of Indian investment were also signed during the visit, which is mainly in the power and energy sectors of Bangladesh. In addition to these various bilateral initiatives, we are also working on sub-regional cooperation on energy sector in our existing sub-regional and regional platform like BBIN, SAARC, BIMSTEC etc. I am confident it would bring solidity in our bilateral ties and thus making our bilateral cooperation irreversible.
Bilateral and Sub-regional Connectivity: Connectivity is another vital area of cooperation between our two countries. As we are painfully aware, South Asia is the least connected region in the world and whatever connectivity was established during the colonial period, were disrupted in the past. Currently, we are working to restore road, rail, and coastal shipping links that had existed in the pre-partition period. At the same time, new land ports and better infrastructure are built to facilitate greater trade. Our people have achieved much higher purchasing power and hence, we are now working on air connectivity between Bangladesh and other North-Eastern cities on a top priority basis.
It is heartening to note that Prime Minister Modi has not only expressed his interest in strengthening Bangladesh-India bilateral ties but has also viewed these cooperative ties as a catalyst for regional and sub-regional integration, progress and stability. Bangladesh also figures prominently in Prime Minister Modi’s ‘Look and Act East’ policy and both countries are working on strengthening sub-regional connectivity among Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and North-East India under the BBIN as well as inter-regional cooperation with South East Asian countries under the aegis of BIMSTEC and ASEAN.
Water sharing issues: Bangladesh and India share 54 common rivers and the issue of water sharing during the lean season has been an important issue as it has a direct impact on the food production and quality of life of our teeming millions. Ganges Water Sharing Agreement is being successfully implemented. The two countries, now, have been working for a solution for an interim water sharing agreement of Teesta River. The Union Government of India has been undertaking internal consultations with the Government of West Bengal and Prime Minister Modi has assured our Prime Minister that the agreement would be finalized soon. Bangladesh is eagerly looking forward to an early conclusion of the Agreement as it would open up newer opportunities for cooperation. The Joint River Commissions of our two countries are constantly engaged in joint consultations on different other water related issues.
Trade & Investment: The volume of bilateral trade has steadily grown during the past years. The balance of trade, however, is still largely in India’s favor. The volume of trade between two countries is nearly 10 billion dollars. In 2018, Bangladesh was India’s eighth largest export destination with 8.8 billion dollars export and our export to India was about 1 billion dollar. However, these are mostly primary products. It should be our common endeavour to bring in qualitative and quantitative changes in our trade exchanges. We would like to see trade and investment together in this regard. The most practical course of action would be to set up a series of “buy-back” projects, where Indian big companies could set up their industries in Bangladesh and the produces could be re-exported to India. Incidentally, such projects do exist in US-Canada and US-Mexico borders. To this end, several Indian mega companies like Hero-Honda, Tata group or CEAT Tire companies have set up such projects in Bangladesh. These are small projects, but, we need much bigger projects in joint venture. We seek substantial investment from Indian investors in three exclusive Economic Zones in Bangladesh that have been offered to India. We are now emphasizing on all-round economic cooperation between our two countries.
Lines of Credit: India has offered three Lines of Credit to the tune of US$8 billion at a highly concessional rate to Bangladesh. The First line of credit (LoC-1) has been fully utilized, while implementation of various projects under the Second Line of Credit (LoC-2) is underway. These credits have enhanced capacities in vital areas such as roads, railways, bridges, inland waterways connectivity. Under the 3rd Line of Credit (LoC 3), the Indian government has given 5 billion US$ to Bangladesh. In the meantime, infrastructural development of Land Customs Stations/Land Ports is continuing for boosting smoother exchange of goods.
Defence engagements: Defence Engagement between Bangladesh and India has been steadily developing in the recent years. During the visit of our Hon’ble Prime Minister to India in 2017, five MOUs were signed on Defence cooperation, covering fields of general cooperation, training exchange and procurement of equipments, defence financing, medical cooperation and knowledge sharing between the top defence institutes of both the countries. Both the countries are now working for the operationalization and implementation of those MoUs.
People-to-People Contact: People-topeople contact between Bangladesh and India has increased manifold during recent years and the highest number of tourists coming to India in 2017 were Bangladeshis. Likewise, a large number of technically qualified Indian nationals are currently engaged in Bangladesh’s health, IT, banking and other service sectors. Cultural teams from both the countries do participate in various cultural programmes, book fairs, film festivals in each other’s capital. A good number of Bangladeshi students are also studying in India.
In conclusion, I would say the developments in the recent years have taken our bilateral relations to a new multi-dimensional, multi-faceted and comprehensive platform and it is expected that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s forthcoming visit and his meetings with the highest political level in India would give a new impetus to our ever increasing bilateral ties.
Long live Bangladesh-India Friendship!