India-Bangladesh relations have grown deeper and wider in scope in the past decade. But irritants and hitches can develop between neighbours with even the best of ties, writes Shubha Singh for South Asia Monitor
Foreign visits and international meetings have been few and far apart during the global Covid-19 pandemic. Most meetings have been virtual or online. Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla’s sudden visit to Bangladesh recently surprised many in Dhaka, especially as he was the first foreign visitor to visit the country since the pandemic started.
It was Shringla’s second visit to Bangladesh, where he had a successful stint as Indian High Commissioner since he took over as foreign secretary early this year. He had made a two-day trip in March in preparation for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tour to Dhaka for the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman birth centenary celebrations, which however was cancelled due to the outbreak of the Covid-19 virus.
The recent visit acquired significance in the Bangladeshi media as normal bilateral visits were on hold due to the pandemic. And it came shortly after China announced an almost US $1billion project for Teesta river development. Observers in Dhaka are keenly attuned to India and China jostling for influence in the South Asian region. The Teesta projected attracted greater attention as the Teesta river water sharing is one of the long-pending issues between India and Bangladesh. Dhaka has pressed for an equitable sharing of the river waters, especially during the lean season. The issue had been negotiated and almost reached a resolution in 2011 but got bogged down after objections raised by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee who feared political repercussions in her state.
Teesta sharing remains a problem
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had given an assurance that the Teesta issue would be resolved soon during a visit to Bangladesh in 2015. The issue has been hanging fire since then. Meanwhile, New Delhi and Dhaka steadily built upon their friendly relations for cooperation on a wide range of areas. As ties grew closer, India and Bangladesh concluded a protocol on inland water trade and transit that allowed India transit facilities on Bangladesh internal rivers to India’s northeastern states. In the last year, about 3.5 million tonnes of Indian cargo was transported through Bangladesh river routes. Bangladeshi authorities confirmed to the Bangladeshi media that there was no movement on the Teesta issue as the agreement with China was finalised.
During his visit, Shringla gave assurances that Bangladesh would have a high priority for the supply of coronavirus vaccine, once a vaccine is ready. A major Bangladesh pharmaceutical company has indicated it is in negotiation with Pune’s Serum Institute in this regard.
Bangladesh also gave approval last week for a Chinese proposal for conducting last stage trials of a coronavirus vaccine in the country. The Chinese offer of the vaccine had got mired in controversy following opposition from some leading doctors and sections of civil society. Many opposed the trials for allegedly treating Bangladeshis as “guinea pigs” for testing the vaccine. The Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh tweeted to offer himself as the first volunteer for the trial. China had made the offer the vaccine's trial to several countries. Bangladesh finally accepted the Chinese vaccine proposal after the Indonesian government gave approval for conducting the last stage trials for a possible Chinese vaccine.
Indian domestic politics have caused some strains to develop in the bilateral relationship in the past year. The rhetoric on the issue of illegal immigration and the proposed National Population Register, as well as the political statements that accompanied the adoption of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) caused concern in Dhaka. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and other officials held that these were India’s internal issues, but the sense of dismay in Bangladeshi political and media circles was evident.
Pandemic irritants in ties
The pandemic brought its own irritants in the bilateral ties as India went into a stringent lockdown which affected goods traffic from Bangladesh. While there was no bar on imports from Bangladesh, local restrictions on the movement led to the piling of cargo loaded trucks in Bangladesh till the central government issued directions to allow movement of cargo. Even as Bangladesh removed restrictions on the movement of people, several restrictions remained in force on the Indian side.
Shringla held discussions with his counterpart, Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen. He also met Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dr A K Abdul Momen. He also called on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the first foreign visitor to have met the Bangladeshi leader since the Covid-19 crisis began. The discussions covered a wide range of areas of ongoing bilateral cooperation, with a particular focus on ways to address the Covid-19 situation, according to a Bangladesh Foreign Office statement.
India-Bangladesh relations have grown deeper and wider in scope in the past decade. But irritants and hitches can develop between neighbours with even the best of ties, Differing perceptions, mismatched policies cause minor annoyances such as the restrictions during the lockdown. Regular high-level interactions smoothen out the pinpricks and give momentum to bilateral cooperation. In keeping with India’s Neighbourhood First policy, Shringla’s visit to Dhaka was an opportunity to carry forward the bilateral engagement with a close and friendly neighbour despite the Covid-19 crisis.
(The writer is a veteran journalist and foreign affairs analyst. The views expressed are personal)