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Modi spreads neighbourly love, but key challenges rumble on: Daily Star columnist

Modi spreads neighbourly love, but key challenges rumble on: Daily Star columnist

DHAKA (THE DAILY STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) – Narendra Modi’s recent visit to mark 50 years of Bangladesh’s independence has been dominated by his narratives of shared ties between the two friendly neighbours, united efforts of the two countries for the development of the region and concerted efforts to meet common goals: “For our millions of people, for their future, for our fight against poverty, for the fight against terrorism.”

PM Modi generously presented Bangladesh with 109 ambulances and 1.2 million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina presented PM Modi with a gold and a silver coin which were released marking the birth centenary of Bangladesh’s Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, along with a silver coin released on the occasion of the golden jubilee of the country’s independence.

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The Indian Prime Minister reiterated India’s Neighbourhood First Policy and the two leaders also virtually opened some projects together. On the surface, the relationship between the two countries could not be better.

The two countries also signed five MoUs on March 27, 2021, to enhance bilateral cooperation in a host of areas, including: trade, ICT, disaster management and sports.

To be specific, the MoUs are: MoU on disaster management, resilience and mitigation; MoU between Bangladesh National Cadet Corps (BNCC) and National Cadet Corps of India (INCC); MoU on the Establishment of a Framework of Cooperation in the Area of Trade Remedial Measures between Bangladesh and India; MoU on Supply of ICT equipment, courseware and reference books and training for Bangladesh-Bharot Digital Service and Employment and Training (BDSET) Centre; and MoU on Establishment of Sports facilities at Rajshahi College field and surrounding areas.

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“India and Bangladesh signed MoUs in key sectors such as disaster management, sports and youth affairs, trade, technology and more. These will add strength to our development partnership and benefit the people of our nations, especially the youth”, tweeted Narendra Modi post the signing of the MoU between the two neighbours.

“Relationship going from strength to strength!” tweeted Arindam Bagchi, spokesperson for the Indian External Affairs ministry.

Indeed, India-Bangladesh relations have improved significantly over the years.

Bangladesh today is one of India’s largest trading partners in South Asia, connectivity between the two countries has improved significantly over the last few decades, and so have security, academic and cultural ties, healthcare support, and people-to-people relationships, among other parameters.

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However, despite all the positives, there remain some unresolved, contentious issues that plague the India-Bangladesh bilateral relations.

Rampant killings of Bangladeshi civilians at the India-Bangladesh border by the Indian border security forces, uncertainty over the Teesta water sharing agreement, and anti-dumping duty on Bangladesh’s exports to India are some of the many issues that need to be resolved to forge a lasting bond between the two nations in the long run.

Unfortunately, none of these could get the spotlight during Mr Modi’s recent visit to Bangladesh.

Human Rights Watch quoting Odhikar reported earlier this year that Indian “border forces have killed at least 334 Bangladeshis since 2011 and committed other instances of severe abuse, including 51 killings in 2020.”

Even as late as March 20, 2021, BSF killed a Bangladeshi national named Bappa Mia at a border village in Tripura. He was allegedly a cattle smuggler. And except for 2018, when 11 Bangladeshis were killed at the border, the killings by BSF have remained high.

Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar’s comment earlier in March on border killings – “Every death is regrettable but we also have to ask ourselves why is there a problem, and the problem is because of crime. So our shared objective should be a no-crime-no-death border and I am sure if we can get it right, we can address this problem effectively” – does not help the cause.

Intruder, smuggler, trafficker, criminal: whatever the crime is, the border guards cannot simply just kill individuals.

There is the law that decides the punishment for criminals and if a person has committed a crime – whatever it may be – they should be referred to the courts of justice, in compliance with due processes.

Bangladesh has urged India to use non-lethal weapons at the border to bring down the casualties to zero. Even during Mr Modi’s visit, Bangladesh “strongly requested” India stop the killing of Bangladeshis at the border.

One can only hope that India would take Bangladesh’s request seriously and act on stopping the unnecessary loss of human lives at the border.

With regard to the Teesta water sharing agreement, the Indian Foreign Minister during his recent visit to Bangladesh firmly asserted that India’s position remains unchanged and that soon, secretary level meetings would take place to discuss the issue in detail.

However, India could not say anything concrete about how long it might take for them to resolve this issue. While the Indian centre seems committed to sharing Teesta waters with Bangladesh, the state through which the river flows – West Bengal – has vehemently opposed this idea.

And with the centre and the state at odds over Teesta water sharing, unfortunately for Bangladesh, this issue is unlikely to be resolved any time soon.

During PM Modi’s visit, PM Hasina stressed the importance of signing the Teesta water sharing agreement, in response to which her Indian counterpart reiterated his country’s commitment to seal the deal.

With regard to the Indian request for early finalisation of the draft from Bangladesh on the Feni River water sharing issue, the Indian foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said, “River water cooperation is something that will continue.”

If that is the case, then India must surely try and address the Teesta issue and also accommodate Bangladesh’s request to allow drawing of water for irrigation from Kushiara River.

Similarly, there is no end in sight to the problem of the anti-dumping duties imposed on certain Bangladeshi exports to India. In January 2017, India levied anti-dumping duties on certain imports from Bangladesh, including hessian and jute yarns.

In April that year, India imposed similar duties on imports of hydrogen peroxide from Bangladesh. In 2018, the country imposed another duty on imports of fishing nets from Bangladesh.

Despite multiple requests from Bangladesh, the anti-dumping duty and countervailing duty levied by India have not been lifted. This is significantly hurting Bangladesh’s trade and in the long run, will keep on being a burning issue for both countries.

The Indian and Bangladesh prime ministers discussed the issue of removing tariff and non-tariff barriers to balance and bolster trade ties, and Bangladesh again requested India to withdraw the anti-dumping duty. How India will respond to this remains to be seen.

India’s muted response to the Rohingya crisis has also put a dent in India-Bangladesh relations.

Bangladesh has sought India’s support to resolve the Rohingya crisis on multiple occasions. India, in the past, had mostly confined its reaction to the Rohingya issue to more tactful statements of concern.

Only recently did we see a strong stance by India on the Rohingya issue, when India’s Permanent Resident to the UN, Pawan Badhe said, “We remain committed to ensuring safe, sustainable and speedy repatriation of displaced persons from Rakhine state, currently staying in Bangladesh, to Myanmar, based on the understanding reached between the two countries. We will continue to support efforts in this direction.”

During Mr Modi’s just concluded Bangladesh visit, the Indian foreign secretary suggested that India will work for the repatriation of Rohingya refugees, but India’s response to the issue is perhaps too little too late.

In the wake of the Myanmar military coup and the internal political instability ripping the country apart, engaging the Myanmar military leaders to find a sustainable solution to the Rohingya crisis will not be easy.

These outstanding issues will continue to be a challenge for India-Bangladesh relations in the long term. While the two countries have reached agreements on multiple bilateral issues over the years, resolving these will be key in forging a stronger relationship.

There is no denying that India-Bangladesh relations are deeply rooted in shared history, heritage and culture.

The two countries have been friends even before Bangladesh actually became a reality. It was with the support of India that Bangladesh was finally able to quash the enemy during the Liberation War.

Indeed, PM Modi’s visit to Bangladesh, as put by the Indian Foreign Secretary, has been “substantive, historically symbolical and very special.” In Bangladesh, we really appreciate India’s warm gestures.

And it is in the spirit of these deep-seated shared bonds that India and Bangladesh must now work together to minimise differences and take this friendship to newer heights of camaraderie.

While both countries have said all the right words praising each other, only time will tell how much value both attach to these ties. Actions, after all, speak louder than words.

  • The writer is a columnist for The Daily Star. The paper is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media organisations.

Modi spreads neighbourly love, but key challenges rumble on: Daily Star columnist

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