- Prathmesh Rai
Modi’s Mantra of Sabka Vishwas, Sabka Saath, and Sabka Vikas in India-Bangladesh Relations
The year 2021 marks the 50th anniversary of establishing bilateral relations between New Delhi and Dhaka. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid a visit to Dhaka amidst the raging COVID-19 pandemic to celebrate the birth anniversary of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan. India was one of the first countries to recognize Bangladesh as a nation and has consistently supported Bangladesh, so much so that India was even willing to take on the US, a staunch supporter of Pakistan during 1971’s struggle for Bangladeshi independence. This relationship has been fruitful for both sides as they have historical, cultural, geographical, and economic relations. Even though, Bangladesh was once detached from India during the partition of 1947 by becoming East Pakistan, nonetheless, it was re-integrated with India in terms of economics, politics, and culture in 1971.
Bangladesh plays a vital role under India’s ‘Neighborhood First Policy’, whereby India believes in a stable and cooperative South Asia so that the region can move towards development and self-sustainability. Bangladesh comes in the immediate neighborhood of India and hence, forms the first circle of priority in India’s foreign policy¹¹. ‘Sabkha Vishwas, Sabka Saath, and Sabka Vikas’ is an initiative led by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi whose aim is to work towards the development of India and to re-energize the concept of India ‘first’. India’s ‘Neighbourhood First Policy’ aims to extend this domestic policy in the domain of foreign policy and Bangladesh is at the core of this policy as it is a valued partner of India. However, India does not want itself to be seen as a ‘Big Brother’ who is there to dominate its neighbors, instead, India using the concept of Sabka Vishwas, Sabka Saath, and Sabka Vikas wants to be a part of its neighbor’s development so that a secure, stable, and economically durable South Aisa can be created, which can also act as a cushion and point of strength for India.
Developing and Evolving Relationship
The Bangladeshi people, especially the generation which witnessed its independence in 1971, have exuberating memories of India-Bangladesh relations. India was involved militarily and diplomatically in Bangladesh’s freedom struggle. Additionally, India’s timely entry into the conflict worked as a catalyst for Bangladeshi liberation. India played a vital role in arming and training the local Bengali militia, the Mukti Bahini. The father of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman (Bangabandhu) was greatly supported by India. India also tried to enlighten the world by bringing global attention to the mass genocide that Pakistan was committing on the Bangladeshi people which forced nearly 10 million to seek refuge in India³. Therefore, the relationship between India and Bangladesh is so deep that it is impossible to wish each other away. Nonetheless, there have been ups and downs, but the partnership has moved forward and strengthened since 1971. Both India and Bangladesh are interdependent on each other and this interdependence is a testament to their ever-growing and ever-expanding relationship.
The Bangladeshi and Indian cultures are similar to each other. Both countries are further making efforts in order to commemorate the cultural diversity and complexity of each other. In Dhaka itself, the Indian cultural center known as the Indira Gandhi Cultural Centre (IGCC) has worked as the nodal point for India to showcase its culture to Bangladesh. The cultural center has been involved in various training programs which include Yoga, Kathak, Manipuri dance, Hindi language, and Hindustani classical music. On top of that, the center has been organizing the annual ‘Tagore Chair’ in the University of Dhaka which aims to engage Indian and Bengali students over Rabindranath Tagore’s writings as well as songs that have been instrumental in connecting India and Bangladesh. The Indian High Commission in Dhaka is publishing a print and electronic magazine edition, ‘Bharat Bichitra’ in Bengali which has a wide readership in Bangladesh⁴. These efforts have served towards strengthening the people-to-people relations between Indian and Bangladesh.
Both governments have increased their people-to-people contact over the years, due to which connectivity has become important. Interdependence is associated with the increasing means of connectivity in the form of restoring the 1965 rail link between India and Bangladesh. Both the Prime Ministers jointly inaugurated the rail link between Chilahati, Bangladesh, and Haldibari, India in December of 2020⁹. The aim of this project was to increase the frequency of passenger trains and reducing time constraints which emphasizes the interdependence that India and Bangladesh have on each other. Similarly, with regard to the COVID-19 Pandemic, both nations agreed on operating side-door containers on special trains to maintaining a steady and uninterrupted supply chain. The government even handed over 10 broad gauge diesel locomotives as part of assistance to the Bangladeshi railways, this meeting was conducted virtually in which External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Railways Minister Piyush Goyal were joined by their counterparts Dr. A K Abdul Momen and Md Nurul Islam Sujon in July 2020. Apart from strengthening railway linkages, India and Bangladesh have also worked towards bus services that are to run between Dhaka-Siliguri-Gangtok-Dhaka and Dhaka-Siliguri-Darjeeling-Dhaka⁸. Through the virtual platform, the Feni Bridge or Maitree Setu was connected with the LCS (Land Custom Stations) Subroom in Tripura LCS (Land Custom Stations) Ramgarh on the Bangladeshi side in March 2021. Connectivity between India and Bangladesh has not only been restricted on land but even deals have been struck over the waterways with the signing of the Protocol of Inland Water Transit and Trade (PIWTT) in May 2020, as a result, two new India-Bangladesh protocol routes were extended from Sonamura-Daudkandi on river Gomati and extension of Dhulia to Godagiri up to Aricha, which lies on the Padma River in Bangladesh¹. The people-to-people relations between Bangladesh and India are one of the strongest links of this partnership and are highly treasured by both nations as cooperation and coordination in this field have been increasing.
Security and Developmental Story of Bangladesh and India’s role in it
India and Bangladesh interact at various levels to strengthen cooperation over defense, security, and economic development. This multi-dimensional approach of India and Bangladesh has impacted in a progressive manner, whereby the bilateral relations have gotten stronger and durable. A lot of giving and take has also taken place with regards to border disputes, the most famous being the New Moor island dispute which has been resolved in the best possible manner, which is dialogue and through international mediation. Such milestones are the backbone of India-Bangladesh relations and for India, a stronger Bangladesh is a major step towards a sustainable, safe, and prosperous Neighbourhood. Hence, India wants Bangladesh to develop at a rapid pace. Not only Bangladesh but the upliftment of the whole region will indirectly benefit India as the dependence factor on India and its resources in terms of illegal migration will diminish and Bangladesh is gradually turning out to be the perfect example of what India would like to see in its immediate Neighbourhood.
Security, Border Management and Defense Cooperation
In December 2020, India and Bangladesh had their 51st annual Director-General Level Talks (DGLT) between the Border Security Forces (BSF) and Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) in Guwahati. Apart from this annual meeting, another discussion took place between the Regional Commanders of BGB and BSF to discuss and understand border management, the issues that both sides face, and better methods of keeping surveillance and security of their 4096.7 km long land border with each other. Constant engagements like these reduce the likelihood of confusion and misinterpretations. So that progressive and continuous engagement can take place which can therefore benefit both sides. 2020 also saw high-level exchanges taking place between both navies and coast guards with the second edition of India-Bangladesh CORPAT ‘Bangosagar’ exercise which began on the 3rd of October to the 5th of October⁸. In November of 2020, the third Annual Defense Dialogue took place in which both the countries talked about creating better systems of communication between both armies, navies, and airforce as well as discussed new deals and cooperations for the future. The Indian army has highly immersed itself with the Muktijoddhas of Bangladesh and since 1972, each year annual visits are made to the Muktijoddhas on the occasion of Victory Day. The Indian side celebrates its historical legacy with the Mukti Bahini by granting scholarships to the kins of the Muktijoddhas⁶. Such localized and grassroots initiatives have made this relationship, even more, sweeter and cordial.
Economic and Commerical Relations
In terms of trade relations, Bangladesh is India’s largest trading partner in the region. On the other hand, India is Bangladesh’s second-largest trade partner. The bilateral trade between Bangladesh and India has been growing steadily over the last decade. Even the exports from Bangladesh have tripled over the last decade to cross the $1 billion mark in 2018⁴. On top of that India, in order to increase and solidify this connection has allowed several concessions to Bangladesh, these include duty-free access to Bangladeshi goods in the Indian market. Furthermore, both nations are planning on reducing Non-Tarif Barriers to each other’s products. The deepening partnership has shown fruitful results as in 2019, Bangladeshi exports to India saw a 43% rise than the previous year of 2018. Various meetings have also been conducted at various levels in order to promote and diversify bilateral trade and commercial relations. A CEO’s meet was organized virtually in December of 2020, in which policy level inputs were provided by both sides in the field of trade, investment, and development.
Developmental Projects, Capacity Building, and Human Resource Development
Bangladesh has become India’s largest development partner. India has extended 3 Lines of Credit (LOC) to Bangladesh in the last 8 years. This has amounted to nearly US$ 8 billion for the development of various infrastructural sectors like roads, railways, shipping, and ports. Apart from the LOCs, the Government of India is further providing developmental assistance to Dhaka for projects like the construction of the Akhaura-Agartala rail link, degrading of inland waterways in Bangladesh, and furthermore, money is being granted for the upcoming India-Bangladesh Friendship Pipeline. Furthermore, India’s development assistance gives greater emphasis on High Impact Community Development Projects (HICDP), so much so that it has become an essential pillar of India’s development strategy. In Bangladesh itself, India has funded 68 HICDP which has included the construction of hostels, academic buildings, skill development, and training institutes, cultural centers, and orphanages, etc³. India’s development cooperation efforts are aimed at human resource development and in Bangladesh India is indulging itself in several training programs and scholarships. The Government of India has been training 1800 Bangladeshi Civil Services officers in 2019 at the National Centre of Good Governance (NCGG) in Mussorie. On a similar note, the Bangladeshi Police officials are being trained in Indian institutes on various modern policing methods and new investigative techniques since 2017 at the National Judicial Academy located in Bhopal⁷. In addition, 200 scholarships have been awarded by the Indian Council on Cultural Relations (ICCR) every year.
India has actively engaged with Bangladesh on several levels and due to this diversified approach, both India and Bangladesh have created various levels of integration across multiple domains. Most importantly India has been able to gain ‘Vishwas’, trust over Bangladesh. Furthermore, trust between Bangladesh and India is backed by the fact that India supported and helped Bangladesh develop based on its primary needs and with its own resources. India stood beside Bangladesh in a time when no one was willing to accept Bangladesh as a country. Additionally, India has successfully balanced itself between Bangladesh and Myanmar on the Rohingya crisis as this crisis caused a massive stir in India-Bangladesh relations, however, even this issue was dealt with systematically and India has balanced itself rightly so that both its allies, Myanmar and Bangladesh can have their own space to find a solution to the Rohingya crisis. Similarly, India and Bangladesh being prone to natural disasters like floods and cyclones in the Bay of Bengal have indulged in creating and sharing systems as well as conducting joint exercises and training to tackle such situations between the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and Bangladesh Coast Guards (BCG)¹¹. The multi-dimensional relationship of India and Bangladesh is one to be celebrated in a rather competitive and ambitious South Asia. Nevertheless, an issue that India has with Bangladesh is with regards to the plight and targeted attack on its minority citizens, especially the Hindus, as during Bangladesh’s creation, 15% of the Bangladeshi population was Hindu, however, recent reports portray a concerning picture whereby from 15% it has fallen down to 7% in 2018⁵. India has consistently taken this issue to the Bangladeshi authorities, nevertheless, this remains a subject that is still a work in progress.
The Chinese threat to India-Bangladesh relations
India Bangladesh relations are built on a solid foundation where mutual cooperation and trust have blossomed. Nonetheless, a diplomatic test is being faced by India and Bangladesh with the entry of China in the picture. China is enhancing and harnessing its relationship with Bangladesh whereby, China has reduced tariffs and created various exemptions of exports from Bangladesh in order to attract the Bangladeshis to the Chinese markets⁷. Similarly, both Dhaka and Beijing have engaged in developmental projects and arms exports. China has become Bangladesh’s largest arms provider and is furthermore jointly developing submarine bases at Pekua in Cox’s Bazar². China also replaced India as Bangladesh’s largest trading partner in 2015 and has been in that position ever since. Under the Belt and Road Initiative, Bangladesh and China have signed over 27 bilateral agreements and nearly $40 million were offered by China as aid which is twice as much as India has provided¹³. The increasing ties that are developing between China and Bangladesh are of some concern to India. However, India’s policymakers see its relationship with Bangladesh independent of other countries. Similarly, India has remained cognitive of the fact that Bangladesh is a sovereign nation and has the right to decide for itself without any external influencing, furthermore as Bangladesh grows economically and politically so will its connections with the larger powers. Therefore it is fair for India to offer space to Bangladesh so that it can look after its own interests. On the other hand, a positive for India is that the ruling party in Bangladesh under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has better ties with India rather than with China. Regardless, whatever the Chinese do in Bangladesh, India cannot lose its footing in Bangladesh and the best way for India is to work through its soft power and diplomacy because the people-to-people contact that India has with Bangladesh is no match for the Chinese. Nonetheless, India has to remain vigilant and keep a check on the developing relationship between China and Bangladesh. Whereas Bangladesh needs to take a stand for itself. What is most important for both is that they should prioritize each other’s national interests and not risk them. Ultimately, this is a test of India-Bangladesh relations and may well be the defining moment of India’s‘ Neighbourhood Strategy’ and its eventual success or failure.
India Bangladesh relations have historical, cultural, linguistic, geographical, and multitudes of commonalities¹⁰. This is backed up with mutual cooperation, trust, and respect for each other. Economically, India and Bangladesh have grown immensely. The people-to-people and cultural linkages of both nations have furthermore strengthened bilateral ties between both countries. Similarly, India and Bangladesh have cooperated in the area of Defense and border settlement. India has provided developmental assistance to Bangladesh and has actively engaged with the Bangladeshi government on human resource development projects. Likewise, the Government of India has remained true to its mantra of ‘Sabka Vishwas, Sabka Saath, and Sabka Vikas’, as various initiatives carried out by India have helped Bangladesh in its ‘Vikas’ or development which has propelled it to become a regional economic power.
However, with strengths there are challenges and the potential hurdle that India-Bangladesh relations may face comes from China and their aggressive as well as expansionist policy. Therefore, India and Bangladesh should trust on their fruitful past before the Dragon fires its way into the Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh and India should deal with China separately. Similarly, both nations should be mindful of each other’s interests as that should not be jeopardized for an ‘outsider’ to the neighborhood. Regardless, India-Bangladesh relations are based on their own set of merits. Both nations and especially India sees Bangladesh as a close ally as it is India’s immediate neighbor. India is more than willing to strengthen its relations with Bangladesh in order to move towards a stable, self-sustainable, and safer neighborhood, and for this to happen an economically and militarily strong Bangladesh is in India’s best interest. Therefore, Bangladesh has to learn to balance India and China, whereas India needs to collaborate with Bangladesh in order to safeguard its immediate neighborhood and in the long-term strengthen South Asia.
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About the author: Prathmesh Rai is currently pursuing a BA in Global Affairs at the Jindal School of International Affairs. His area of interest includes India's Neighbourhood, China, soft power, and the Middle East.
Cover image: IPA Newspack [https://ipanewspack.com/2019/12/cab-gives-a-jolt-to-india-bangladesh-relations/]