Global Insider: India-Bangladesh Relations

The head of India's navy, Adm. Nirmal Verma, recently met with senior military and civilian officials in Bangladesh, including Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and President Mohammed Zillur. In an email interview, Sreeradha Datta, a research fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis in New Delhi, discussed India-Bangladesh relations.

WPR: What is the recent history of India-Bangladesh relations?

Sreeradha Datta: Although they began as friends following Bangladesh's independence, India and Bangladesh quickly lapsed into indifferent if not hostile and antagonistic relations. The worst phase in bilateral ties occurred from 2001-2006. The two subsequently emerged again as friendly and supportive neighbors. With Bangladesh's Awami League coalition government coming to power in 2008, bilateral ties have strengthened further.

WPR: What are the major opportunities and obstacles facing the relationship going forward?

Datta: The joint communiqué signed during Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's visit to India in January 2010 laid the foundation of a new cooperative framework. Following Bangladesh's actions against anti-Indian groups and terror elements, a grateful India lent its support to infrastructure development and other projects within Bangladesh. In addition to the $1 billion credit line it offered to Bangladesh, India has initiated infrastructure development on its side of the border in order to facilitate trade. The two sides also signed a trade-transit agreement, and, in a major breakthrough, Bangladesh will be buying power from India's Tripura state. Combined, these developments will transform trade and economic ties.

Although several agreements have been inked, the critical challenge lies in the actual implementation of the projects. The impatient Bangladeshi population needs to be convinced of their tangible benefits -- and quickly. However, two critical obstacles revolve around land- and maritime-boundary demarcation and water-sharing. The demarcation of a 4-mile stretch of land along the 2,500-mile Indo-Bangladeshi border is complicated by issues of enclaves and adverse possessions. The question of the maritime boundary presently rests with the U.N. arbitration council. Resolving these issues will positively influence bilateral relations.

Water is also a critical factor in relations and has an enormous emotional impact on Bangladeshi opinion. The pending agreement over the River Teesta will be a litmus test for the two sides.

WPR: What is the significance of the move to expand their defense ties?

Datta: The thaw in India's relations with Bangladesh's military began with the visit of Bangladeshi army chief Moeen Ahmed to India in early 2008, after a 10-year gap in contacts. The visit clearly signaled the Bangladeshi army's willingness to improve relations with India. Ahmed's Indian counterpart undertook a reciprocal visit soon after. This period also witnessed a visit to India by Bangaldeshi Border Force Director Shakil Ahmed. Significantly, the Bangladeshi security establishment assured India that it would address India's security concerns.

Following Hasina's 2010 visit, the two sides reinitiated joint military exercises after a noticeable gap. In addition, the Indian Air Force has helped to modernize Bangladesh's MiG-29 aircraft and Mi-17 helicopters and has provided maintenance for its fighter aircraft and helicopters. The Indian navy is also considering refurbishing and repairing the Bangladeshi navy's frigates. In this context, the Bangladeshi army chief's visit to India in March 2010 was clearly significant, as was the symbolism of Bangladeshi Gen. M. Abdul Mubeen being the first South Asian military chief to visit the Siachen Glacier.

Clearly, the Awami government's position vis-à-vis India has the full support of the military. This could be a new beginning for defense ties between the two sides.

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