The last three weeks have witnessed unfortunate politicisation of a positive effort on the part of the leadership of both Bangladesh and India aimed at fostering a constructive bilateral engagement. Sheikh Hasina's government has faced vilification from certain quarters; they have made selective and arbitrary interpretation of how Bangladesh should traverse the international path for strengthening its national interests.
Some critics have gone out of their way over the past month and tried to belittle the pro-active initiatives undertaken by the government at different times - on the issues of (a)holding elections under the newly-constituted Election Commission; (2) containing militancy, violence and terrorism and restoring stability; (3) becoming part of the wider international parliamentary democratic paradigm. Instead of appreciating the successful convening and conclusion of the 136th session of the International Parliamentary Union in Dhaka they have been dismissive about the whole process.
Since September, 2016, the present government has actively pursued, through participation in important meetings in Canada, the United Nations, Goa in India, Davos, Munich and Jakarta, an important global agenda that concerns geo-strategic national security. The Prime Minister as well as the Foreign Ministry have underlined our belief in countering terrorism, promoting economic development and investment in Bangladesh, developing connectivity and tackling the challenges arising out of climate variability and migration. The approach towards the handling of the Rohingya refugees has demonstrated our conviction in upholding human rights.
These efforts have been supplemented through the fruitful visit of Chinese President Xi to Bangladesh in October, 2016.
This trend in our foreign policy engagement has reflected our belief that we need to have friendly relations with countries in South Asia, the South-East region and the Far East. It is also this approach that has led us to actively participate in UN Peacekeeping Operations all over the world aimed at maintaining international peace and security.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's official visit to India, from April 07-10, needs to be understood in the context of this paradigm. It has been an example of positive inter-activity. It has unveiled a joint roadmap towards more intensive and wider cooperation. Her visit needs to be viewed as a reciprocal gesture after the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Dhaka in June, 2015.
It may be recalled that during Modi's visit, 22 agreements were signed and that included maritime safety cooperation, curbing of human trafficking and also the spread of fake Indian currency. During that visit, India extended a US $ 2.0 billion Line of Credit to Bangladesh and pledged the possibility of encouraging investment in Bangladesh.
This time round, as has been disclosed during Hasina's visit, 36 bilateral instruments in the format of agreements, memorandums of understanding and standard operating procedures were signed with India. Several lines of credit have also been signed between the two countries. They relate to fresh cooperation in areas like border 'haats' (markets), information and broadcasting, nuclear energy, science and technology, ICT, satellite and space research, geological science, community clinics, power and energy, defence sector (joint training, exchange of information and research) and infrastructure.
A Joint Statement, issued on April 08, referred to the wide-ranging discussions that had taken place between the two sides and emphasised that relations between India and Bangladesh were reflective of their all-encompassing partnership and that it was based on sovereignity, equality, trust and understanding. It was also reiterated that their current level of understanding re-affirmed their common aspiration for peace, collective prosperity and the development of the region.
The two sides have also underlined that terrorism remains one of the most significant threats to peace and security for our region and that the fight against terrorism should not only seek to disrupt and eliminate terrorists, terror organizations and their networks, but should also take strong measures against States and entities that encourage, support and finance terrorism, provide sanctuary to terrorists and terror groups. Analysts have interpreted this as a tangential reference to Pakistan.
There has been emphasis on better border management within identified vulnerable areas. It has been underscored that the borders should be free of criminal activities and that number of deaths at the border need to be brought down to zero. This has been identified as respecting the demand from Bangladesh that killings of Bangladeshi citizens at the India-Bangladesh border was unacceptable in Bangladesh and were gross violations of human rights. One needs to remember here that quite correctly the Bangladeshi media recalls the unfortunate killing of the young Bangladeshi lady Felani who was killed while attempting to return to Bangladesh from India to get married. The photograph of her body left hanging on the fence still creates horror in the minds of Bangladeshis. It is disappointing that although a few years have passed after this tragic incident, the Indian judicial process has not punished those who shot her. Consequently, this latest emphasis on more effective management by both sides is a welcome development not only as a step towards better control of smuggling, human trafficking and drug trafficking but also as a correct step towards upholding human rights.
After noting the first-ever visit to Bangladesh by an Indian Defence Minister in November, 2016, the two countries have agreed to deepen defence cooperation through three MoUs that recognize the need for enhancing cooperation in the field of strategic and operational studies and greater cooperation in the field of national security. This has been seen as a measure that would help to build trust, understanding based on sovereignty and equality and also as a process that would enhance strategic partnership. In this context, a MoU was signed that extended from India a line of credit of US$ 500 million pertaining to possible use in procuring defence requirements. One understands that this fund would be available for possible procurement of defence material, if necessary, also from sources other than India.
The visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was remarkable for the fact that the Bangladesh business community took advantage of this opportunity to despatch a large business delegation from Bangladesh to New Delhi. They held separate meetings with their Indian counterparts and also with representatives from the Indian financial sector. The Bangladesh side drew the attention of the Indian representatives to constraints that exist in the bilateral trade parameter.The Bangladesh side sought suggestions from their Indian counterparts about how there could be greater diversification in their effort to increase exports from Bangladesh to India; the removal of para-tariff and non-tariff barriers that still exist within India, particularly within the financial paradigms of Indian States; the lifting of Indian anti-dumping measures related to export of jute and jute goods from Bangladesh; arranging the streamlining of banking channels for facilitating trade; the importance of more pro-active cooperation from the Indian Customs and product testing authorities and finding Least Common Denominators regarding the existing tax structures in different Indian States. Hope has been generated in this regard because both countries have agreed to upgrade infrastructure of land customs stations and ports in a coordinated manner to facilitate the flow of goods. There have also been reports of the Indian business community being agreeable to invest nearly US $9.0 billion in different business projects in Bangladesh, including in the Export Processing Zones being set aside for them in Bangladesh.
Reports have also indicated that a fresh line of credit worth US$ 4.5 billion has been made available by India for Bangladesh to assist in - facilitating exchange of technical information and cooperation in the regulation of nuclear safety and radiation protection; cooperation with regard to nuclear power plant project in Bangladesh; in the field of information technology and electronics; in bilateral judicial sector cooperation; in the field of earth sciences and in the development of Fairway from Sirajganj to Daikhowa and Ashuganj to Zakiganj on Indo-Bangladesh protocol Route. Several other important MoUs have also been agreed to with regard to cooperation in the fields of energy and in the improvement of infrastructure, including dredging of river routes.
However, while so many important measures have been agreed to, our efforts of reaching an agreement on receiving a legal share of Teesta river waters has failed thanks once again to the obdurate and unreasonable stand of the West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. It is most unfortunate that this significant decision consistent with international law has not been allowed to come into place. The Indian Prime Minister has assured all that an agreement in this regard would be in place before his current term of office comes to an end. This sort of optimism is helpful but will not generate sufficient confidence among Bangladeshis who have been waiting for decades for a positive outcome. Prime Minister Modi needs to take a more pro-active engagement as he did for concluding the Land Boundary Agreement. The delay on Teesta is completely inconsistent with the joint efforts being undertaken to enhance trust and cooperation between the two countries for mutual benefit.
The writer, a former Ambassador and Chief Information Commissioner of the Information Commission, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.