Bangladesh-India relations: Towards the next 50 years

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Published on December 17, 2020
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Jyoti M Pathania and Shafqat Munir:

Around this time 49 years ago, the world’s eyes were transfixed on Bangladesh. A nation-state was about to be born and a full-scale war was raging as Bangladesh and Indian forces were racing towards Dhaka. The relationship between Bangladesh and India is therefore unique and organic as it was forged and cemented in the battlefield during the glorious War of Liberation in 1971.

The relationship has come a long way in the last half century and the people of the two nations have traversed a great distance together. As we move towards the first half century of Indo-Bangladesh relations, it is time to look beyond the horizon into the next fifty years. It is time for us to take stock of the achievements, acknowledge the problems and challenges and think outside the box about what can be done to take the relationship to the next level.

There are many questions that need to be asked. For instance, should we rest on our laurels or should we engage in careful introspection about the relationship? As a new generation takes over who may value the historical and civilisational bonds shared between the two countries but may not have the same emotional investment in the relationship or the collective memories shared by the previous generation, how do we make the relationship relatable for them? In an age of geopolitical change, how do Dhaka and New Delhi navigate the changing landscapes together? Can we move beyond the rigmarole of routine bilateral issues and forge greater convergence on global issues? The fundamental question amidst all this is how do we take the relationship to greater heights in the next fifty years?

Despite myriad challenges, our relations currently are on a very firm footing. A large portion of the credit goes to the political leadership in both Dhaka and New Delhi who have invested a significant amount of political capital in bringing the relationship to its current level. The opportunities are limitless but there are three areas where enhanced cooperation can be initiated.

Post - COVID, the unprecedented economic downturn is expected to offer a fertile ground for youth-radicalisation by terror/militant groups operating in the region. Formulation of counter- terrorism and de-radicalisation strategies is thereby an urgent requirement.There is an opportunity to look at cooperation on countering radicalisation especially among the youth which is fast becoming a significant challenge. There is an opportunity to develop joint strategies on prevention of violent extremism (PVE) and perhaps developing combined net assessments on the evolving threat of violent extremism and terrorism in the coming decades. Countering the financing of terrorism is another key area where there is an opportunity for enhanced cooperation.A potential for bilateral cooperation for countering activities of the terror and militant groups in the cyber space exists and must be explored.

As mutual threats evolve and graven, this cooperation needs to be expanded and modernised. A synergised training (beyond existing training cooperation) needs to be extended between law enforcement and other security agencies. Plus, real-time intelligence sharing and adapting to should be acknowledged as the need of the hour, and worked upon. Military cooperation in the arena of training on counter terrorism operations could be enhanced further. Moreover, as both countries are major Troop Contributing Countries (TCCs) in UN Peacekeeping Operations, joint training programmes may be enhanced.

Water forms a crucial part in Indo-Bangladesh bilateral relations. Apart from the Teesta river dispute, India’s potential river-linking project would receive serious objections from Bangladesh, especially with respect to the Brahmaputra. The two countries need to work together in this context. The Ganges Water Sharing Treaty is nearing completion by 2026, now is the preparatory phase to revisit and do a thorough study on the hydrological content. Rising sea levels leading to population displacement in southern parts of Bangladesh also threaten the coastal areas of India. Establishment of a Joint River Secretariat could be explored. Additionally, de-salinisation projects need to be encouraged to deal with potable water available. Climate Change continues to pose a significant challenge to both Bangladesh and India and therefore more cooperation on Climate Change is a serious need of the hour.

There is an immense scope and opportunity for greater technological collaboration in the areas of Artificial Intelligence, communications technology such as 5G and satellite technology. The scientific communities, the IT hubs and innovators of both countries need to be more integrated and networked. The cooperation at a governmental level will progress but it is also important for the people outside the government to cooperate and collaborate

We spend a lot of time on talking about the connectivity of roads, bridges and waterways but it is the connectivity of the minds that is the ultimate investment.
While both India and Bangladesh engage more with farther countries, low mutual engagement between the neighbours is a concerning aspect. Bilateral trade of USD 9.8 billion was carried last year. Two Special Economic Zones have been offered by Bangladesh to India in this light. More Indian Companies may be involved in infrastructural development especially in building roads and hydroelectricity sector. At least 30 points can be opened in the borders for better cooperation of trade and greater people-to-people contact. Plus, easing of visa regulations is an aspect that needs urgent attention, given the perpetual difficulties and delays in the process. On the education front, quota for Bangladeshi Students should further increase.

Increasing regional cooperation and capacity building is a necessity. There is an opportunity to look beyond SAARC towards BIMSTEC and other regional bodies. Aspects like prison radicalisation, counter narratives, harmonising training manuals and literature could be considered in this regard

There is a need to make the relationship more centred on the emerging generation. Greater contact between the youth of the two countries is a need of the hour. In an era of disinformation, fake news and deep fakes it is quite easy especially for the youth segment of the population to fall prey to misperceptions about each other. Enhanced contact will not only dispel the myths about each other but also open an opportunity for constructive debate and conversation and opportunity to develop greater understanding. We spend a lot of time on talking about the connectivity of roads, bridges and waterways but it is the connectivity of the minds that is the ultimate investment.

Joint research and collaboration between our agricultural sectors can create new opportunities for shared prosperity. Greater synergy in smart border management can act as a force multiplier in solving some of the nettlesome border management challenges. The existing mechanisms of cooperation and collaboration between the strategic and policy communities in Dhaka and New Delhi need to be redoubled as we embark on this joint exploration for cooperation in the next fifty years. Think tanks can and will continue to play a pivotal role in taking this relationship forward. Hence, the track 2 processes need to be given greater impetus to encourage and facilitate out of the box thinking.

Both India and Bangladesh need to continue their journey together as partners and good neighbors for the next fifty years, by not only building on the historical foundations of Indo-Bangladesh relations of 1971 but moving towards a more matured, sustainable and solid friendship.

- Dr. Jyoti M. Pathania is a Senior Fellow and Chairperson Outreach at Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New-Delhi, India

- Shafqat Munir is currently Head of Bangladesh Centre for Terrorism Research and Research Fellow at Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS), Bangladesh

Courtesy: Prothom Alo English