PM visit to mark sea-change in Bangladesh ties | delhi | Hindustan Times
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PM visit to mark sea-change in Bangladesh ties

Just days before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is scheduled to visit Bangladesh, survey teams are demarcating two last territorial enclaves and negotiators trying to tease out a Teesta water agreement. Pramit Pal Chaudhuri reports.

delhi Updated: Aug 30, 2011 22:58 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

Just days before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is scheduled to visit Bangladesh, survey teams are demarcating two last territorial enclaves and negotiators trying to tease out a Teesta water agreement. Even without these, Singh's visit will further and fasten a historic transformation of Indo-Bangladesh relations.

Though much of what Singh and his Bangladeshi counterpart, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, will sign on September 6th will be remarkable - for example, wiping out the nearly 200 territorial enclaves that have marred the boundary since 1947 - New Delhi sees the policy as a process of small steps rather than "big bangs."

India and Bangladesh have had testy relations since the death of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1974. This in turn bred a sense the sheer number of outstanding issues - territory, water, trade, transit and so on - meant India and Bangladesh were destined to be frenemies.

In New Delhi's view, the critical issue has been Dhaka's cooperation on the security front both against Northeast insurgents and Islamicist militants. Sheikh Hasina is praised for having done "incredible" work on this front, even if it also benefited Bangladesh as well.

This has made it easier for New Delhi to be flexible on territorial and trade issues.

The enclaves will effectively be absorbed into the surrounding country. A survey of the inhabitants found none of them were concerned about changing citizenship and none wanted to move across the border.

New Delhi has given more access to Bangladeshi textile exports, but admits the trade balance remains "unconscionably" biased in India's favour.

The two have agreed to make the issue of transit a purely commercial issue with Bangladesh deciding fees on the basis of what it believes the market will bear. India has also decided to let natural gas extraction be left to Dhaka's own political and legal timeframe. Singh's visit will mark a rare foreign policy accomplishment in his second tenure. It will also advance the goal of what his national security advisor, Shiv Shankar Menon, has termed the creation of a "peaceful periphery" around India.

Which is why New Delhi is focused on ensuring this new bonhomie is sustainable. This is one reason it has engaged Khaleda Zia, the traditionally Indo-sceptic opposition leader. She has privately expressed no opposition and even promised to meet Singh during his visit. New Delhi will also seek to align itself with the interests of the growing "apolitical" Bangladesh middle class created over the past two decades, a group seen as supportive of the new Indian policy.