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Turning a new corner

Indo-Bangla relations have long been due for a makeover. It’s now or never, writes Smruti S. Pattanaik.

india Updated: Jan 12, 2010 21:08 IST

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s visit to India is a historic one. Not only is a strong political will evident, there’s a palpable enthusiasm to walk the extra mile. Her Awami League (AL) government has just completed one year in office and the two governments have time on their side to tackle complex bilateral issues.

The AL’s historic win has been a cause for celebration in India and India’s stakes in the regime’s success are high, poised as it is to take several decisions that will determine Bangladesh’s secular future. Whether it is the trial of war criminals or zero tolerance for terrorism, this government is set to create history in Bangladesh’s politics.

During Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led regime, Indo-Bangladesh relations had touched their nadir.

Political patronage to radical elements, growing religious intolerance and reluctance of the government to act against Indian insurgent groups, refusal to sign on to the multilateral trans-Asian Highway project — just because the route would benefit India — are but some instances where the BNP government did not hesitate to adopt policies that adversely affected Bangladesh’s interests; all in the name of protecting its sovereignty.

Given this backdrop, this visit is definitely about the ‘charter for change’ in the AL’s election manifesto, which had boldly declared that ‘rail and road connections with neighbouring countries under the Asian Rail and Highway schemes will be established’. The government has also announced that, after modernisation, the Chittagong and Mongla ports will be opened to all of Asia. What’s more, it has the popular mandate to carry these proposals forward.

India has announced a $1-billion line of credit that would help Bangladesh build infrastructure and emerge as a hub between South and Southeast Asia. Also, the memorandum of understanding on electricity exchange, to the tune of 900 million units per annum, will go a long way in dealing with power shortage in the two countries.

India needs to walk the extra mile and, if necessary, provide unilateral trade concessions, already hinted at by the finance minister. But any concession or policy announcements must not be allowed to get tangled in bureaucratic red tape, leading to broken promises — India’s offer of half a million tonnes of rice during cyclone Sidr being a case in point.

India has already agreed to provide transit facilities to Bangladesh for trade with Nepal and Bhutan; it now needs to resolve undemarcated land and maritime boundaries rather than letting the issue fester. To address its main security concerns, India must be prepared to bear some economic loss — a small price to pay in the long run. What’s important here is to send the right political signals.

Bangladesh has suffered more than India by tolerating radical elements and no one knows this better than the current government, which could have lost its entire front-ranking leadership in the August 2004 bombing of an AL rally. Hasina’s government has busted militant networks and has made several arrests and facilitated the surrender of Ulfa leaders who had taken refuge in Bangladesh. So, the agreement on mutual legal assistance on criminal matters, extradition of sentenced criminals and the bilateral resolve to combat international terrorism and organised crime is significant.

India must demonstrate magnanimity commensurate with its size, stature and global aspirations. Let the benefits be evaluated in intangibles, like strengthening liberalism over fundamentalism and shared political and social values, which should not get lost in the bilateral nitty-gritty.

Smruti S. Pattanaik is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses

The views expressed by the author are personal