Paradiplomacy: The possibilities, and challenges, of Assam-Bangladesh relations
Foreign policy is conventionally seem as the exclusive domain of the sovereign State, while paradiplomacy is the common term used when referring to regional or sub-national governments conducting international engagements.
In the Indian context, such opportunities for state governments were limited since Article 246 of the Constitution addresses only the Union government when it comes to foreign policy.
Yet, the nature of coalition governments consisting of regional parties at the Centre, the impulse for economic reform and trade interests of various states along with the growing need to involve key regional stakeholders in foreign policy discourse have seen substantial international engagements by states in recent times.
Some examples of paradiplomacy gaining include the role of Tamil Nadu’s political parties in India-Sri Lanka relations, Gujarat’s economic outreach to the international community, the increasing push from the Northeastern states to be involved in India’s Act East policy and the establishment of a states division in the ministry of external affairs (MEA).
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The Covid-19 pandemic across the globe in the past one year has accelerated the need for paradiplomacy. States such as Assam procured PPE kits from China and started the process of dialogue with the Royal Bhutanese Government for an oxygen plant via MEA during the crisis. Here, a case for paradiplomacy involving Assam and Bangladesh is of significance.
This is the golden jubilee year of India-Bangladesh relations. Bangladesh is India’s most important trade partner in the South Asian region. Its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita and ranking in Sustainable Development Goals have surpassed those of India’s. Under Prime Minister (PM) Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh has initiated action against Indian insurgents taking shelter in the country and settled the boundary issue via the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) signed in 2015.
In the post-2001 period, when Assam had began the process of recovery after the tenure of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which had witnessed gruesome violence during the insurgency and counterinsurgency operations, it was the surrender of a major faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) led by Arabinda Rajkhowa, after Sheikh Hasina became PM, which brought relative peace back to the state.
Then chief minister (CM) Tarun Gogoi and Dr Manmohan Singh went to Bangladesh when India had signed the protocol for the LBA in 2011. There was severe opposition to the agreement in Assam but both the governments of Dr Singh and PM Narendra Modi involved the Assam government in a proactive way while finalising the deal.
Recently, PM Sheikh Hasina wrote a letter after the swearing-in ceremony of the new Assam CM, Himanta Biswa Sarma, stating the commitment of her government to improving connectivity in the Northeastern region with an invitation to Assam to benefit from Bangladesh’s socio-economic development and growth trajectory.
Chief Minister Sarma, in his response, emphasised the need to explore areas of cooperation with Bangladesh. Over the past few years, Assam has enhanced economic cooperation with Bangladesh at the insistence of the Union government. Bangladesh Assistant High Commission has been opened in Guwahati and Bangladesh has opened Chattogram and Mangla port for shipment of goods from the Northeast.
In the future, with coordination between MEA and the Assam government, the state can push for greater connectivity with Bangladesh via rail, road and air along with a focus on organic food, silk, crude oil, fisheries, tourism and work-permits for skilled youth.
A collaborative outreach to Bangladesh by all Northeastern states collectively could produce better outcomes in terms of transportation of goods via inland river waterways.
Along with Bhutan and Myanmar, Bangladesh forms a key triangle around Assam. The Union government must encourage and help Assam take advantage of its geographical proximity with these three countries. Assam needs to prepare a vision document for its paradiplomacy endeavours, engage regularly with the Bangladeshi authorities, other Northeastern states and MEA to transform itself from a landlocked region to a land-linked one with the help of Bangladesh.
However, the obstacle here is Assam’s struggle to protect its identity and culture against so-called “illegal immigrants from Bangladesh”. The politics of identity and exclusion has animated the social paradigms of the state from before Independence, and more so after the Assam Movement (1979-1985). The Bangladesh government was highly uncomfortable with both the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). The new Assam government has reiterated its commitment to the re-verification of NRC in the state. The politics in Assam cannot be divorced from the key question of the rights of the indigenous people. Cooperation with Bangladesh is dependent on how this can be addressed. A flexible political solution, based on the principles of social justice and human rights, should be the way forward.
Subhrangshu Pratim Sarmah is an M.Phil research scholar at the Centre for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament, Jawaharlal Nehru University The views expressed are personal
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