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Cementing Bangladesh-India ties

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh is now in the second year of her second term as Bangladesh’s Prime Minister.

Cementing Bangladesh-India ties

A file photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina at the 18th SAARC Summit in Kathmandu, last year. AFP

Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh is now in the second year of her second term as Bangladesh’s Prime Minister. She has recently been judged the 56th most powerful woman among a hundred listed by the Forbes magazine. After a year in office, Modi too is still riding the wave of support and popularity within India and making a mark globally. So the forthcoming jugalbandi in Dhaka will be watched very carefully in the region. The West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who recently hosted Modi in Kolkata, has been bargaining furiously for a quid pro quo to come out openly in support of the Teesta river water-sharing agreement. She has bowled a googly by agreeing to join Modi's delegation and will accompany him to Dhaka, according to her party sources. 

Green signal to Teesta agreement

There is no confirmation that she will give the green signal to the Teesta agreement. Her party sources have said that she will be going with Modi to witness the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA). She has so far kept mum on the Teesta agreement. She is negotiating with Modi for a generous financial package for West Bengal which is in financial distress, having mismanaged its finances for several years under the former CPM government. Industry and business fled the state, the economy went downhill, most talent abandoned the state and the state's revenue suffered, while expenditure increased.  Mamata joining Modi for the Dhaka visit has high symbolic value and a signal that she will eventually give the nod for the Teesta agreement.

Modi has so far visited Bhutan, Nepal (twice) and Sri Lanka. Bangladesh will be the fourth neighbour to host Modi. In the foreign policy domain, Modi has pleasantly surprised everyone when he invited leaders of all SAARC countries and the Prime Minister of Mauritius for his swearing-in ceremony. This was an unprecedented signal of a more robust neighbourhood policy. Modi has logged 18 foreign visits so far. These have included several major powers and some smaller ones, including island nations in the Indian Ocean, as part of a rejuvenated foreign policy. Critics have argued that that there is a growing imbalance between foreign and domestic policy of the Modi government. There is little doubt that the Modi government's has notched up some success on the the foreign policy front, on domestic policy reforms, despite strenuous efforts, there has been relatively modest success so far. This underlines the far more arduous task of consensus building in domestic politics. Modi did not want to visit Bangladesh with two major bilateral agreements — the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA)  and the Teesta river water-sharing agreement — hostage to domestic Indian politics and the process of implementation caught up in political and legislative crossfire. The successful passage of the Constitution Amendment Bill through Parliament was a masterstroke. It came after neutralising domestic opposition, mainly from the veteran Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi of Assam. If he can also ensure that  Mamata comes on board the Teesta agreement, the success of the forthcoming visit to Bangladesh is guaranteed. A political deal between the Centre and  state government of West Bengal, lubricated by a mutually acceptable financial package, will be the key to bringing Mamata on board. For Hasina too, the visit will be parleyed as a triumph since the much-awaited LBA is now a done deal, though the Teesta agreement still hangs in balance. If the Teesta  agreement is also announced, she can then justifiably claim a foreign policy triumph. Even if the water-sharing agreement is not delivered, the LBA will still provide Hasina with enough ammunition to silence her critics who have persistently attacked her for giving away too much to India and getting too little in return. Internally, Bangladesh has been politically volatile. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its allies, after boycotting the last election about a year ago, have remained in agitation mode. 

Islamists attack

The Islamists have also attacked the Hasina government for her courageous decision to institute the War Crimes trials, for atrocities committed during Bangladesh's 1971 War of Liberation by the genocidal Pakistani government, its marauding army and local collaborators. Mainly the leaders of Islamist parties and organisations have been indicted for war crimes. Several leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami have been convicted and two have been hanged. More are expected to be convicted and punished. The Islamists in Bangladesh have struck back. Since the beginning of 2015, four bloggers have been brutally hacked to death on the streets of Dhaka by Muslim extremists for insulting Islam. Credit for these killings has been claimed by a new militant Islamist outfit, calling itself “Ansar Bangla 8” also known as “Ansar Bangla Team”. Warnings on social media have publicised their target list, all accused as atheists who indulge in insulting Islam and its Prophet. In 2013, ABT had issued a list of 84 “atheist bloggers”. The ABT operatives are adept in information technology and use Facebook and Twitter to locate their targets and then send their indoctrinated madrassa-educated armed cadres to kill the bloggers. Nine of the 84 atheist bloggers, named in the list, have been killed till May 2015. Significantly, a disproportionate number of them are from Bangladesh's minority Hindu community. Bangladesh’s Home Ministry has issued a ban order on the ABT — making it the sixth extremist organisation to be banned after the Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B), Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) and Shahadat-e Al-Hikma (SAH). 

Islamists in Bangladesh are adapting to increased pressure from the security authorities. Sheikh Hasina's government has successfully cracked down on terrorists, Islamic radicals and Indian insurgent groups which had earlier operated from their safe havens in Bangladesh, under the patronage of the erstwhile government led by Begum Khaleda Zia, allied with the Jamaat-e-Islami and in cahoots with the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). 

Anti-India activities

Their anti-India activities included money laundering and funnelling fake Indian currency into India from Bangladesh. The Islamists will continue to remain active, looking for opportunities with the support of the Pakistani ISI and its terrorist allies to seek recruits and operational bases for launching terrorist operations against India. There are international Islamist organisations that are known to allegedly pump funds into Bangladesh to foster radicalisation. The space for radical Islam has grown in Bangladesh, thanks to generous funding from Gulf donors also, all in the name of charity. Wahabi and Salafist ideologies have travelled with such funding which provides young recruits to travel to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries for indoctrination. The radical message is then spread by these preachers in villages and towns in the Bangladeshi countryside. Bangladesh and India have to set up new and special structures to monitor and combat radicalism as a common a threat, since the only operative language of the Islamic radicals is violence that can undermine the moderate and largely secular ethos of Bangladeshi society and polity. India has to guard against the spillover effects into India. Like India, Bangladesh has not produced too many recruits for the Islamic State in Iraq-Syria. This is a positive trend.

Illegal migration and human trafficking has long been an area of major concern. The recent discovery of  fresh graves in southern Thailand of mainly Rohingya Muslim migrants fleeing persecution in Myanmar, has again opened a can of worms on illegal migration and human trafficking. The Thai police, notorious for their corruption, have been implicated in human trafficking of Bangladeshis and Myanmar Rohingyas to Malaysia and Indonesia, using Thailand as a transit route. There have been allegations that Malaysian traffickers have also been involved in this racket. The Thai Police Chief has told the media in Bangkok that over 50 police officials have been transferred as punishment. 

He admitted that the police had turned a blind eye to this human trafficking. The Thai PM, a former Army chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha who came to power in a coup a year ago, has ordered a cleanup and appealed for a regional effort to stem the flow of illegal migration. The crackdown by the Thai government is the first time that a serious effort is being put in to deal with this problem. There are estimates that 2.5 lakh Bangladeshis have been trafficked in the last eight years via Thailand, where these migrants are held captive under abominable conditions and money is extorted from them. Some are “sold” as bonded labour to work in the booming Thai seafood industry. 

Forsaking their homes, these desperate migrants are lured by promises of jobs and a better life. This modern-day slave trade is firmly rooted in southern Bangladesh, along the Teknaf coast and St. Martin's island. Ships captained mostly by Thai nationals transport these illegal migrants to Thailand first. Bangldesh's government can no longer pretend that it does not happen. The network is spread over  Myammar, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. The Sheikh Hasina government has been forced to act and has ordered an investigation. Indonesian authorities have claimed that over 7,000 migrants are afloat on ships with as many as 30 per cent of them Bangladeshis. Some ships have been all allowed to dock in Indonesia and the migrants have been allowed ashore and kept in camps. Illegal migration from Bangladesh into India has been an irritant for a very long time. It is time for both 

Hasina and Modi to put their heads together and find a mechanism to stem this flow because this has the deadly potential of derailing the friendly ties between the two countries. If Bangladesh is comfortable in dealing with this issue in a regional framework, then India can take the initiative to form such a group of  countries and set up a coordination mechanism to deal with this modern-day “slave” trade. Bilaterally, a more liberal visa regime will help ease Bangladeshi angst about India's restrictive visa regime. On its part, Bangladesh has to deliver on security, counter-terrorism cooperation and a permanent transit arrangement.

The nuts and bolts of the forthcoming visit will lie in the domain of connectivity and India's line of credit to support the upgradation of Bangladeshi Railways, dredging of waterways, power generation, non-tariff barriers (NTBs) and the Motor Vehicles Agreement. Bangladesh's adverse trade balance with India is now attributed to NTBs, though there are structural reasons for the trade imbalance. Bangladesh has concerns about inflow of Phensidyl, a cough syrup used by drug addicts in Bangladesh because of its codeine content (a derivative from opium). The overarching goal of integration will help India's North-Eastern states when full-fledged transit arrangements through Bangladesh are finalised. There is precious little that the Modi government can do on the issue of cattle smuggling from India to Bangladesh, the principal cause of recurring border skirmishes and occasional killings of Bangladeshi smugglers and illegal immigrants. The general direction of bilateral ties has been upwards, despite the irritants. Meanwhile, India's future agenda must focus on generating momentum for trilateral cooperation between Bangladesh, India and Myanmar. To begin with India should consider playing a role in helping Myanmar deal with the Rohingya issue which is an irritant in Bangladesh-Myanmar relations and is also damaging Myanmar's international reputation.

 The author is a former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs and a former High Commissioner to Bangladesh

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