The defining images of India-Bangladesh ties during PM Modi’s just concluded Dhaka visit would be his presence as chief guest at the National Day celebrations and New Delhi’s entry into an upcoming Russian nuclear power plant there. The nuclear plant foray, buttressed by a $1 billion line of credit, preceded by India gifting Kilo class submarines to Dhaka establish India’s strategic proximity to Bangladesh as compared with China. The joint celebrations of Bangladesh’s 50th anniversary of liberation from Pakistan need no subtexts to underline the complete distancing of the Sheikh Hasina government from Islamabad. India-Bangladesh ties today are a far cry from the dark era that began with the assassination of most of Sheikh Mujib’s family in 1975 and closed in 2008 with the election of his surviving daughter Sheikh Hasina.
There was a five-year interlude when Hasina in her first term as PM established her pro-India leanings by inking the Ganga water sharing pact and ending unrest in Chittagong Hills where rebels from the north-east found safe havens. Yet those decades of political hostility and a slide into Islamism made Bangladesh a staging point for ISI’s depredations, shattered its economy causing massive infiltration into India and generated hostility about Indian proposals to restore connectivity and transit. Favourable political winds in Dhaka since 2008 have finally dispelled the misgivings about India as a conniving giant and Bangladesh its credulous victim.
The turning point was the land boundary agreement and the trust reignited among the two armies after years of close interaction. The steady rise in trucks and trains crossing the borders, a huge increase in documented travel and talks for an FTA indicate the two countries’ preference for steady investment in ties rather than a myopic view. But uncontrolled passions of ideology and religious fervour also roil the land, as was evidenced from the police firing on protestors during PM Modi’s visit. Both New Delhi and Dhaka would do well to avoid trying to squeeze in domestic political objectives. Rekindling of suspicions about a Hindu India trying to dominate Bangladesh is a spoiler both sides might want to avoid.