The uniqueness of India – Bangladesh relations

I have lived in Bangladesh and worked on India-Bangladesh relations for a large part of my career. I have seen the swings in the relationship, and how the fate of our countries is interlinked.

August 3, 2023 12:47 pm

PM Narendra Modi shaking hands with Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina.(File photo)
PM Narendra Modi shaking hands with Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina.(File photo)

By Pankaj Saran

India-Bangladesh relations are unique for many reasons. They are a summation of a common history, geography and culture that both countries share. These factors weigh heavily on the relationship, sometimes reinforcing the relationship and sometimes fracturing it.

We have lived through both realities. But at the end of every cycle of the good times and the bad times, the ultimate truth stares us in the face – we have to live together and manage our relations on our own. This calls for maturity and statesmanship on both sides and acceptance of the reality that sovereignty may not be as absolute as we may like to believe.

This does not mean that political borders are not sacrosanct or territorial integrity or the principles of the UN Charter negotiable.

The security and development interests of India and Bangladesh intersect at more levels than can be imagined. Developments inside one country affect the other. There are overlapping opportunities and challenges which are a living reality. To that extent, the sovereign interests of both nations need an element of accommodation and adjustment. This may not be palatable to purists and nationalists on either side but is an inescapable fact.

I have lived in Bangladesh and worked on India-Bangladesh relations for a large part of my career. I have seen the swings in the relationship, and how the fate of our countries is interlinked.

Today, more than fifty years after the liberation of Bangladesh, a new generation of Bangladeshis is shaping the destiny of their country. At one level, this is good because it helps the country to develop its own identity and discover its true genius after the successive traumas the region suffered starting from the partition on Bengal in 1905.

The emergence of a new Bangladesh is visible in the towns and villages of Bangladesh. New institutions have been built to govern the country and regulate its economic activity. A young Bangladeshi today sees herself much more than just a descendant of Pakistan or of British India.

Yet, the battle for identity is far from over. It pervades every walk of life, whether it is politics, culture or social norms and behaviour. Even symbols of nationhood are susceptible to alternate interpretations and historical biases. Some continue to question the birth of Bangladesh as an independent nation even today. At one level, everything is up for debate, and no issue seems to be settled. How much of Bangladesh is rooted in its linguistic identity and how much of it in its Islamic identity is a question that still looms, and generates different responses.

Bangladesh is land and resource stressed. Its population in 1971 was about seven crore. Today it is estimated to be close to seventeen crore, most of whom are below the age of thirty. For the sake of comparison, this is higher than the population of Russia.

Climate change is leading to shrinking of the coastline, greater saliinity and greater susceptibility to natural disasters. All of this poses a threat to livelihood and well-being. The influx of 1.2 million Rohingyas from Arakan is the latest blow to Bangladesh’s fragile ecosystem. Despite these challenges the country has done remarkably well over the years, confounding all those who gave Bangladesh little chance to succeed.

Based on strictly empirical data, it can be said that the rise of Bangladesh in the last fifteen years has coincided with the presence of a political leadership that chose to move fast with India, and that good relations with India have been good for Bangladesh. This has been triggered by a combination of major and sustained initiatives in the areas of economic integration, connectivity, trade, infrastructure and people to people links.

Underpinning this has been a strategic consensus that peace and security inside Bangladesh not only contributes to positive externalities across the border but is also good for Bangladesh. Bangladesh over this period went back to the basic contract that led to its emergence as a free nation, based on the principles that informed its liberation and which inspired those who fought for the idea of Bangladesh. Continuity in Delhi’s policies towards Bangladesh over two successive and very different governments, on the other hand, is also a unique example of domestic consensus in India on a key foreign policy issue.

There is no running away from the fact that India has been closely associated with Bangladesh’s political history. Nor from the fact that developments inside Bangladesh affect the most vulnerable regions of India and in general, India’s core security interests. It is only India and Bangladesh, and not any third party, proximate or distant, who can manage this complex interplay of forces and arrive at a modus vivendi on how to live alongside each other. That is the basis for ensuring stability in the sub-region.

Bangladesh is an abiding priority for India. It never leaves the radar of Indian foreign and security policy. In contrast, the attention of the rest of the world on Bangladesh is fitful and sporadic, and not always helpful. Bangladesh is of much less consequence for major powers, except as a plaything on the larger global canvass. As the time for elections approaches, Bangladesh is again beginning to attract attention.

Bangladeshis revel in politics, as do all South Asians. The people of Bangladesh should be allowed to vote and decide their fate without outside interference, coercion, threat or influence. The choice of the system of governance is one only the people of Bangladesh have the right to make. Democracy can neither be exported nor thrust from outside. It has a way of finding its own roots and following the genius of its people.

For the sake of our two peoples, we should hope that the political class and other pillars of Bangladeshi society will continue to move forward towards greater economic integration and stronger ties with India keeping each other’s interests in mind. Recent history has shown this is possible and doable. There is no reason why these benefits can not only be persevered but also be built upon.

(Exclusive to NatStrat)

Pankaj Saran is a former diplomat with forty years of experience in foreign, strategic and national security affairs. He has served in key positions within the Government of India in the Prime Minister’s Office, the National Security Council Secretariat, Ministry of External Affairs and in Indian Missions in Moscow, Dhaka, Washington DC, Cairo and Geneva.

He has served as India’s Ambassador to Russia and India’s High Commissioner to Bangladesh, and as Head of the Northern Division in the Ministry of External Affairs dealing with Nepal and Bhutan.

He has served in different capacities in the Prime Minister’s Office contributing to decision making at the highest levels in a diverse range of sectors, including foreign affairs and national security. From 2018 to 2021, he served as the Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Affairs under Prime Minister Narendra Modi dealing with regional and global strategy formulation, including maritime security and Arctic affairs, neighbourhood policies and technology and economic security.

Pankaj Saran is presently Convenor of NatStrat, a Delhi-based independent Centre for Research on Strategic and Security Issues and a commentator on security and strategic issues. He is a Distinguished Fellow of the National Maritime Foundation and has contributed to publications and newspapers such as The Times of India, Hindustan Times and The Economic Times.

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