Bangladesh was concerned over the possibilities of exclusion and deportation of many Bangladeshis once the process of preparing the final citizenship list in Assam was over. However, addressing a press conference in Dhaka after meeting with his counterpart A K Abdul Momen, Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said of the exclusion of nearly 2 million people from the National Registry of Citizens (NRC) in Assam. “It’s an internal matter.” Momen also ruled out any concern for Bangladesh and averred that his country believes in India’s assurance.

Nevertheless, India must be able to manage Bangladeshi concerns in the long term. Even while people who are not in the citizenship list can channel their grievances through legal mechanisms, the fear over the possibilities that many people would be deprived of their rights granted by citizenship and turn into stateless persons seeking refuge at the fringes of neighboring countries including Bangladesh might cause concerns. In this context, New Delhi must guard against any such possibilities that could impinge on relations with Bangladesh in particular and regional stability in general.

New Delhi’s shift of regional focus toward the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) away from the defunct South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) complements its Act East policy, as well as its effort to contain Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean region and explore the potential of that ocean’s rim region.

Because of its location as a bridge between South and Southeast Asia, Bangladesh has been a linchpin to India’s sub-regional initiatives such as BIMSTEC, the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal Initiative (BBIN) and the Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar initiative (BCIM). Bangladesh is bound by India to the north, east and west and this geographic reality makes it better connected to India in terms of rail, road, waterways, sea and air than any other neighbor. Bangladesh is India’s largest trade partner in South Asia; bilateral trade was estimated to be US$9.3 billion in 2017-18, and is expected to surge further once the countries work out infrastructural and duty-related issues.

However, Indian concerns will remain as Bangladesh as a developing country has naturally been attracted to China’s deep pockets, and the South Asian country not only became a partner in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) but turned out to be a robust trade partner of China.

India continues to be one of the major development partners of Bangladesh, having extended three lines of credit worth a total of $8 billion since 2010. There is not only collaboration in the power sector, with joint ventures in thermal power projects and Bangladesh importing 1,160 megawatts from India each year substantiating deeper Indian engagement with the country in the energy sector. However, China is emerging as a competitor in that sector as well amid the developing country’s increasing energy requirements.

India will still need to play a crucial role in facilitating and strengthening trade and investment ties if it wishes its leading role within BIMSTEC is accepted as much as the Chinese influence under the BRI. It is noteworthy that India’s relationship with Bangladesh has been strengthened after Modi’s visit in 2015, which has been followed up by crucial developments. This indicates the two countries’ willingness to forge ahead with, for example, resolution of long-pending land and maritime boundaries.

Cooperation in the area of security has been forged with the signing of bilateral agreements pertaining to mutual legal assistance, transfer of prisoners, countering terrorism and organized crime, and the circulation of fake currency. Manifold dialogue mechanisms have been instituted to kick off and maintain bilateral dialogue and discussions in the areas of relevance to both countries.

Indian states in the country’s northeast are crucial to New Delhi’s Act East policy because they share a long border (1,880 kilometers) with Bangladesh (out of the total 4,000km border) passing through difficult terrains characterized by illegal trafficking, ethnic conflicts, occasional infiltration and smuggling of fake currency. The challenges will be to manage them in order to turn these areas into constructive link in the overall Act East policy.

The Sheikh Hasina government’s iron-fisted approach against insurgency and continued assurance that no anti-India activity will be allowed on Bangladeshi soil is a positive development. However, the two countries must strengthen their cooperation in order to turn the border areas into viable units within the Act East framework.

People-to-people contacts

Tourism is an area that can forge people-to-people contacts and place the relationship on a strong pedestal. According to statistics published by the Indian Ministry of Tourism, India received 10.04 million foreign tourists in  2017, for which Bangladesh accounted for 21% with 2.16 million tourists. The organic links between the two countries have been facilitated by regular train and bus services. Passenger trains such as the Maitree Express, which runs four days a week between Kolkata and Dhaka, and the Bandhan Express, which runs once a week between Khulna and Kolkata, bind the two countries in terms of people-to-people contacts. This apart, direct bus services between Dhaka and Kolkata, Dhaka and Agartala, Kolkata, Dhaka and Agartala, and Dhaka, Shillong and Guwahati and non-stop flights between the major cities of India and Bangladesh intertwine the two countries more organically than between any other neighbors in South Asia.

These transportation facilities will be the prime movers of India’s Act East policy. For instance, the Akhaura-Agartala rail project is designed to provide a fillip to the development and economy of eastern Bangladesh and northeastern India. Even while the Indian government has shared the major portion of the project financially, it will provide impetus to India’s eastward stride in the tong term, and the distance between major cities such as Dhaka and Kolkata has been slashed.

Construction of the 1,320MW Rampal coal-fired power plant and training of Bangladeshi officials and judicial officers in India are further cementing ties between the two countries.

The prime ministers of both countries jointly inaugurated the rehabilitation of the Kulaura-Shahbazpur section of the railway line, which will provide direct rail connectivity to Karimganj district of Assam and other northeastern states. Further, an Indian Assistant High Commission office has been opened in the eastern city of Sylhet intending to facilitate faster development of visas for the people of Sylhet and adjoining areas and open new opportunities for promotion of trade, commerce and tourism between that city and Northeast India.

Potential impediments

Bangladesh has relied on China’s military assistance in its drive to modernize its defense. India should not look at Bangladeshi economic and military ties with China as a source of major concern. While New Delhi must appreciate the Bangladeshi desire to maintain balance between India and China, it must at the same time make attempts at arousing confidence in Dhaka that India will continue to contribute to development of Bangladesh and strong bilateral ties are crucial to the success of sub-regional initiatives.

It is worth mentioning that Prime Minister Hasina during a visit to China described Dhaka’s ties with India and engagements with New Delhi as “organic” and said the relationship was “beyond a few billions of dollars of trade.” On the other side, she said: “China is our partner in mega projects and economic advancements.” Repelling concerns that Chinese projects under the BRI spawn debt traps, she said, “Many people talk about the ‘debt trap.’ I have a simple answer. As long as these mega-projects are in our people’s interest, [have] the right payoff and [are] negotiated rightly, we must not be worried.”

India must not allow bilateral concerns such as migration, water-sharing problems, infiltration and illegal trafficking to degenerate into anti-Bangladeshi rhetoric. This may disturb the delicate balance that Bangladesh wishes to maintain between India and China.

India must also be cautious of China’s strategic designs within Bangladesh. For instance, the Bangladeshi port of Chittagong is considered a crucial part of China’s Maritime Silk Route. Dhaka canceled a port that China had proposed to build at Sonadia, on the southeastern corner of Bangladesh, which if completed would have brought the Chinese presence close to India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

So long as New Delhi shares the development and security concerns of Bangladesh and sustains their historical and cultural ties without hurting the sentiments of the people and leaders of Bangladesh, the chance of the South Asian country slipping into the Chinese sphere of influence is low. The historical bonding and the Sheikh Hasina government’s perception of India have been shaped by the fact that India’s military assistance was not only instrumental in liberating East Pakistan from Pakistan proper, New Delhi was the first to recognize Bangladesh as an independent sovereign country.

However, certain intricate political issues must be handled by India carefully to keep relations warm. New Delhi must maintain its independence in foreign-policy making and manage the nuances of bilateral relations without being tied down by local pressures.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee remarked on the issue of sharing of waters of the Atreyee River that the flow of the water into India had been artificially restricted on the Bangladeshi side and was creating problems for the people of South Dinajpur district. Her opposition to sharing of Teesta waters has been evident. India needs to consider that Bangladesh, being the downstream riparian state must be allowed a fair share of the Teesta waters in the dry season and India must ensure that Bangladesh receives water that can be spared throughout the year. The leaders of both countries must explain to each other their position on the issue and must not show intransigence if workable solutions can be arrived at.

India’s reticence on the issue of human-rights violations in Myanmar and its abstaining from voting on a United Nations resolution that aimed at holding the Myanmar government responsible for such violations must not have gone down well in Dhaka, which expected New Delhi to pressure Myanmar to repatriate Rohingya refugees. However, Bangladesh did not allow that dissatisfaction to affect bilateral relations, and India tried to ameliorate Bangladeshi concerns by making a quick response to the humanitarian crisis through assistance. India needs to walk a cautious path on this issue as well.