“Bangladesh’s story in South Asia is commendable” says Amb Anil Trigunayat

by Khushboo Agrahari - 18 August, 2022, 12:00 1367 Views 0 Comment

In the course of over 75 years of its independent existence, India’s global image has undergone substantial change as a leading economy and emerging global player destined to play an important role in international affairs. India’s Foreign Policy has always been on mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and peaceful co-existing.

India does not hesitate in promoting democracy wherever potential exists; this is done by proactively aiding in capacity building and strengthening the institutions of democracy. The relationship between India and Bangladesh is anchored in history, culture, language and shared values of secularism, democracy, and countless other commonalities between the two countries. It is based on sovereignty, equality, trust, understanding and win-win partnership that goes far beyond a strategic partnership.

Here are the excerpt of an interview taken by Khushboo Agrahari with Amb Anil Trigunayat (IFS Retd), former Indian Ambassador to Jordan, Libya and Malta. He also served in Bangladesh from (1986-90).

 Q: India was one of the first countries to recognize Bangladesh and establish diplomatic relations immediately after its independence in December 1971. How do you see the bilateral ties between both nations especially after the incumbent government came to power? What is the near future of the India-Bangladesh relationship?

A: India recently felicitated the people of Bangladesh on their 50th anniversary of Liberation from a repressive regime in West Pakistan. India’s contribution in its quest for a Bangladeshi homeland is well recognized. However, India understood from its own colonial experience that a newly liberated country needs much more to sustain, develop and meet the aspirations of the teeming millions. Hence, India remains committed to the development of Bangladesh which has already acquitted itself creditably even if one were to compare its achievements with Pakistan. The bilateral relationship has had its ups and downs but New Delhi always paid greater attention to the Bangladeshi friends and their needs by providing capacity-building assistance, infrastructural development and preferential market access. Under the current leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the bilateral relationship has moved into a much higher and mutually beneficial orbit. Intensive high-level engagement across the spectrum provides a constant search for newer areas of cooperation within the ambit of India’s “Neighborhood First Policy”. I think the relationship has acquired enough heft to continue on a progressive path and could possibly be party neutral in times to come.

Q: The Ganges Treaty was signed in 1996 on the basis of 30-year data. Both the countries agreed to ensure minimum water flow downstream during the dry season (January-May). The 30-year Ganges Treaty is set to expire in 2026. How would you assess its effectiveness?

A: The water issue has been a critical point of discussion for decades because of Bangladesh’s location. And it was after frequent meetings and discussions that the Ganges Treaty was signed. Besides Bangladesh resolving all issues bilaterally through dialogue and diplomacy has become an example for other regional choke points. Only the Teesta issue remains to be fully resolved. Despite the pandemic, the second addendum to the Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade (PIWTT) was signed in May 2020 for including two new India-Bangladesh Protocol Routes (Sonamura-Daudkandi on river Gomti and extension of Dhulia to Godagiri up to Aricha on river Padma), five new ports of call and two extended ports of call. Sonamura-Daudkandi Protocol Route was also operationalized in September 2020. A trial run of transshipment of Indian goods from Kolkata to Agartala via Chattogram was successfully conducted in July 2020. These initiatives will have a salutary impact on P2P connectivity and bilateral and regional trade. India has been considerate of the sensitivities and concerns of her neighbors in the spirit of the non-reciprocal neighborhood first policy and surely if Dhaka has any concerns they will be on-boarded during the extension or renegotiation of the Treaty. India believes that her progressive and developed neighbors are a source of strength for her own regional and global role.

Q: Bangladesh and India have also been collaborating in various regional and sub-regional groups like the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) and BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal grouping). However, despite these developments and the existing bonhomie between the two countries, there remains a degree of scepticism about the future of the relationship. What are the challenges that threaten to cloud India and Bangladesh’s relations?

A: As you are aware that in 1985 Bangladesh was at the forefront of creating a regional architecture of SAARC which had an ambitious agenda However, due to Pakistan’s continued sponsorship of cross-border terrorism and its Zero Sum’ policy the organization could only achieve partial success and its fullest potential has not yet been realized. Since the regional and sub-regional development can not be held hostage to the whims or designs of certain countries New Delhi encouraged sub-regional groupings like BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and India) and BIMSTEC (that just completed 25 years) which seek to synergies the individual member’s strengths to provide greater benefits in their developmental perspectives. In addition, India also embarked on its ‘Act East’ policy to dovetail with Neighborhood First policy for creating a much broader spectrum of deeper cooperation among the various constituents including in the Bay of Bengal which is the largest Bay in the world and is the heart of the Indo-Pacific. Hence 3Rs connectivity with Rail, Road and River along with digital and fintech connectivity through multimodal mode would have to be created. Negatives and shortcomings that prevailed in other regions like SAARC could be avoided to let BIMSTEC achieve its fullest potential. I think India -Bangladesh relations today* are at their best but the sky is the limit. However, it is important to respect the sensitivities of both sides for any relationship to harness its fullest potential.

Q: Migration, river management, radicalisation: What does the future hold for India-Bangladesh relations? How do you think India and Bangladesh jointly can put efforts into combating militancy to end terrorism?

A: I think these are all very serious issues and critically impinge on both our security and well-being and hence it is imperative that joint approaches, institutionalized mechanisms and real-time exchanges over the concerns are established. We already have several dialogues and working groups. Happily, India and Bangladesh have worked very closely to address insurgency and extremism in the Northeast borders as well as cross border migration flows. River water management are moving apace. Militancy and Terrorism are the two sides of the same coin. These also can be dangerous for the country from where they operate. Hence it is imperative that we work closely both through the deradicalization methodologies as an ideology can only be contended by a better and more civilized ideology and terrorism be met with the full force of the law internally and through joint cooperation across borders. In this context, the mechanisms like border coordination conferences between Regional Commanders of BGB and the Frontier Inspectors General of BSF regularly to discuss the management and security of 4096.7 Km of the India-Bangladesh land border play a crucial role.

Q: Do you think Bangladesh-India bilateral relations are a role model in the world in terms of relations among neighboring countries?

A: One can safely say that the resolution of various bilateral issues between the two countries, which are common among neighbours, have been achieved cordially and expeditiously which has become a gold standard in some sense of the term for resolution of bilateral issues peacefully. Trust has been generated between the two countries pursuant to equitable resolution of the outstanding problems. Time to build upon these achievements even more.

Q: This relationship has expanded in many different ways in a spirit of friendship, understanding and mutual respect. Under the visionary leadership of Prime Ministers Narendra Modi of India and Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh, the two countries have become partners in a “shonali adhyaya” (golden chapter). What do you have to say on this?

A: I fully agree with this statement as the India-Bangladesh relationship is going through its Golden phase as the two countries celebrate their Golden Jubilee of diplomatic relations. I also feel that from day one of Prime Minister Modi’s oath-taking in 2014 much greater focus has been given to Neighbourhood First policy as India emerged as a first responder in any crisis. India celebrates its neighbours’ success and assists when they go through hard times despite the prevailing regional geopolitics.  The excellent bilateral ties reflect an all-encompassing partnership based on sovereignty, equality, trust, and understanding that goes far beyond a strategic partnership.

Q: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had said on February 8, 1972, in Calcutta: “India-Bangladesh friendship will remain intact forever. No power in the world can separate it. Occasionally some anti-independence, fundamentalist forces try to destroy the relations between the two countries. But their efforts will not succeed. Because the basis of Bangladesh-India friendly relations is trust and confidence. This relationship is written in the blood through the great liberation war.” Do you think India and Bangladesh can show the world how neighboring countries can become all-weather friends?

A: Sheikh Saheb was absolutely right and his words are providential. However, each country has to pursue its own national interests for the benefit of its people but when there is a huge and deep civilizational connection between the two peoples 1+1 becomes 11. That is the case between our two countries and peoples. However, it is important to keep on working together for better and mutually beneficial outcomes and to fight the common challenges through a joint effort. India pursues a non-reciprocal policy with her neighbouhood and is the largest economy and country in South Asia -rightly so but one has to be mindful of critical sensitivities for any relationship to prosper. I was posted in Dhaka during 1986-89 and witnessed the downturn in the bilateral relationship. That need not be so as the neighbors are a gift of geography and we have to rise together and confront developmental and other global challenges in the spirit of good neighborliness.

Q: Recently, a new multimodal connectivity system has been developed between the two countries through water, air, and especially land. And keeping in mind the improvement in this connectivity system, the question arises whether it will start a new chapter in India-Bangladesh relations. What changes can this system bring to the social and economic aspects of India and Bangladesh and the subcontinent?

A: Connectivity is the key. That is where BBIN, BIMSTEC and bilateral rail, road, river and air connectivity provide enhanced economic opportunities for the people on both sides. Trade becomes easier and investment more palatable. India and Bangladesh had also experimented with Border Haats which is a grass root effort and is engaging people in a much more productive way and could decimate the tendencies to migrate.

Q: Bangladesh has proved its capacity by building a 6.15 km bridge over the country’s second-toughest river using its own money. Do you think Padma Bridge epitomizes Bangladesh’s success story and Hasina’s leadership?

A: I must congratulate Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Ji and the people of Bangladesh for this stupendous achievement. Bangladesh has done extremely well in Human Development Index or its economic transformation despite odds and challenges and had moved into a higher development and economic orbit. It is a testament to the leadership of Bangladesh and a lesson for some outsiders who might wish to take credit for these achievements.

Q: Various international organizations, including the World Bank, the World Economic Forum and the Economic Intelligence Unit, have identified Bangladesh’s economic development as a “wonderful puzzle.” Do you think Bangladesh is a different story from Srilanka and Pakistan?

A: As I said, Bangladesh’s story in South Asia is commendable. But we face unprecedented challenges both internal and external. Pandemic, Russia-Ukraine War, Potential confrontation and conflict in the Taiwan strait, Terrorism, and Climate Change have impacted the whole world adversely from the richest to the poorest countries. Sri Lanka‘s plight has been a mix of high indebtedness especially extortionist Chinese loans for political expediency, and poor and hasty policy decisions. Moreover, terror attacks and pandemics and the Eurasian war have all impacted the tourism and hospitality industry which provides a significant contribution to their GDP and employment. Likewise, Pakistan’s economic woes and continued adherence to terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy are too well known but the end result is self-inflicting too.  But such predicaments must be seen as case studies for avoiding similar pitfalls. After all, if we want to learn and course correct -history is the best teacher.

Q: To strengthen the economic relationship, India is encouraging its companies to invest in Bangladesh. During Prime Minister Hasina’s visit to India in 2017, around US$ 13 billion of investment was promised to Bangladesh.  However, local businesses in India have voiced concerns about the complementarity of products between the nations. Indian businesses feel that the duty-free facilities enjoyed by Bangladesh could be utilised by a third country to export products into India which would hamper local industries and result in a loss of revenue. What are your views?

A: According to available data Bangladesh is India’s biggest trade partner in South Asia and India is the second biggest trade partner of Bangladesh. Bilateral trade between India and Bangladesh has grown steadily over the last decade and the exports of Bangladesh have tripled over the last decade to cross $1 bn in 2018-19. In FY 2019-20, India’s exports to Bangladesh were $8.2 bn and imports were $1.26 bn. In order to promote cooperation on bilateral trade, an India-Bangladesh CEO’s Forum was launched in December 2020 to provide policy-level inputs in various areas of trade and investment and also to facilitate exchanges among the business communities of both countries.

India has extended 3 Lines of Credits (LOC) to Bangladesh in the last 8 years amounting to US$ 8 billion for the development of infrastructure in various sectors including roads, railways, shipping and ports. In addition to LOCs, the Government of India has also been providing grant assistance to Bangladesh for various infrastructure projects including the construction of the Akhaura-Agartala rail link, and the dredging of inland waterways in Bangladesh and the construction of the India-Bangladesh Friendship Pipeline. All these will help enhance trade and investment. It is a fact that private investors (FDI) look at the best opportunities with a competitive policy framework. And countries are a bit concerned about illegal trading hence rules of origin could be more strictly applied to avoid confusion.  India does have concerns, especially with regard to unauthorized trade through circuitous routes from its Northern Neighbor but I am confident it can be handled through bilateral cooperation between Dhaka and New Delhi.

Khushboo Agrahari
Author is a Journalist from India. She is a special correspondent of few international agencies and magazines. An alumni of IIMC, she is an avid reader, critic and reviewer of books. Her forte is special interviews of celebrities and dignitaries across the World.

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