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EFSAS Commentary

Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina’s second visit to India this month | Growing convergence and trust in bilateral ties


On the invitation of her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina embarked on a State visit to India on 21 & 22 June. While the Bangladesh PM’s visit was the first bilateral State visit to India after the formation of the new Indian coalition government earlier this month, Hasina had also earlier attended the third swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Modi and his Union Council of Ministers on 9 June. The visits aimed to further strengthen the deep-rooted ties between Bangladesh and India, and Hasina, in addition to engaging in bilateral talks with Modi, also met Indian President Droupadi Murmu and Vice President Jagdeep Dhankhar. India’s External Affairs Minister (EAM) S. Jaishankar called on the Bangladeshi dignitary and discussed a wide range of bilateral and multilateral issues with her. Hasina also met Indian industry leaders and invited them to invest in Bangladesh, which plans to develop bigger ports, waterways, rail, and road connectivity. As important as the several agreements the two sides inked during the visit were, the reassertion of the close and trust-based relations that the two leaders and the two neighbouring countries have shared over the years was also a key element for both sides. Some commentators have also suggested that the visit was geared towards advancing an India-Bangladesh counterweight to China’s forays into the region.

In a 27 June article titled ‘PM Hasina’s Delhi Visit Energizes Bangladesh-India Relations’, Aaqib Md. Shatil observed in The Diplomat that “The most notable outcome of the visit was a rail connectivity agreement between the two countries that will allow India to use Bangladesh’s rail network to transport goods to its northeast. India has also agreed to extend transit facilities to Nepal and Bhutan for Bangladeshi goods through its railway networks. Bangladesh also has given its approval for India to send its experts to evaluate the Teesta River Project. China submitted a proposal to develop the project, which has raised concerns in India. While some commentators predicted a tug-of-war between India and China over the project, Hasina observed in her post-India visit comments that India has a fair chance of winning this bid since that will solve the longstanding water-sharing issue with India around the river”.

Shatil noted that Energy connectivity with Nepal and Bhutan via India can help Bangladesh reduce dependency on fossil fuel. He wrote, “While most other agreements and mutual understandings revolve around capacity building in different sectors, Bangladesh has a huge opportunity to gain from one deal in particular: the opening up of energy connectivity with Nepal and Bhutan via India. According to the joint statement issued at the end of the visit, India and Bangladesh have committed to expanding ‘power and energy collaboration’ and developing ‘intra-regional electricity trade’. This will start with expediting the construction of a 765 kV high-capacity grid with suitable Indian financial assistance. Due to the volatile condition of fuel and energy markets since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, fossil fuel prices have faced much tumult, often rising beyond anticipated limits. Thanks to Bangladesh’s subsequent energy policies, the country’s efforts to electrify all households by 2021 resulted in a heavy reliance on imported fossil fuels, primarily gas and coal”.

Associated Press, in a 22 June article titled ‘India, Bangladesh boost defense ties to counterweigh China’ said that “India and Bangladesh on Saturday moved to bolster their defense relationship and signed agreements for expanding cooperation in maritime security, ocean economy, and space and telecommunication sectors, as New Delhi presents itself as a regional power and a counterweight to China. The agreements were signed during Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India, the first foreign leader to visit New Delhi since Narendra Modi became the country’s prime minister for a third term two weeks ago. Modi welcomed Bangladesh’s decision to join his Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative to expand and facilitate regional cooperation of India’s maritime neighbors. He said the deals with Dhaka were part of his country’s pursuit of a neighborhood-first approach”.

At a press conference at the end of her visit, Hasina described it as “brief but fruitful”. At the joint briefing after their meeting and the signing of 10 Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs), Hasina and Modi agreed to a shared vision for the two countries as well as cooperation to make the region prosperous and stable. Hasina said, “Today, our two sides had very productive meetings where we discussed politics and security, trade and connectivity, the sharing of water from common rivers, power and energy, and regional and multilateral cooperation, among other issues of mutual interest. We agreed to collaborate with each other for the betterment of our people and countries… We charted the future course of action to ensure a smart Bangladesh by following Vision 2041 and Viksit Bharat by 2047”. She described India as Bangladesh’s major neighbour, trusted friend, and regional partner, and added, “Bangladesh greatly values our relations with India, which were born during our war of liberation in 1971. I pay homage to the brave, fallen heroes of India who sacrificed their lives during our war of liberation in 1971. I invite PM Modi to visit Bangladesh. Come to Bangladesh to witness what all we have done and plan to do”.

Addressing another press conference in Dhaka upon her return, Hasina asked the media to bear in mind that India was the only allied force in the world that voluntarily left the country they helped liberate. Apprising the local media of the outcome of her visit, she said, “I think this visit will play a very pivotal role in strengthening the existing excellent relations between India and Bangladesh”. Replying to a question on Teesta River Project, she said her government will accept the most beneficial proposal for Bangladesh and its people. She was quoted in the Bangladeshi media as saying - “We have taken Teesta projects. China and India have given separate proposals to implement the project. We must accept the proposal which will be more beneficial for the people of our country. But, we must consider how much the project is applicable for my country, how much its return will be helpful for the welfare of the people after its completion alongside the capability to repay the loan”. Informing that India had expressed the desire to send a technical team in this regard, she argued that Bangladesh has a longstanding issue over Teesta river water sharing with India, and “So, it will be easy for Bangladesh if India does the Teesta project. In that case, we won’t need to talk about the Teesta water sharing always. If there is a problem, there is a solution as well”. She concluded by expressing optimism that her two quick and brief visits to India will enhance bilateral relations. “The visits will open new doors for socio-economic development”, she stressed.

Modi, on his part, said that Bangladesh “lies at the confluence of our 'Neighbourhood First' policy, Act East Policy, Vision SAGAR and the Indo-Pacific Vision”. Noting that the two countries had completed many important projects for public welfare in the last year alone, he said, "I reiterate India’s commitment to realizing Bangabandhu’s vision of a stable, prosperous and progressive Bangladesh”. He added, “Bangladesh is India’s largest development partner, and we give utmost priority to our relations with Bangladesh”. Modi announced that India will commence an e-medical visa facility to facilitate Bangladeshis seeking medical treatment to come to India. He further said that the two countries have concurred on the opening of a new Indian Assistant High Commission in Rangpur for the “convenience of the people of the North West region of Bangladesh”.

He noted that with focus on connectivity, commerce, and collaboration in the last 10 years, the two countries had restored the connectivity that existed before 1965, adding, “We will now focus on digital and energy connectivity even more. This will speed up the economies of both countries”. Modi pointed out that “Trade in Indian Rupees has started between the two countries. The world's longest river cruise on the Ganges River between India and Bangladesh has been successfully completed. The first cross-border friendship pipeline between India and Bangladesh has been completed. Export of electricity from Nepal to Bangladesh through the Indian grid has become the first example of sub-regional cooperation in the energy sector. Implementing such a big initiative in so many areas in just one year reflects the speed and scale of our relations”.

Welcoming Bangladesh's decision to join the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative, Modi said that “We will also continue our cooperation in other regional and international forums”. He informed that the two leaders had held detailed discussions on defense production and the modernization of armed forces, and had also decided to strengthen cooperation in counterterrorism, combating fundamentalism, and peaceful management of the border.

Interestingly, the two leaders also held discussions on the Rohingya issue. India’s Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra informed that “The Rohingya issue was discussed. This is an issue that India and Bangladesh have discussed periodically at different levels of interaction. And the spectrum in which these discussion statements take places one of course you know in past India has offered assistance to Bangladesh. Humanitarian assistance to Rohingyas is something which we have offered in the past. We continue to work with Bangladesh closely on that”. He further said that “There are several aspects of the Rohingyas' challenge that Bangladesh faces. Some of it also impinges on us. So those challenges also get discussed. How exactly should these concerns be reflected in Myanmar also comes up for discussions between India and Bangladesh. So all this forms the spectrum of these discussions and some of the key elements of this spectrum were also discussed between the two leaders today...”

A clear recognition of the salience of maintaining and sustaining the mutually beneficial relationship that Bangladesh and India have established for well over a decade now was discernible during Hasina’s recent visits to New Delhi; continued such recognition can only bode well for both sides.