Why Does Bangladesh Hold a Strong Position in India’s Neighborhood First Policy?

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Being a South Asian nation and having a 4,096 km shared border with India on the three sides, Bangladesh is deemed a close ally of India in this region. Bangladesh and India have been relishing a sound relationship in every sphere since the independence of Bangladesh in 1971. In the bilateral rapport, along with sociocultural and identical resemblances, geographical proximity has been a core factor that brought strong impetus and bolstered the level of cooperation over the years. The relationship, however, between the two countries has been fraught throughout history, with both adversarial and friendly episodes. By the last decade, the economic, political, and geostrategic relations between the two countries have been elevated to a new height as a result of diverse initiatives taken by both Bangladesh and India. Of them, Neighborhood First Policy (NFP) is the leading strategy of the Narendra Modi government which prioritizes improving ties with its close neighbors in the region in which Bangladesh is envisaged as an indispensable facet. During his visit to Bangladesh in April 2022, S Jaishankar, India’s Minister of External Affairs, emphasized that “Bangladesh is a top priority for India’s “Neighborhood First Policy.” According to Indian President Droupadi Murmu, “Bangladesh preserves a special place in India’s Neighborhood First Policy.”

In this regard, a new impetus has been discerned between the state parties after India was selected for the G20 presidency this year, and invited Bangladesh for the participation. Among other non-member nations and international organizations which are invited to participate in the conference, Bangladesh is the only South Asian country to make it onto India’s invitation list for the G20 summit in 2023. The trend of relations between the two nations exhibits that India and Bangladesh have benefited from the close relationships between the Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina, and the government, led by Narendra Modi. As a portion of the development, Narendra Modi has sent the invitation to his Bangladeshi counterpart, Sheikh Hasina, to join him at the next G20 Summit on September 9-10, in which meeting, the two heads of state are anticipated to relish and exchange views regarding the present state and future trajectory of the relationship on the outskirts of the summit. In his wishes on Bangladesh’s Independence Day, Dr. S. Jaishankar, Indian External Affairs Minister, argued, “our multifaceted partnership is founded on shared sacrifices.” He also added that ‘Bangladesh would always remain a strong pillar of India’s Neighborhood First Policy.’

Historical Ties: The Significant Basement

India and Bangladesh share a long and complex history that dates back centuries, and this shared history has influenced and bolstered the relationship between the two countries. The partition in 1947 and Bangladesh’s subsequent fight for independence in 1971 profoundly altered the nature of ties between the two countries. The Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 was the culmination of an independence struggle that had critical assistance from India. During the war, India supported the Bangladeshis militarily, diplomatically, and logistically, allowing them to win independence from Pakistan. The role played by India in the liberation of Bangladesh is widely acknowledged by the people of Bangladesh which, therefore, contributed to a deep sense of gratitude and respect for India in Bangladesh. This historical legacy has helped to bring about a strong underpinning for the relationship between the two countries and has fostered a sense of common purpose and solidarity. Moreover, the historical relationship between the two countries has also been molded by cultural, linguistic, music, literature, and the arts. Bengali is the official language of Bangladesh and is spoken by a large number of people in India as well. The cultural ties between the two countries have paved the way to promote people-to-people contacts and have contributed to a common room of shared identity and history. Although there have been ups and downs in the ties due to different regimes in both countries which used to uphold the ‘India Negative’ and ‘Bangladesh Negative’ mindsets during their power, the last decade marks a remarkable development with the ‘India Positive’ and ‘Bangladesh Positive’ postures upheld by both the Awami League government and Modi government. This current is gradually spurring the historical ties towards a more cooperative trajectory.

Economic Dynamics in Bolstering Bangladesh’s Importance in the NFP

Bangladesh counts India as one of its top economic partners, and recently the two countries have made many initiatives to strengthen their trade relations. Several agreements, like the Bangladesh-India Free Trade Agreement (BIFTA), have been negotiated to lower trade obstacles and increase commerce between the two countries. As a result of increased trade and other dynamics in the sector, Bangladesh has become one of India’s most valued as well as close neighbors. In recent years, Bangladesh has surpassed China as India’s most significant trade partner in South Asia. Besides, India is also now the second-largest trade partner and second-largest export market for Bangladesh in the region. However, despite the spread of the Covid-19 virus, the bilateral trade between the two countries climbed by 14% between 2019 and 2021, from $9.46 billion to $10.78 billion. The overall trade volume in 2021–2022 made up 12% of total exports to Bangladesh bringing the total amount to US$18.2 billion.

The countries, however, have agreed to begin implementing the CEPA (Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement) sooner. In addition to trade, connectivity, and water sharing, the bilateral relationship between India and Bangladesh has come to be defined by the increasingly important domain of energy security with regard to the Maitree Thermal Power. Moreover, through a Framework of Understanding on Cooperation in the Hydrocarbon Sector signed in 2020, both nations committed to working together to improve energy efficiency and develop renewable fuels like biofuels. India and Bangladesh decided to include a declaration in 2022 emphasizing the importance of renewable energy. India has also been exporting electricity to Bangladesh to meet its energy needs. Additionally, infrastructure development is crucial to Bangladesh’s economic growth, and India has been providing assistance in this area. For instance, India has assisted Bangladesh in building the Akhaura-Agartala train line, which would connect Bangladesh with India’s northeastern area and boost economic and human exchange between the two countries.

Security and Strategic Viewpoints

The coordinated patrols of the maritime border are one of the most significant security undertakings between India and Bangladesh. The two countries finally settled their long-running territorial dispute over the Bay of Bengal by signing a landmark maritime border agreement in 2015. With regard to the discussion of terrorism, the two countries have begun sharing information and coordinating their counterterrorism activities. After the 2016 terrorist assault on the Holey Artisan Bakery, for instance, information sharing and collaboration between India and Bangladesh expanded in an effort to thwart such terrorist attacks in the future. Both countries have also begun holding border coordination meetings to talk about security and have begun making coordinated efforts to curb illicit activity on both sides of the frontier. India has also provided assistance to Bangladesh in the form of the construction of border checkpoints and fences.

More importantly, Bangladesh’s strategic position between the landlocked states in India’s Northeast and the Indian state of West Bengal makes it well suited to provide the Northeastern portion of India easy access to the rest of the nation and to the sea, hence ensuring the security of the seven sisters. In many instances, Bangladesh has arrested and extradited the rebels to India from a variety of extremist Northeastern groups. India sees the Bay of Bengal as strategically important and has responded to China’s growing and forceful presence there by strengthening its connections with the Bay’s littorals. Since its Northeastern lands are vulnerable to insurgent groups and the western front is often unsettled, India has been working to improve ties with its eastern neighbors in order to achieve its Indo-Pacific goals in which Bangladesh, because of its geographical locus, is indispensably vital to the NFP.

Regional Features

South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was founded in 1985, and both India and Bangladesh are active members who have contributed much to SAARC’s mission of fostering regional integration and collaboration, although there is a palpable debate about the functionality of the organization. However, the Bangladesh-India relationship has been bolstered in recent years by a number of regional initiatives. One such planned economic corridor is the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM-EC), which would link the nations with a system of highways, trains, and ports. Trade and economic cooperation between India and Bangladesh might be greatly bolstered by the BCIM-EC, which also has the potential to contribute to regional stability and security. In addition, being established in 1997 to foster economic and technical cooperation among the nations in the Bay of Bengal area, the Bay of Bengal effort for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is another key regional effort that helped the member countries advance trade, investment, and other types of economic cooperation on which both India and Bangladesh participate. In this regard, Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) is highly significant which is now chaired by Bangladesh with the theme of ‘harnessing the opportunities of Indian Ocean sustainably for inclusive development’. These currents, therefore, made Bangladesh a robust facet of the NFP.

Apart from all the developments, the equal sharing of water, illegal migration, border killing, Islamist extremism, as well as the tensions given rise by the Russia-Ukraine war and China’s growing influence are some palpable challenges that need to be taken into account with cautious policy formulation in order to further strengthen their relationship. However, Bangladesh holds a strong position in India’s Neighborhood First Policy due to a combination of historical, economic, security, and regional factors. The relationship between India and Bangladesh has come a long way since 1971, and the two countries have made remarkable progress in recent years in resolving their differences and building a stronger relationship.

– Kawsar Uddin Mahmud is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

Published in The Geopolitics [Link]