Could India and Bangladesh Be Friends?


Bangladesh’s Army Chief of Staff Gen. Moeen U Ahmed

Driven by concerns over northeast Indian separatists operating from Bangladeshi border areas and a flood of economic migrants to India, Bangladesh’s Army Chief of Staff Gen. Moeen U Ahmed recently spent a week in India to deal with a wide range of issues in arguably the closest example of cooperation between the two countries since Bangladesh’s independence in 1971.

Arriving home on March 2 after a week in India, Moeen said progress was so good that rail service would soon begin between Dhaka and Kolkata. “It will be good for all if the train service between India and Bangladesh commences,” Moeen told reporters, according to Bangladeshi newspapers. “I hope the train service will start as soon as possible after settling the issue of security of the two countries.”

The train service is just the most visible result of the talks. Moeen held extensive discussions with Indian army chief Gen. Deepak Kapoor on ways to further cooperation between the two armed forces in rare high-level military talks. As Bangladesh has emerged as a center for terrorist organizations, many with an anti-India agenda, India hopes the visit will lead to a mechanism for information sharing.

India has been cautious in approaching Bangladesh in the wake of a January 2007 coup that ended years of squabbling between the country’s two senior politicians, Begum Khaleda Zia, the last elected prime minister who headed the Bangladesh National Party, and Sheikh Hasina Wazed, who headed the Awami League. Their bitter electoral rivalry ended in chaos, spurring the coup. Both women, and scores of their supporters, remain under arrest on corruption charges. The existing caretaker government is headed by Fakhruddin Ahmad, a former World Bank official and Central Bank governor.

It is clear, however, that the army under Moeen is the spine that stiffens the caretaker government. India has chosen to do business with him as an improvement over its troublesome relationship with earlier governments.

What surprised political observers were the top Indian leaders Moeen met. The list included Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, President Pratibha Patil, Defence Minister AK Antony, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and National Security Adviser M K Narayanan. India is keen to improve long-term ties in order to secure transit rights for its goods through Bangladesh to the poverty-stricken northeastern Assam region, where India is almost bisected by Bangladesh. India also hopes to gain access to the Chittagong port at the mouth of the Ganges River and a commitment on transit of natural gas from Burma and possibly, the northeastern states.

For the immediate future, India expects a commitment from the general to clamp down on anti-India militants using Bangladesh as a safe haven. India is also concerned about illegal immigration. In return, India has shown its willingness to put Pranab Mukherjee’s November promise into effect to make a one-time exception and export a half million tons of rice to Bangladesh, after shortages that led to price increases and general dissatisfaction after natural disasters last year.

Moeen also met Minister of State for Commerce Jairam Ramesh and discussed various possibilities to improve trade and commerce, including the duty-free export of eight million pieces of readymade garments from Bangladesh. In the past, New Delhi has spoken of the possibility of reducing Bangladesh’s adverse balance of trade with India by encouraging Indian investment.

Moeen and the caretaker government have taken a relatively friendly approach towards India since assuming power. In return, India has a positive take on the general. He is the first army officer commissioned after the 1971 split with Pakistan to be army chief, and he has solid relationships within the service. His time as Bangladesh’s defence attaché to Pakistan also gives him more insight into the geopolitics of South Asia than some of his peers. among the Indian Army brass, there is a sense that Moeen is willing to crack down on the fundamentalists in his country.

Moeen earned a high domestic profile following the January 2007 coup, earning approval from a wide cross section of the country, with the exception of the diehard supporters of Khaleda and Hasina, whose acrimonious rivalry had stunted the economy, allowed Islamist groups to flourish and engendered corruption so thoroughgoing that Transparency International rated Bangladesh the most corrupt country in the world from 2001 to 2004. Despite the end of democracy, there was at least initial support from the population after the coup and subsequent corruption arrests.

Indo-Bangladesh relations have generally depended on the party in power in both countries. The worst depths of the bilateral relationship were during the period of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party in the 2001-2006 coalition headed by Khaleda, a time which the coalition was deaf both to Indian security concerns and economic proposals.

The caretaker government seems relatively friendly towards India. Though opinions differ in India about action taken against Islamist groups like Jamaat-ul-Muslim Bangladesh (JMB) there is a belief that that the government in Bangladesh is seeking to keep Islamists in line and out of India’s hair.

India has indicated it favors a stable and friendly Bangladesh that returns to democracy. Indian President Pratibha Patil called for early elections during the joint sitting of India’s Parliament, and Moeen also appears willing to follow a roadmap announced earlier for restoration of democracy. Analysts in India believe one of the objectives of his visit was to get the Indian political establishment to advise Hasina and Khaleda to stay out of national elections

The caretaker regime wants India’s help to get the two political leaders bow out gracefully. Strong-arm tactics to frighten them off with corruption and murder cases have so far not been successful. Reports have also indicated that Moeen requested Indian authorities not to insist on the release of the two women before elections. India has not responded to the request.

Moeen’s push for stronger bilateral relations seems to be working. India assisted in rehabilitation and reconstruction after Cyclone Sidr roared ashore in September 2007, killing 3,500 Bangladeshis. Increasing trade between the two nations has also boosted confidence that has been sorely tested for decades, especially after the assassination of the country’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, a determined secularist, in 1975. Successive governments, whether elected or authoritarian, courted the Islamist fringe, giving India cause for worry.