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Sheikh Hasina’s Visit to India

This Landmark Visit is Paving the Way for Bilateral Advancements and Strategic Partnerships

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Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi on September 8, 2023. [File Photo]

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is paying a two-day state visit to India from June 21 at the invitation of her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi. This will be her second visit to India in less than two weeks and the first incoming bilateral visit to India by any head of government after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) formed its government for the third consecutive time following the 18th Lok Sabha elections. Hasina was among seven top leaders from India’s neighbourhood and the Indian Ocean region who attended the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Union council of ministers at the Rashtrapati Bhavan on June 9. In Delhi, she will hold bilateral consultations with Prime Minister Modi and is also scheduled to call on President Draupadi Murmu and Vice President Jagdeep Dhankhar. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar will call on the Prime Minister after she arrives in Delhi in the evening.

Over the years, India and Bangladesh have forged a multifaceted relationship, marked by a shared history, culture, and geographical proximity. The two neighbours enjoy warm ties, which have further expanded under the leadership of PM Modi and Sheikh Hasina. The first half of 2024 has also witnessed a spur of bilateral interactions between the two countries, as an embodiment of the strength of the relationship. After Prime Minister Hasina assumed office in January 2024 after her consecutive fourth term victory, Prime Minister Modi held a telephonic conversation on 8 January 2024. Newly appointed Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dr Hasan Mahmud paid an official visit to India from 7-9 February 2024. This was his first bilateral official visit abroad after assuming charge as Bangladesh Foreign Minister in January 2024. Hasina participated in the Munich Security Conclave as her first official visit abroad after assuming charge, and Jaishankar met her on the sidelines. Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra visited Dhaka from 8 to 9 May 2024 to sustain the momentum of visits and exchanges between both countries.

Visit of significant importance

Each time she visits, there is hope for substantial progress in resolving longstanding issues that have strained relations between the two countries for more than fifty years. Sheikh Hasina’s visit holds substantial significance for Bangladesh, presenting new dimensions of connectivity, strategic partnerships, and geopolitical assertiveness. This visit comes at a critical juncture, offering both nations opportunities to deepen their bilateral relations and address pressing issues that have long impacted their interactions. This visit also holds significant importance for both nations as they strive to further expand the already close ties between the two countries and address pressing issues ahead of Prime Minister Hasina’s forthcoming visit to China.

Modi and Hasina are scheduled to hold wide-ranging talks on Saturday (June 22) during which both sides are likely to firm up a raft of agreements providing for cooperation in several sectors to take the bilateral ties to new heights. key issues on the agenda include cross-border connectivity initiatives, Indian investments in the Teesta special economic zone, management of Mongla port, development of defence ties  and power trade. Additionally, discussions on a potential trade pact are expected. Fresh loans from India under a new framework will also be high on the agenda of the bilateral talks as Bangladesh grapples with a crunch in foreign currency reserves. Besides, the Myanmar crisis, especially the intense fighting in Rakhine State, will feature prominently during the delegation-level meeting between Hasina and her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi.

For a long time, the Teesta water sharing issue has been a topic that comes to the fore during any visit between India and Bangladesh. The Indian central government, at the time led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, could not sign the deal in 2011 due to the opposition of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. During a visit to Dhaka on May this year, Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra expressed Delhi’s interest in financing the Teesta project which triggered a geopolitical discussion about which option Bangladesh will go for. So, the issue of funding for the “Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration Project” will feature prominently in the talks. The two prime ministers will also discuss the renewal of the Ganges Water Sharing Treaty that was signed in 1996 and is set to expire in 2026.

Connectivity Projects

Issues of connectivity will be an important element of discussion. The Bangladesh-India Friendship Bridge is one of the projects to be announced open during the visit. This bridge will establish a link between Ramgarh in Khagrachhari, and Sabrum in Tripura state. India is keen to manage the Mongla river port, which is crucial for better connectivity between Kolkata and India’s north-eastern states and aligns with the country’s broader strategy to counter China’s expanding influence in the region. India is also keen to develop an alternative network of railway routes through Bangladesh to connect its northeast with the rest of the country. This would reduce India’s reliance on the existing route through Siliguri. Over the past decade, numerous cross-border initiatives have been launched as part of a robust regional partnership plan. The issue of rail connectivity between Bangladesh and India has come to the fore again. According to a high level source in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on rail connectivity is likely to be signed between Bangladesh and Indian railways on this visit as a measure toward boosting trade and commerce between the two neighbouring countries. 

Mutual Dependence

The Modi-Hasina summit on Saturday (June 22) might also focus on enhancing the defence partnership between the two nations. The overall strategic ties between India and Bangladesh have been on an upswing in the last few years. Her visit to India is significant for multiple reasons. It presents an opportunity to enhance connectivity, assert Bangladesh’s strategic interests in the Teesta water-sharing issue, and balance growing US influence in the region. Moreover, it underscores the mutual dependence between Bangladesh and India, essential for regional stability and prosperity. By leveraging this visit, Bangladesh can strengthen its bilateral relations, address longstanding issues, and position itself as a key player in the regional geopolitical landscape. India may in principle approve the supply of electricity from Bhutan to Bangladesh using its power grid. Bangladesh will seek smooth supply of essentials like wheat, sugar and onions from India.

Bangladesh-India relations are characterized by cooperation and development across nearly every sector. The economic progress and strong connectivity initiatives of both countries have spurred discussions about forming a comprehensive economic partnership. Recognizing their mutual high growth and stability, they are now moving towards signing the Bangladesh-India Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA). This agreement aims to capitalize on the mutual trust and understanding that exist on various bilateral issues. The timing is crucial as Bangladesh is transitioning out of its Least Developed Country (LDC) status and facing new challenges. Over the past 15 years, the bilateral economic relationship between Bangladesh and India has flourished, moving into new areas of collaboration by reinforcing traditional ties and laying the groundwork for a deeper partnership. India is Bangladesh’s second-largest trade partner, and Bangladesh is India’s largest trade partner in South Asia. Bilateral trade has steadily increased, with Bangladesh’s exports to India tripling over the last decade. The two leaders may also announce the launch of formal negotiations for a comprehensive economic partnership agreement (CEPA).

To conclude, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India represents a significant opportunity to address a range of critical issues that affect both nations. From water-sharing agreements and border security to regional energy cooperation and the Rohingya crisis, the agenda is comprehensive and reflects Bangladesh’s strategic priorities. By engaging in meaningful dialogue and negotiations, both countries can strengthen their bilateral relations, promote regional stability, and ensure sustainable development for their peoples. The outcomes of this visit are anticipated to have far-reaching impacts on the future trajectory of Bangladesh-India relations.

Kamal Uddin Mazumder

Kamal Uddin Mazumder, Security and strategic affairs analyst, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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