Indo-Bangladesh Relations: The Trans-shipment Issue

21 Oct, 1999    ·   273

Saswati Chanda says whichever party comes to power, politicians in Bangladesh must be convinced of the futility of anti-India rhetoric

The decision of the ruling Awami League (AL) to provide transshipment facilities to goods for the north-eastern states of India, en-route Bangladesh, was endorsed in principle at a cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed on 28 July 1999. This was motivated by the enormous economic benefits that would accrue to an economy plagued by dismal performance and recurrent natural disasters. 



This decision is an important landmark in Indo-Bangladesh relations and has been welcomed by a large section of the people, including business leaders and intellectuals, who believe that enhanced bilateral ties could lead to the dawn of a new era in regional cooperation. The smaller left leaning parties like Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD), the Jatiya Party (Mizan-Manjoo) faction, the National Awami Party (NAP) and the Communist Party of Bangladesh too have supported the decision. 



The economic benefits for both countries are obvious. As far as India is concerned, transshipment facilities would ensure cost-beneficial transportation and faster delivery of goods to the otherwise almost inaccessible areas of its northeastern states.  Bangladesh ’s staggering economy would gain from increased revenue earned through additional employment generated, as well as, transit fees paid. The president of Federation of Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industry noted, “Transit will not only bring foreign exchange for Bangladesh , it will also develop our transport sector and benefit our economy”. Other business leaders felt that it would reduce the trade gap with India .  The significant question, however, remain whether greater economic benefits can reduce the negative stereotypes of India among the Bangladeshis fostered through the former’s perceived role in the country’s internal politics. 



In response to the government’s decision, the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the Jatiya Party and the fundamentalist parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Islamic Oikya Jote, launched a major a spate of hartals (strikes) and street protests. The most recent was the three-day total nation-wide strike in September 1999 that brought the national economy to a standstill. The ruling AL , long criticised for its proximity to India , has been accused of compromising national interest by entering into ‘unequal agreements’ with India . Begum Zia declared that all ‘unequal treaties’ with India would be scrapped when BNP comes to power. The opposition’s aggressive pursuit of agitational politics is part of its strategy to whip up anti-India sentiment: like in previous instances like the Chittagong Hill Tract Pact, the Farraka agreement and the Transshipment issue. This indicates that Bangladeshi politicians are willing to sacrifice the national interest for party gains. The internal political row over the government’s foreign policy initiative reveals the importance of Gujral Doctrine of asymmetrical relations as well as its limitations.



Despite the geographical, socio-economic, religious and other differences between the two countries there exist a plethora of similarities and Bangladesh owes a modicum of responsibility to ensure a constructive and dynamic relationship, the benefits of which both can harness to their best advantage.



The efforts Sheikh Hasina towards bridging the gap in Indo-Bangladesh relations without succumbing to oppositional pressure tactics, especially, during the violent September strikes are laudable. However, her attitude has been defensive all along and designed towards extracting as good a bargain as possible from the situation. 



The latest refusal to negotiate and rejection of Sheikh Hassina’s offer of talks by Begum Zia re-emphasise the oppositions’ belief that continuance of its modus operanda of destructive agitational politics, using the weapon of anti-India baiting, would lead to a mass upsurge in her attempt to regain power. The issue is likely to have an impact on the general elections scheduled for 2000 or 2001. As the opposition tries to capitalise on such narrow sentiments, it remains to be seen how the ruling AL would avert a possible ‘crisis of governance’.  Whichever party comes to power, politicians in Bangladesh must be convinced of the futility of anti-India rhetoric, for as historically seen elsewhere, economics can resolve long standing political differences.