India: Pivotal need to improve ties with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh

Plagued by conflicts with neighbouring China, Pakistan and Nepal, India is showing renewed interest in forging close ties with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka which, despite the existence of contentious issues, remain India’s only friends in South Asia.

In the absence of a reasonably good relationship with these two countries, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Neighborhood First” policy will have gone kaput.

Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shingla’s two-day unofficial visit to Dhaka to hand over a message from Modi to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and to meet a cross section of opinion makers, gave an opportunity to discuss some contentious issues.

Likewise, Indian Foreign Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar’s telephonic conversation with his Sri Lankan counterpart Dinesh Gunawardena helped open a dialogue on some issues which have soured bilateral relations.

While key issues like the sharing of Teesta waters, killings of Bangladeshis by the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) and anti-Bangladesh and anti-Muslim utterances by leaders of the Bharatiya Janatha Party remain, Shringla and Hasina agreed that the special relationship between the two countries should be upheld as a matter of priority.

It remains to be seen if the ruling Bharatiya Janatha Party, which wants to capture West Bengal in the 2021 Assembly elections, will show restraint in making comments about Muslims, Bangladesh and the so called illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Vis-à-vis Sri Lanka, New Delhi appears to have no alternative to working with the nationalistic Government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, which is commonly seen as pro-China.

The Rajapaksas’ Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) romped home with a two thirds majority when the Parliamentary Elections were held this month. As in the case of Bangladesh, many issues in Indo-Lanka relations remain to be settled.

This can only be done diplomatically, taking into consideration each other’s legitimate concerns. India can no longer apply the kind of pressures it did in the past because, since 2010, there is another powerful player in the region – China.

Indo-Bangla relations, which had been very cordial and fruitful since 2008, hit a bad patch with India declaring 1.9 million people in Assam as non-citizens and as illegal migrants from Bangladesh. The Indian Home Minister, Amit Shah, described them as “termites” to be got rid of. Bangladesh denied that they were Bangladeshis.

Bilateral tension led to Bangladesh cancelling some important high level visits to India. Recently, the Bangladeshi newspaper Bhorer Kakoj and the Indian daily Hindu carried a story saying that Bangladesh Prime Minister Hasina had not given an appointment to the Indian High Commissioner Reva Ganguly for four months.

There were also reports in the Pakistani media that the Pakistani High Commissioner had met the Bangladeshi Foreign Minister and that this signalled a thawing of ties with Pakistan to India’s detriment. This caused ripples in New Delhi.

But after a period of suspense-filled silence, Bangladesh let it be known that due to COVID-19, Prime Minister Hasina had not met any foreign envoy, and not just the Indian envoy. The Bangladeshi Government described its relations with India as “rock solid” and the media reports to the contrary as “speculative”.

To end speculation the Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla visited with a message from PM Modi to Sheikh Hasina. It is understood that, among other issues, the two discussed the difficulties encountered in some India-financed projects due to problems of mobilization of resources and sourcing of material for the projects.

Both countries know that it is not easy to break India-Bangla ties. This is partly because they share an intense antipathy to Pakistan. Indians should note that Bangladesh has made it clear Pakistan that there can be no normalization with it until Islamabad tenders an unqualified apology for its atrocities prior to independence in 1971.

Furthermore, Bangladesh is India’s biggest trade partner in South Asia. India’s exports to Bangladesh for financial year 2018-19 (April-March) stood at US$ 9.21 billion and imports from Bangladesh for the same period stood at US$ 1.22 billion. India has ensured duty-free access of Bangladeshi goods to the Indian market, especially ready-made garments.

Source: Daily News