Home to the world’s largest river delta formed by the rivers Brahmaputra and the Ganges, the 50-yearold nation of Bangladesh was a part of the British India till the Partition of the sub-continent in 1947, became the eastern wing of Pakistan subsequently and an independent nation after the Indiaassisted liberation in 1971.
Known for roaming Bengal tigers in the Sundarbans, a mangrove and swampland in the delta and the longest natural uninterrupted sea beach in Asia (Cox’s Bazar beach) and the oldest tea garden in the subcontinent, Bangladesh has been a close friend of India since its inception.
India’s links with Bangladesh are civilisational, cultural, social and economic. There is much that unites the two countries – a shared history and common heritage, linguistic and cultural ties, passion for music, literature and the arts. This commonality is reflected in multi-dimensional and expanding bilateral relations.
India and Bangladesh’s geographical locations complement each other and present an opportunity for both to further develop their connectivity links and economies.
India and Bangladesh’s bond stresses far beyond the calculus of strategic consideration, and it is rooted in close people-to-people connectivity. These linkages have been stronger due to sharing of common language, culture, history, and spirituality.
During his last visit to Bangladesh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasised celebrating this spiritual connection by visiting two religious sites outside Dhaka— the Joshorershari Temple, an important place of worship for believers in Hinduism, in Shyamnager and the temple of Harichand Thakur in Gopalganj.
Further, to promote people-topeople connectivity between India and Bangladesh, a new train called ‘Mitali Express’ connecting Dhaka and New Jalpaiguri was inaugurated.
Connectivity has become a priority for India and Bangladesh and the two countries are trying the re-establish the old linkages that got disrupted in the Pakistan era.
Unlike the past, the progress of India and Bangladesh cannot be measured with the arithmetic of the announcements made during the visit of the top leadership of the two countries.
Contrarily, over the years, the two countries have established a well-structured institutional framework for interactions amongst all the stakeholders which ensures sustained dialogue between the two countries across the year.
India and Bangladesh together have established more than 50 institutional mechanisms in a wide range of areas including security, defence, trade and economy, and science and technology. These mechanisms regularly monitor developments and work on resolving issues.
Given the growth trajectory of the bilateral relations, the visit of top leaders provides a philosophical direction to the bilateral relationship. For India, which is increasingly trying to ‘Act East’ and put its ‘Neighbourhood First’, Bangladesh as an immediate eastern neighbour, is an important littoral on its eastern seaboard. Presently, the country is also India’s largest trading partner in South Asia.
As India tries to indulge in greater cooperation in the South Asian region, to better fulfill its IndoPacific aspirations as well as guard against its apprehensions about China’s encroachment in the region, maintaining favourable ties with Bangladesh is critical for the country.
India on the other hand is important for Bangladesh, as leveraging ties with it will enhance its economy as well as help in its socio-economic development.
Naturally, both India and Bangladesh have worked to consolidate their partnership for the most part of this half a century old journey.
Today, both countries are each other’s closest strategic allies in the South Asian region, and in a joint statement issued in March 2021, they upheld their partnership as a model for bilateral relations for the entire region.
During the last financial year, the bilateral trade volume between both the countries was $9.9 billion but the potential is much higher. The issued was discussed by India’s Minister for External Affairs S Jaishankar with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina as well as Foreign Minister Abdul Momen during his Dhaka visit on April 28.
While the declared purpose of Jaishankar’s visit was to hand over in person a letter from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Hasina, inviting her to visit India, regional geopolitics was no doubt an important item on his agenda in Dhaka.
Chittagong Port offer a win-win for India
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s offer to India to use the Chittagong Port is a win-win situation for India. Built on the Karnafuli river, 16 km upstream of the sea, it is the busiest port along the coastline of the Bay of Bengal and ranks 67th in the Lloyd’s list of the top 100 busiest container ports in the world.
For India, the Chittagong Port is easier to access through proper multimodal connectivity, whilst the Kolkata Port has to be reached via the overland narrow Siliguri corridor, otherwise known as the ‘Chicken’s Neck’.
Connecting India’s northeast with the Chittagong Port is thus a cheaper option to not only develop this region and strengthen its linkages with the rest of India but also enhance its connectivity with the neighbouring countries sharing Bangladesh’s border.
In 2015, both the countries signed a Coastal Shipping Agreement and a Standard Operating Procedure allowing direct regular shipping between the ports on India’s east coast and Bangladesh’s ports. This helped reduce the delivery time from 25 to seven days and substantial savings.
In 2020, Tripura finally got access to the Chittagong Port as it received 100 tonnes of cargo from it at the Akhaura Integrated Check Post, in a trial run. Since then there has been no further development apart from the inauguration of the Maitru Setu in March 2021, connecting Tripura to Chittagong.
Today, the port is important for China as one of its gateways into the Indian Ocean. Some international reports have described Chinese investments in the port to be a part of its ‘String of Pearls” strategy against India.
At present, China enjoys access to the Chittagong Port, is interested in constructing and operating the Dhaka-Chittagong High-Speed Rail Project, building a 220-kms pipeline, and a single mooring point, facilitating direct offloading of imported oil at the Chittagong refinery.
The interest of the two Asian giants in the Chittagong Port is apparent. Bangladesh’s offer to India of using the Chittagong Port is one such diplomatic initiative. It reflects the growing bonhomie in their partnership which the two countries had described in March 2021 as a “model of bilateral ties for the entire region”.