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How stable is Indo-Bangla security cooperation?
Joyeeta Bhattacharjee
21 November 2012

In spite of proactive steps by Bangladesh, the Northeastern (NE) insurgent groups are still active in that country. During a meeting between Inspector General of the Border Security Force (BSF) of India, and Brigadier General of Border Guards of Bangladesh (BGB), BSF officials had handed over a list of 55 camps of NE insurgents existing in Bangladesh and urged the country to destroy them. The existence of insurgent camps threatens the stability of the security cooperation between India and Bangladesh.

It is high time for the two countries to work out a security framework that gives stability to the security cooperation between them. For the past few years, especially after the Awami League assumed government in Bangladesh in 2009, the security cooperation between the two countries has been quite successful. It is now established that it was indeed help from Bangladesh that resulted in the capture of some of the top insurgent leaders of the NE like Ulfa's self-proclaimed chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, and NDFB chief, Ranjan Daimary.

However, scepticism about the future stability of the security cooperation still persists. The fear is that a change in the ruling party might change the dynamics of the relationship and further jeopardise peace in the NE. India-Bangladesh relations have been hostage to the internal politics of Bangladesh. A change in the ruling party has often had repercussions on the nature of relations between the two nations. While the Awami League is known to be India-friendly, its archrival the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is known for its anti-India stance.

The growth of diplomatic relations between the two countries was hampered due to a swing in the attitude of the party in power. And this had far-reaching implications on India's security. The government of India is working hard to develop an impartial image before the people of Bangladesh so as to stabilise relations with its neighbour. With this aim, it is trying to build bridges even with a party like BNP, known for its reservations towards India. Earlier this year, the government of India had invited BNP chief and former Bangladesh Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia, and displayed unusual warmth to woo her. She was awarded a red carpet welcome, something that is normally reserved only for heads of states. A host of dignitaries, including President Pranab Mukherjee, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, external affairs minister Salman Khurshid and Opposition leader Sushma Swaraj, called on her during the visit. Begum Zia went on record to say that neither she, nor her party, would allow terrorists or separatists to use Bangladeshi soil to harm Indian interests.

This was undoubtedly the most significant upshot of the visit. This declaration by Begum Zia is welcome but this one visit should not be the end of the process. To win over the hearts of parties like the BNP, there is need for continuous engagement and dialogue. Engaging with political parties in Bangladesh has become more crucial since the Bangladeshi elections are scheduled within a year. And historically, no one party has returned to power in Bangladesh for a second time consecutively. Considering the BNP's past track record, particularly during the party's rule from 2001 to 2006, there is a strong need for India to strengthen its internal border management mechanism. It might be recalled that India-Bangladesh relations had deteriorated substantially during the BNP's previous tenure and some NE insurgent groups, operating from there were believed to have close links with officials of Zia's government.

However, the climate in Bangladesh has considerably changed since then. There is strong public sentiment against any form of insurgency and the country's support to such insurgent groups. The BNP, which attracted criticism for its inappropriate handling of terrorism, has had to accept the realities of time and bite the dust. Meanwhile, the liberalisation of trade by India has helped in the growth of trading relationships between the two countries. Given that the trading community comprises a large chunk of the vote bank, the BNP can hardly overlook them.

Another noteworthy aspect is that Khaleda Zia, despite being critical of India, has always respected treaties signed between the two countries, case in point being the Ganges treaty signed in 1996 when the Awami League was in power. Though she criticised the treaty, when in power, she did not change it. This very aspect makes one hopeful that if initiatives are taken to formalise a proper framework for security cooperation, Begum Zia might respect the treaties if she wins the elections. Reaching out to the BNP is certainly a positive beginning and the party's reaction has also been encouraging. However, only time will tell how successfully the BNP delivers on its promises. Improving the security situation of the NE region is a key reason for India to forge security cooperation with Bangladesh.

Hence, in concert with improving ties with its neighbour, it will be pertinent to strengthen its own internal mechanism. Thus, border management mechanism must be prioritised and steps should be taken to complete border fencing, place flood lights along the border and increase the number of check posts. There is also a need to sensitise people about the risks of porous international borders. Improving the governance of the NE region would perhaps help reduce the feeling of alienation, which has been a key reason for various insurgent groups to take to arms.

With appropriate diplomatic initiatives, we might be able to stabilise the security cooperation with our neighbours, but in order to arrive at a permanent solution to the problem, there is a need to address the larger, everyday issues of the people.

(The writer is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)

Courtesy: Seven Sisters Post