India need to be pro-active to strengthen relations with Bangladesh
12 April 2012
Observer Research Foundation, in association with the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI), Dhaka, organised another India-Bangladesh Security Dialogue in New Delhi on April 5-6, 2012. This dialogue was the fourth in the series of interactions initiated by ORF and BEI on security concerns of the two countries. The dialogue discussed in detail some of the contentious issues in the bilateral relationship and explored ways and means to resolve them. It also discussed new areas of cooperation to strengthen the relationship.
Distinguished list of participants from both the countries, including government officials, retired diplomats, academics, security experts, journalists and researchers, took part in the dialogue. The 12-member BEI delegation was led by Amb. Farooq Sobhan, BEI President, while Amb. M Rasgotra, President, ORF Centre for International Relations, led the Indian side. Besides the inaugural and the concluding sessions, there were three working sessions in which five papers were presented. Amb. Satinder K Lambah, Special Envoy of the Prime Minister of India, delivered the keynote address.
The first session focused on some key issues of concerns for both the countries. Two papers -- "Bangladesh-India relations: Developments since the Third Dialogue" by Mr. Faiz Sobhan, Research Director, BEI and "India-Bangladesh relations moving beyond Manmohan Singh’s visit" by Dr. Joyeeta Bhattacharjee, Associate Fellow, ORF, were presented. Amb. Humayun Kabir, Vice President, BEI and Amb. Veena Sikri, Professor, Ford Foundation Chair, Bangladesh Studies Programme, Jamia Milia Islamia, were the discussants.
The second session, Lt. Gen. Nirbhay Sharma (Retd.), Distinguished Fellow, ORF, discussed the scope of cooperation in the field of border management. The papers presented were: "Bangladesh-India cooperation on border management" by Dr. Humayun Kabir, Senior Research Director, BEI and "Cooperation on India-Bangladesh border management" by Dr Pushpita Das, Associate Fellow, IDSA. Mr. Ishfaq Ilahi Choudhury, Registrar, BRAC University, Dhaka and Mr. R.K. Shukla, former Special Director General, Seema Shastra Bal (SSB), were the discussants.
The third session, chaired by Mr. Mahendra Kumawat, Distinguished Visiting Fellow, ORF, and former DG, Border Security force, discussed Maoist insurgency in India and possible fallouts for Bangladesh. The paper on the topic, "India’s Maoist movement: Current trends and security implications" was presented by Dr. P.V. Ramana, Research Fellow, IDSA. Mr. Nurul Huda, former Inspector General of Bangladesh Police, was the discussant.
In the inaugural session, Dr. C. Raja Mohan, Distinguished Fellow, ORF, while giving the welcome remarks, noted that the positive trend in the relationship between India and Bangladesh should continue to develop and it was the responsibility of think tanks to maintain the current strategic optimism. Amb. Farooq Sobhan said the most crucial aspect in enhancing cooperation was maintaining cooperation in the area of security. Cooperation in security related matters would go a long way in building trust and confidence between the two countries. He also underlined the importance of public opinion in shaping the relationship between two countries and added that the support from the media was required to strengthen the hands of the government.
Mr. S. K. Lambah, Special Envoy of the Prime Minister, said that while the idea of having an open border was an ideal situation, currently plausible solutions should be worked out to ease tensions at the border. Such solutions, however, should be mutually acceptable to New Delhi and Dhaka. In this regard, he highlighted that the recent agreement reached by both countries on the border and the settlement of conclaves was a historic move.
State of Bilateral Relations
Participants said that even though the ties between the two governments remain on an upward trajectory, the public perception of India in Bangladesh has suffered following India’s delay in delivering the commitments, including the signing of the Teesta Water sharing agreement, ratification of land boundary Agreement and reducing border killings. However, it was pointed out that there were potential areas of cooperation like energy cooperation, economic and diplomatic ties. A greater people-to-people interaction and cultural exchanges would also bolster the bilateral relationship.
One participant pointed out that contrary to the popular perception of Dr Manmohan Singh’s visit to Dhaka as a failure, the visit actually resulted in the resolution of some major bilateral issues. Analysing the issues in the bilateral relationship, especially the illegal migration, the speaker talked about the need for effective border management along with more work permits to tackle the issue. The speaker also stressed on the need to address non-tariff related issues for stronger economic relationship. Some of the suggestions made include liberalising visa process, signing of the bilateral extradition treaty and ratification of land boundary agreement.
Taking stock of the bilateral relationship during the last three years, one of the speakers noted that while considerable progress had been made, some gaps still remained. Hence, giving new thrust to the relationship has become crucial. It was highlighted that the exchange of enclaves was an important issue. Residents of the enclaves were eagerly waiting for the ratification of the land boundary protocol. The speaker also pointed out the important role the civil society and media can play towards enhancing the bilateral relationship.
Talking about the India-Bangladesh security cooperation, a speaker pointed out that the security issues should be seen as shared ones and not in any single country’s interest. It was suggested that there was a need for a dialogue on counter-terrorism issue.
Participants from both the countries agreed that solving problems of border management lay at the heart of reconfiguring India-Bangladesh relations to a higher level of trust and cooperation. With a border of 4096 km, India shares its longest border with Bangladesh. Terrain and human geography have made the management of the border porous and difficult. It runs through difficult terrain, comprising plains, hills, rivers and jungles. It also often divides homogenous communities, making their administration a difficult task. This is compounded by the regions with high population-density, and lack of natural demarcations of the border.
Further, owing to India’s long experience with foreign-sponsored insurgencies in Punjab, Kashmir and its North-East, it has adopted a security-oriented approach towards border management. Elements of its border management include guarding, regulating, and development of borders, and cross-border cooperation with neighbouring countries. Because of the dominant role of security, problems of gun-running, narcotics trade and illegal migration are being tackled by security forces rather than civilian organs of the state.
The magnitude of cross-border smuggling is so great that the quantum of illegal trade has become larger than official trade. This includes bootlegging, movement of goods through porters across the border, technical smuggling such as under-invoicing, mis-classification and bribery in formal trade. In fact, because of the complicity of border guards, customs officials, and civilians on both side of the border, smuggling has assumed the character of informal trade, rather than a covert illegal activity. In this context, smuggling of cattle is rampant because of high profit involved. India’s tendency to remain in denial mode about the mechanisms present in India which promote cattle trade has further complicated the issue.
Another major problem arising out of the insufficient border management practice is illegal migration of Bangladeshis and the casualties arising out of firings by Indian security forces. The issue of border deaths has local and national impact and plays a detrimental role in damaging bilateral relations by feeding into prevailing anti-India sentiments in Bangladesh. Much like India’s practice of denying the dynamics of cattle smuggling, Bangladesh too has tended to deny the existence of illegal migration and its harmful effect on Indian domestic politics. At the same time, India too should adopt a more liberal work-permit regulation and allow greater number of Bangladeshis to find opportunities in India through formal channels.
The Dialogue came up with many valuable suggestions to develop more efficient border management programmes. Borders are multi-layered systems, and the role of uniformed security forces should be restricted to the final layer of state control, which is the final extremity of the border, where the country’s sovereignty is to be defended. Currently, however, security forces are responsible for the entire gamut of the management of borders, often resulting in civilian casualties. A more effective border policing programme, on the other hand, calls for a greater role of police, district administration, intelligence agencies, customs and other branches of the state apparatus. To facilitate better coordination between these agencies, both countries should consider creating district modules comprising the above mentioned bodies, led by the heads of local administration.
Some other suggestions were usage of non-lethal weapons, zero-tolerance of human-rights abuse, more confidence building measures among the Indian Border Security Force and the Border Guards Bangladesh such as sports exchanges, and cultural and language training of security forces.
Naxal Violence in India
Several trends indicate that Naxal violence in India has increased manifold in the recent past. Unless India expedites the spread of security forces and development in the insurgency affected regions, the Naxal insurgency is going to spread at an even faster rate in the time to come. These worrying trends include merger and consolidation of different insurgent groups, expansion to previous stable regions, and greater militarisation of the movement.
The Naxal insurgency has now spread to more than 180 districts. This figure needs to be qualified by the fact that even a stray instance of Naxal violence marks the district as ’Naxal affected’.
This period of consolidation and expansion has also witnessed a greater militarisation of the movement. Not only are the insurgents using greater number of weapons, they are also better equipped, as evidenced by the use of mines, explosives and sophisticated small arms. The primary source of arms remains weapons looted from state armouries and from soldiers during ambushes, weapons procured from the illegal arms market, and also through local production of country-made weapons. Concurrently, Naxals have felt emboldened enough to conduct large scale, complex, synchronized attacks on multiple targets. In the last few years, one of the favoured tactics of the rebel commanders has been to attack police, administration and paramilitary installation of poorly defended regions simultaneously. This has not only demoralised local forces, more importantly, it has also influenced fence-sitters among the local communities to side with the insurgents, thus swelling their numbers.
Cooperative model border management
The dialogue ended with an emphasis on the need for both the governments to continue making efforts for further improvement in the bilateral ties.
Improvement of border relations was recognised as the most attainable and crucial development for further promotion of the bilateral ties. Consequently, a call was made for the adoption of a liberal cooperative model in border management by the two countries. While it was acknowledged that political borders cannot be done away with, at least on maps, there is a need to undermine the negative political implications of these borders on Indo-Bangladesh ties.
Taking the example of the successful Indo-Nepal relations following their decision to open borders, a similar suggestion was made for Indo-Bangladesh borders. However, in the same tone, an acknowledgment was made of the apprehensions that accompany such a bold decision. Addressing these, it was stated that undoubtedly, the opening of the border will lead to fears of terrorist infiltration, though the closing of the borders has not helped prevent these.
Additionally, it was highlighted that both India and Bangladesh face similar security threats -- terrorism, cyber security, maritime security and money laundering. In the face of these common security challenges, the two countries, it was suggested, can greatly benefit from a cooperative security framework. A greater role for the media was also stressed.
While the major share of credit for the improved Indo-Bangladesh relations was given to Sheikh Hasina’s government, a concern was expressed that the Indian government has not been equally active in the betterment of the bilateral ties. Although the major reasons for the slow Indian response were traced to the complex domestic challenges, the Dialogue concluded stressing on the need for the Indian government to be more proactive in the promotion of its ties with Bangladesh.
(This report is prepared by Joyeeta Bhattacharjee, Rahul Prakash, Ruchira Chaturvedi, Kaustav Chakrabarti, Sadhavi Chauhan)