Hasina cements her ties with India but brings back little for Bangladesh

Hasina cements her ties with India but brings back little for Bangladesh

P K Balachandran,

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s four-day visit to India appears to have been personally gratifying for her in so far as her vibes with Prime Minister Narendra Modi are concerned, especially in regard to Bangladesh’s 1971 fight for independence and the villainy of Pakistan in that saga.

At a more personal level, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee broke practice and invited her to stay in the Presidential Palace and not in a hotel. Prime Minister Modi went to the airport to receive her instead of sending a Minister to do so. On her part, Hasina took Hilsa fish, sweetmeats and curd for fellow Bengali Mukherjee, and even cooked Hilsa for him. She gifted silk material to the sartorially fastidious Modi.

But the visit, the first by a Bangladeshi Prime Minister in seven years, has not brought any concrete gains for Bangladesh in terms of an equitable sharing of the waters of 54 cross-border rivers, especially the Teesta.

Hasina has also inked a controversial defense deal which, though harmless on the face of it, is seen by nationalists in Bangladesh as an invasion of the independence and sovereignty of the country in the vital area of national security.

The visit had failed to address the issue of reducing the yawning trade gap between the two countries.As per 2015-2016 figures, India exports US$ 5.5 billion worth of goods to Bangladesh, and in return, buys goods worth only US$ 682 million.There is regret that Indians do not realize that they are getting more hard cash from Bangladesh than giving to it.

Bangladeshi goods face Non-Tariff Barriers in India such as quality controls. There is the anti-dumping legislation which hurts Bangladesh’s jute exports to India. Modi has not offered a solution, but has only promised to look into Bangladesh’s grievances. At any rate, he has no grand scheme to increase imports from Bangladesh to make a difference to the trade deficit.

Also Read: Half of US$1bn Indian credit to BD in 2010 unused

The critical economic and political issue of river waters sharing was kept pending by India on the plea that it is “work in progress.”The absence of a solution to the waters issue and the inking of the defense deal could have adverse political consequences for Hasina when parliamentary elections are held two years down the line. These issues will add to the woes,inevitably brought about by long incumbency.

The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) Secretary General, Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, has already said that Hasina has failed to address issues of importance to Bangladesh. Earlier, the BNP had said that Hasina’s trip to New Delhi would be of no value if she was not sure of swinging a favorable deal on Teesta.It remains to be seen if the electorate will heed Awami League General Secretary Obaidul Quader’s warning that India might altogether ignore Bangladesh’s requirements if Bangladeshis make inconsiderate and hostile remarks against it.

Pakistan Factor

Though Pakistan was not explicitly mentioned, that country had cast a shadow over Hasina’s visit. A shared animosity towards Pakistan, based on Islamabad’s ‘export of terror’to India and the support it has expressed for Bangladeshi war criminals, underlies Modi-Hasina ties.This was evident in the kind of functions held in New Delhi on the sidelines of the bilateral talks.

In the joint declaration issued at the end of the talks, Modi and Hasina appealed to the international community to “recognize and preserve” the memory of those who were killed or had suffered, in the Bangladesh liberation struggle (against Pakistan).

Showing India’s concern for the welfare of Bangladeshi freedom fighters, Prime Minister Modi announced a special medical scheme under which 100 “Muktijoddhas” or freedom fighters of Bangladesh will be provided medical treatment in Indian hospitals every year.He extended the Muktijoddha Scholarship Scheme for 10,000 heirs of Muktijhoddhas for another five years. He also announced five-year multiple entry visas for the freedom fighters.

At a  function to honor the 1661 Indian soldiers who had died fighting against Pakistan for the liberation of Bangladesh, Hasina handed silver crests and Rs.500,000 to each of the families of the seven martyred Indian soldiers who were present.

After doing so she said:“Every generation of Bangladesh will remember the Indian soldiers who fought by the side of Bangladeshi freedom fighters.”

Hasina also met Col (Retd) Ashok Kumar Tara, who as a young Major, had rescued her family from being massacred by the Pakistani army on December 17, 1971.

Teesta Waters

While memories of the 1971 war bound Modi and Hasina together, Teesta waters divided them not because they were not wanting to go for a compromise, but because of the obduracy of the West Bengal Chief Minister,Mamata Banerjee.

Mamata’s participation in the New Delhi parleys at the invitation of Modi and President Mukherjee,made no difference to her established stand that there is no water to be sharedin the December-April dry season when water is needed most in Bangladesh (and India too).

In the talks between her trusted officials and the Indian Prime Minister’s Office, the latter proposed that the Central government will fund the building of reservoirs to store excess water during the monsoon. These waters could be shared with Bangladesh during the dry season. But this was not acceptable to Mamata who harped on the theme that Teesta does not have enough water in the dry season and that Northern Bengal is highly dependent on the river for both drinking water and irrigation.

In turn, she suggested to Hasina that Bangladesh cease to depend on Teesta and use the waters of other cross border rivers like Torsa, Dharala, Jaldhaka, Dhansiri and Mansiri. She proposed a joint survey of the availability of waters in these five rivers.

But Bangladesh is more dependent on Teesta than West Bengal. While 21 million Bangladeshis depend on the Teesta flood plain, the comparative figure for West Bengal is only 8 million. Bangladesh and India share 54 rivers out of which 43 are unilaterally dammed by India, depriving Bangladesh of a due share of their waters. This is why, despite the concentration on Teesta, Bangladesh has been asking for a comprehensive water sharing treaty encompassing all the rivers.

Also Read: Mamata offers alternatives to Teesta

But India has been dragging its feet because water is a devolved provincial subject.Raising the hyper sensitive issue will be like opening Pandora’s Box for it. All that Modi can do is to reason out and coax Mamata to be more accommodative.

However, persistent demands from Bangladesh for a solution of the Teesta waters issue prompted the West Bengal government to ask expert Kalyan Rudra to make a study. In his 2012 report, Rudra suggested 60:40 division during the monsoon and 70:30 during the dry season. He opposed the construction of dams to store water because, ironically, dams were only creating floods during the monsoon. When the floodgates were opened to prevent the dams from bursting, the plains got flooded adding to the woes of the rain-drenched population.

However, in 2011, the then Indian government led by Dr. Manmohan Singh suggested 42.5% for India and 37.5% for Bangladesh.But given Mamata’s opposition and his dependence on her 19 MPs for his government’s survival, Singh had to abandon the settlement plan. Modi’s current bid to come for a settlement with Hasina has also come a cropper, his sops failing to inveigle Mamata.

Defense Deal

The second controversial issue bedeviling Indo-Bangla relations is the defense pact signed on Saturday and mooted by India after Bangladesh bought two submarines from China in 2016.

The then Defense Minister, Manohar Parrikar,had rushed to Dhaka to persuade Hasina to come to India for weapons and not go to China. He also proposed a 25 year Defense Pact encompassing a wide range of joint defense activities. Bangladesh has been dependent on China for its defense equipment to the extent of 80% but the purchase of the submarines was the last straw on the camel’s back.

Also Read: Modi-Hasina a new spring in bilateral ties!

Understanding India’s sensitivity in regard to China’s intrusions into its “sphere of influence”,Hasina did not make any public statements in regard to the defense pact even as the opposition cried wolf.

But criticism reached a crescendo when it was known that during her visit to New Delhi she would indeed sign a defense pact under which Bangladesh would have to buy defense equipment from India rather than a country of its choice. Bangladeshi commentators said that this would be an assault on the country’s sovereignty, an anti-thesis of its heroic freedom struggle. It should, therefore, be resisted tooth and nail.

The fact that India was offering a US$ 500 million credit line to buy weapons from it was seen as a ruse to palm off sub-standard weapons. Commentators asked how India can sell weapons when it is itself importing weapons, so much as so, that in 2016, it was the single largest buyer of weapons in the world with a bill of US$ 24 billion. China, in contrast,exports more weapons than either France or Germany, accounting for 6% of the world’s arms sales. India is nowhere in the arms export market.

But Indian defense analysts say that the threat of dominating the Bangladesh weapons market is non-existent as India is not yet a manufacturer of weapons and that all it can sell now and in the foreseeable future, are small arms.

Bangladesh Army

The rationale for seeking a defense pact with Bangladesh is to keep the Chinese away from training Bangladesh naval personnel, the Indian experts say. Through such training exercises, the Chinese can get familiar with the Bay of Bengal, which India considers its “lake”.The defenders of the defense deal also point out that Prime Minister Modi has said that it is for Bangladesh to decide how it will utilize the US$ 500 million line of credit available under the defense deal. Therefore, there is no danger of India’s intruding into Bangladesh’s sovereign rights, they contend.

Indian Defense Industry

However, India does have plans to boost its defense production and export potential under Modi’s “Make in India” project.

In January this year, the then Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar, said that India exported US$ 300 million worth of defense equipment and hoped it would take a quantum jump to be US$ 2 billion by 2019. He further said that government plans to set up an independent defense export corporation to ease exports.

India is expected to spend US$ 620 billion on the defense sector by 2022. To attract foreign investment in its defense sector, the government has allowed foreign partners to take 49% stake in defense industries. Military contracts up for grabs are now worth US$ 130 billion.

In October 2016, it was reported that industrialist Anil Ambani was in talks with Dassault for a US$ 4.5 billion investment to make parts for the Rafael aircraft in India. The same year, Russia informed the Indian Defense Ministry that it had struck a deal with Reliance to make Kamov 226T choppers in India.

Lockheed Martin said it is interested in setting up a production line for its F-16 plane in India not just the Indian military, but also for export. And Sweden’s Saab has offered a rival production line for its Gripen aircraft.

 Between January 2001 and February 2016, the Indian Commerce Ministry had granted 333 industrial licenses to private firms for defense-related manufacturing. The firms involved are small and big. The big ones are: Bharat Forge Ltd (BFL), Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL), Tata group, Larsen and Toubro Ltd (L&T), Godrej Group and the Mahindra Group.Anil Ambani’s Reliance Group and the Adani Group’s Adani Defence Systems and Technologies Ltd are the latest to enter the race.

The serious players in the field have been investing for the past decade or more.  Tata group, Bharat Forge Ltd., and L&T and have built a portfolio in electronics, land systems, aerospace products and short-range missiles. Most of these are either in talks or have already concluded framework arrangements with foreign Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs).

Also Read: India woos Bangladesh with defence and trade

BFL has tied up with Israel defense tech firm Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd and Elbit Systems Ltd and UK-based Rolls-Royce Corp. Similarly, Tata group has tied up with US-based firms Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co.

Currently, imports contribute almost 75% of the defense equipment needs .The public sector and domestic private sector players contribute only 20% and 5%, respectively.But the Indian private sector has the opportunity to pick up a 25% share of defense production, government sources say.

But “Make in India” projects may take significant time to fructify. Over the next five years, meaningful indigenization may not take place,except in the field of radars and missiles.Priority will be given to meeting domestic needs rather than export as all three services need upgrading. In the Air Force, the immediate shortfall is 200 aircraft.


Thanks to Hasina’s visit, Dhaka is assured of a friendly New Delhi. But it is also undeniable that the visit has been devoid of concrete gains for Bangladesh. The critical economic and political issue of the sharing of river waters, especially the waters of the Teesta, remains unresolved. The Bangladesh Prime Minister has had to yield to Indian prodding on the defense pact which many Bangladeshis consider to be a millstone around their neck.

It is unlikely that Bangladeshis will be convinced by Modi’s assurance that the application of the provisions of the defense pact will be determined only by Bangladesh’s priorities and requirements. The Big Brother across the border has enough levers in his hands to force compliance in case he feels threatened by a Chinese move.