The Assam Chronicle

News and Views from Northeast India

Swaraj’s Dhaka visit

Border markets constitute another key medium to forge closer economic ties between the two neighbouring nations. In January 2010, both the governments agreed during Hasina’s landmark New Delhi visit to reopen the traditional border haats to further broaden and deepen bilateral engagement along the Indo-Bangladesh border regions. Currently, two border markets are operating at Kalaichar in West Garo Hills district and Balat in East Khasi Hills district in the Meghalaya sector of Indo-Bangladesh borders. About five weeks ahead of Swaraj’s Dhaka visit, the first one of the four proposed border markets in Tripura was inaugurated at Kasba in Siphaijala district. In addition to Kasba, three more markets will be opened soon at Akhaura, Raghna near Dharmanagar in North Tripura district and Kamalpur in Dhalai district. India intends to open more border haats in South Tripura and Dhalai districts after the completion of these four markets. Such border trade has been helping the neighbouring country to reduce its balance of trade with India. The huge trade deficit with India has been a constant worry of Bangladesh’s political and business leaders.

Border trade through various trade points in North East has shown an increasing trend in the recent period. According to a report, border trade through Suterkandi land custom station, about 14 km away from Karimganj in Assam, has already witnessed an upward trend. India has also agreed to supply an additional 100 mw of power from the Palatana project in Tripura to Bangladesh. It may be noted that Bangladesh allowed transhipment of machineries needed for the construction of Palatana power plant through its territory as gesture of friendship with Tripura which played a key role in the Liberation War of 1971.

During the recent bilateral talks, New Delhi announced relaxation of visa norms for a category of Bangladeshi citizens planning to visit India. In its bid to expand people-to-people contacts, India proposed that children below the age of 13 and citizens above the age of 65 would be eligible for five-year multiple-entry visas as against the current period of one year. Swaraj also urged the Bangladeshi leaders to discuss the issue of illegal migration which has emerged as a major threat to India’s economy, environment, political stability and security especially in the North Eastern region. India under Modi has however been treading very cautiously on this contentious issue for obvious reasons. Swaraj observed, “The illegal migrants issue is a sensitive subject in any country and needs careful handling”. She added, “We propose to address this (illegal migrants) issue through discussion and with the involvement of all stakeholders”.

Swaraj held discussions with Bangladesh’s President Mohammad Abdul Hamid, BNP Chairperson and former premier Khaleda Zia, leader of the opposition Roushan Ershad, Dhaka’s security and foreign policy think tanks, important business and industry leaders and prominent personalities of civil society. Swaraj said, “We wish to establish an inclusive partnership with Bangladesh and we want to do it by taking every section of (the Bangladeshi) society into confidence”. Perhaps, the Modi government tried to dispel the prevailing notion in Bangladesh that India continues to look at it through the prism of the Awami League particularly in the context of New Delhi bailing out the party following its victory in the controversial January 5 parliamentary elections. The external affairs minister has described her visit as “extremely satisfying and fulfilling”. She said, “As a result of this visit, both the countries have move forward on a host of issues that could provide impetus to trade, connectivity, power sector cooperation and people-to- people contacts”.

Swaraj’s visit undoubtedly demonstrates the importance New Delhi accords to its ties with Dhaka. Maintaining friendly relations with an immediate neighbour like Bangladesh would help India to realise its goals as envisaged in the Look East Policy, check China’s heightened efforts to gain foothold in the Bay of Bengal, establish connectivity between mainland and peripheral North East through Bangladesh and denying any sanctuary to the anti-Indian militant outfits. The Indian leadership is fully aware that greater cooperation with Bangladesh is essential for implementing several path-breaking regional connectivity and infrastructure building schemes envisioned in sub-regional groupings such as BIMSTEC and BCIM-EC. It is imperative that the NDA government should fulfil the promises India made to Bangladesh earlier. New Delhi would do well in ratifying the LBA without wasting any more time. The ruling party has sufficient numbers in thee parliament needed for amending the Constitution. The Modi government should also persuade the Bengal chief minister to get rid of her recalcitrant attitude towards the question of sharing Teesta river waters.