The New York Times

January 12, 2010
Op-Ed Contributor

India's Opening With Bangladesh


HONG KONG — India has for so long been obsessed with the security of its north-western frontier and relations with Pakistan that issues on its eastern borders have been neglected. But various events are forcing New Delhi to focus on some interrelated security challenges in the east and northeast. So the four-day state visit to India by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed of Bangladesh that began Sunday has an importance far beyond the ceremonial.

While geography alone makes Bangladesh highly dependent on its giant neighbor, India is beginning to appreciate that bullying Bangladesh makes other problems worse. In reality, both nations have security and economic issues that require cooperation.

Three particular issues have brought home India’s eastern vulnerability. The first is China’s newly confrontational stance over its claims to much of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. China regards these areas as part of Tibet. That in turn links to the second issue: separatism in some of India’s seven northeast states. The insurgency in the largest state in the region, Assam, may now be at least as troublesome as that in Kashmir. China does not at present appear to be helping the insurgents but clearly has the potential to do so.

One cause of these tensions is the third issue: the relative lack of development in the region, including nearby eastern Indian states such as Bihar and Jharkhand, which has spawned the growing insurgency. The Naxalites, radical communists who have informal links to the Maoists recently in government in Nepal, have become a major threat to the state, killing officials and disrupting rail traffic. Bangladesh may be a poster state of poverty but it has been outshining neighboring Indian states in social development.

The election of Sheikh Hasina last year has opened an opportunity for cooperation with India to which Delhi needs to respond generously. Her Awami League has long been seen as less suspicious of India than the rival Bangladesh National Party of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia. She has bought some Indian good will by arresting and handing over to India the chairman of the separatist United Liberation Front of Assam. Her government is also seen as less likely to turn a blind eye to Islamic militants. But for her own credibility she must get something meaningful in return if good relations with India are to be a vote winner at home.

Top of the Bangladesh wish list is a reduction in trade barriers that contribute to a 10-to-1 trade advantage in India’s favor. But Bangladesh in turn needs to be more open to Indian investment generally and development of its gas industry in particular, which have long been stymied by nationalism and corruption. Likewise both countries have long hurt each other by impeding transit rights and thwarting the full use of rail and river links that date back to British rule. India also has been frustrated by Dhaka’s unwillingness to be a conduit for piping Myanmar gas to energy-short eastern India.

Indeed, oil and gas exploration in the Bay of Bengal is frustrated by lack of agreed boundaries between Bangladesh, India and Myanmar.

Even more fundamental issues need to be addressed. Bangladesh’s biggest security issue is water. It has legitimate worries about Indian plans for dam building on shared water resources that are the lifeblood of all of Bangladesh and much of northern India. Can the two cooperate for mutual benefit — and to oppose any plans China, the source of many of these rivers, has to divert them for its own use?

Indeed, given the depth of Chinese influence in Myanmar and its fostering of relations with Bangladesh, it is surprising that India has not made more effort to treat its neighbor with respect, not condescension. But a new chapter in relations between two nations that share so much culture, language and history could be opening if Delhi responds to Sheikh Hasina’s visit with the generosity and leadership that should be expected of the regional power.