News from India’s western border with Pakistan is rarely positive. There are few expectations for change as we celebrate the 75th anniversary of independence and mark the partition of the subcontinent. The persistence of cross-border terrorism, the Kashmir conflict, militarization of the border, weak connectivity, poor trade relations and the absence of formal intergovernmental negotiations paint a grim picture of the India-Pakistan border.
The failure of successive generations of Indian and Pakistani leaders to end partition in the west lends credence to the rhetoric of a “100 years war”. The only trend that can counter this pessimism is the good news from India’s eastern border with Bangladesh – that it is indeed possible to transcend the bitter legacies of partition and build a mutually beneficial relationship.
If we can do this in the east, where the sources and consequences of partition were much more complex, it shouldn’t be impossible to normalize the western border – hopefully well before 2047. Contrary to the talk of a war of 100 years between India and Pakistan, Prime Ministers Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi have proclaimed a ‘sonali adhyay’ or ‘golden chapter’ in bilateral relations.
Cynics would dismiss this rhetoric; the pessimists continue to see the cup half empty. But there is no doubt that the bilateral relationship dominated by endless conflict at the turn of the millennium has turned into a very productive partnership. For both Delhi and Dhaka, the reinvention of the bilateral relationship has been one of the most significant successes of their recent foreign policies.
The work of rebuilding ties began in earnest in 2010, when Sheikh Hasina came to India after taking over as Prime Minister of Bangladesh for the second time in 2009. Hasina and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh embarked on a extraordinary effort to resolve most bilateral issues, including border settlement, sharing of river waters, cross-border terrorism, market access for Bangladeshi goods and connectivity.
With impressive progress in many of these areas, Singh traveled to Dhaka in September 2011; but West Bengal leader Mamata Banerjee rained down the parade by refusing to join the delegation at the last minute and ending the Teesta watershed deal. The visit was saved by other agreements, including the land border settlement that had been pending for decades.
But Manmohan Singh’s government struggled to get parliament to approve the border settlement. Part of the problem was the rejection of the settlement by the main opposition party, the BJP. Recognizing the strategic importance of an established border with Bangladesh, Modi reversed the BJP’s stance after becoming prime minister in 2014. He won support for the change from BJP units in Bengal and Assam and won the Parliament’s approval in 2015.
Modi also accepted the award of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on the settlement of the maritime boundary dispute between Delhi and Dhaka. Bangladesh has taken the matter to international arbitration. Under normal circumstances, bureaucrats in the two capitals would have argued for another two decades without settling the dispute. But Delhi acted decisively to accept the verdict and removed another long-running territorial dispute in bilateral relations.
While unresolved land and sea territorial disputes constitute one of the major issues in India’s relations with Pakistan, their resolution with Bangladesh has transformed the context of bilateral relations.
The cooperation on cross-border terrorism that began a few years earlier helped build much-needed political trust between the two national security establishments. The gradual opening of the Indian market to Bangladeshi products and Dhaka’s desire to allow Indian products to transit to North-East India have stimulated bilateral relations.
Recent years have seen bilateral relations develop rapidly. On the connectivity front, we have seen substantial movement towards reopening the border which was largely closed after the 1965 war between India and Pakistan. Cross-border bus services, the reopening of railway lines and the revitalization of waterways are restoring connectivity in the cut-off eastern subcontinent.
Bilateral trade volumes have grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, reaching nearly $16 billion last year. Bangladesh is one of India’s major export markets. Meanwhile, Bangladesh has become one of the fastest growing economies in the world and has easily overtaken Pakistan in South Asia. India and Bangladesh have also developed interconnected power grids making it easier for Dhaka to purchase electricity from India. It is currently buying about 1200 MW of power from India and another 1500 MW is in the pipeline.
Progress on the Indo-Bangladesh front could have been more expansive had the governments of West Bengal been enthusiastic about regionalism in the eastern subcontinent. Neither the left-wing parties nor the Trinamool Congress that have ruled West Bengal for so long have had a transformative agenda for regional cooperation in the eastern subcontinent.
Today, the northeastern states have realized the immense benefits of deeper economic engagement with Bangladesh – none of them more important than the end of the region’s geographic isolation. Today, Assam is at the forefront of imagining a bolder agenda to deepen economic ties with Bangladesh.
For India, the expanded partnership with Bangladesh has greatly alleviated its security challenges and laid the foundation for peace and prosperity in the eastern subcontinent. For Bangladesh, abandoning the temptation to balance India and embarking on a cooperative strategy has allowed Dhaka to focus on its economic growth and rise in the regional and global hierarchy.
India has tried to replicate this type of approach with Pakistan; but Islamabad and Rawalpindi have not been ready to accept even the simplest of initiatives on trade, connectivity or cross-border energy cooperation. India had no choice but to live with the sovereign choices of the Pakistani leadership.
Rather than lamenting the unfortunate dynamics on the western border and bemoaning Pakistan’s reluctance to let SAARC become a vehicle for regional cooperation, Delhi should focus on cementing the ‘golden moment’ in the east. There is no shortage of problems in the east that need to be solved by Delhi and Dhaka. They include protecting minority rights, sharing the waters of over 50 rivers, promoting cross-border investment, managing one of the longest borders in the world, facilitating trade and preventing illegal migration, countering the forces of religious extremism, promoting maritime security in the Bay of Bengal, expanding defense cooperation and mitigating climate change in the shared regional environment, to name a few. to name a few.
Many of these issues are topical and continually threaten to destabilize the growing strategic partnership. Solving problems and nurturing the relationship must necessarily be an ongoing effort rather than an episodic one. Neither can Delhi and Dhaka take each other for granted and allow domestic politics to take precedence over the logic of bilateral cooperation. The 75th anniversary of independence offers Delhi and Dhaka a special opportunity to raise the ambition of their bilateral partnership.
The author is a senior research fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, Delhi and international affairs editor for The Indian Express.