india-bangladesh relations

‘Those who want to Boycott India, let them burn their wives’ Indian sarees first. We are importing spices, onion, and garlic from India, so let them cook food without them first.’

PM Sheikh Hasina

This was the statement of Bangladesh’s current PM Sheikh Hasina, pushing back on the anti-India sentiments growing in Bangladesh by foreign lobbies. The statement was a testament to a five-decade-long relationship between both countries’ longer deep and intertwined history.

History of India and Bangladesh

The region today known as Bangladesh has been a part of ‘Undivided India’ since the dawn of Indic Civilization and was a part of Bengal Province. Only at the beginning of the 20th century did the British government sow the idea of a separate Bengal. To divide and rule and to suppress the growing freedom movement in the province, Lord Curzon, then viceroy of India implemented the separation of Bengal on religious lines. The Muslim-majority region to the east became East Bengal and the Hindu-majority region became West Bengal. Though this motion was later repelled in 1911, the idea of East Bengal with a Muslim mandate, took root in the hearts of some Muslim hardliner organisations. Later during the Independence of 1947, Bengal was again divided on the same religious lines and became East Pakistan.

East Pakistan had a profound role in the formation of Pakistan, but after 1947 it was sidelined repeatedly by Karachi. Resource-rich Bengal was exploited in the coming years for the gain of West Pakistan, all while being denied basic living necessities. Bengali-speaking East Pakistanis were discriminated against in both administrative and political avenues. This resulted in the birth of the Bangladeshi freedom movement and the formation of Mukti Bahini, a guerrilla resistance movement formed by the Bengali military, paramilitary and civilians. The tipping point was the 1970’s Bhola cyclone that hit Bangladesh. 300,000 people died due to gross negligence and utter indifference from the Pakistan Administration. Then in the 1971 election, the Awami League under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman from the East won by a staggering margin but was prohibited from forming a government by the military establishment. In order to suppress the dissent, the army launched Operation Searchlight against the civilians. In a memo, the army was instructed to rape and kill women and girls, especially of Hindu origin. Pakistan was somehow successful in the early days until India decided to interfere to put a stop to the atrocities by the Pak military. India trained and provided arms support to the Mukti Bahini in their Guerrilla warfare. The interference resulted in a two-front war, the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war, in which Pakistan surrendered in Dhaka on 16th December that year, which was to date remains the largest surrender of armed personnel since the World War II. This subsequently facilitated the independence and formation of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.

India-Bangladesh Relationship Post 1971

The South-Asian neighbours India and Bangladesh have held a prominent bilateral relationship since the independence of the latter. India in 1971 was the first country to recognize Bangladesh as a country. Both countries have many common points of interest which pushes these towards cooperation in various sectors such as economic, military and cultural. India shares a 4096.7 KM long border with Bangladesh, which is the largest land border with any of its neighbours. Since Dhaka’s independence, both countries held several joint military exercises such as Exercise Sampriti between the armies and Exercise Milan between the Navies. The India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) came into force following the exchange of instruments of ratification in June 2015, which led to the exchange of enclaves (small territories surrounded by the other country’s land) between India and Bangladesh. Both countries share 54 rivers within their territory and since 1972 a bilateral Joint River Commission (JRC) has been working between both countries to maximise the benefits of these water bodies.

Co-operation in the Power sector has become the hallmark of India-Bangladesh relations. By 2020 Bangladesh was importing 1160 MW of electricity from India. India is also Bangladesh’s biggest trade partner in South Asia. India’s exports to Bangladesh for the financial year 2018-19 (April-March) stood at US 9.21 billion USD and imports from Bangladesh for the same period stood at US 1.22 Billion USD. Duty-free and quota-free access has been given to Bangladeshi exports to India under the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) since 2011. India and Bangladesh are also engaged in regional cooperation through multilateral forums such as BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), and IORARC (Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation), etc.

Both countries also have deep cultural, social and lingual ties dating back to centuries. Bangla language which is widely spoken in West Bengal and Tripura of India, is the national language of Bangladesh. The National anthem of both countries was written and composed by Nobel laureate Sri Rabindranath Tagore. Apart from these both countries have a shared history dating back centuries as both were a part of Undivided India.

India-Bangladesh Relations in Recent Times

Although India and Bangladesh, throughout their modern history maintained a friendly relationship, there exist some matters of tension between them.

  • With a wide network of shared rivers there comes the issue of water dispute, which is also true for India and Bangladesh. Teesta River and Farakka Barrage are the major disputed water bodies among these, however mutual understanding and deliberations have also been pivoting point for smooth functioning for common understanding of usage.
  • The Indo-Bangladesh border has also seen some terror activities and illegal drug trade in recent years. Outfits like Banga Sena and Harkat-Ul-Jihad-al-Islami are facilitating conflicts in this region and being tackled by government of both nation with many coordination operations.
  • Illegal migration is another point of contempt between both countries. The flow of migrants across the Bangladeshi border as a result of the country’s unrest has resulted in substantial socio-economic-political challenges in Indian states bordering Bangladesh. Issue has been discussed between both countries for way ahead in many forums and means have been discussed and implemented for streamlining population migration. 

Apart from these increasing Chinese influence in Bangladesh is also a matter of concern for India. However, despite having differences, India and Bangladesh successfully fostered their relationships towards new heights in recent years, especially after the pandemic.

  • Indian PM visited Bangladesh in 2021 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the country’s establishment. During this visit, both countries signed several MoUs for several defences, trade and infra projects. That year Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina was also given the Gandhi Peace Prize.
  • In the wake of the pandemic India provided several lines of credit to stabilise the Bangladeshi economy. It also provided vaccines to Dhaka under the Vaccine Maitri Programme.
  • Bilateral trade between both countries increased at an unprecedented rate of approximately 44% from $10.78 billion in 2020-21 to $18.13 billion in 2021-22, despite Covid-19-related difficulties. In FY 2022-23, the total bilateral trade has been reported as USD 15.9 billion. India has also extended 4 Lines of Credit (LOC) to Bangladesh in the last 8 years amounting to around US$ 8 billion for the development of infrastructure in various sectors including roads, railways, shipping and ports.
  • Several cross-border rail links and bus services have been made operational to increase connectivity between both countries. The Maitree Super Thermal Power Plant and the India-Bangladesh Friendship Pipeline between both countries have pushed power cooperation between both countries to new heights.
  • Apart from that both countries are also focusing on capacity building and cultural cooperation. Thousands of Bangladeshi students are upskilling themselves under Suborno Jayanti Scholarships and ITEC training programmes in Indian institutions. In June 2022, India launched a revamped version of the Bangladesh Youth Delegation 2022 campaign to attract the best of Bangladeshi talent, from various disciplines, to visit India as part of the delegation, for which auditions have been conducted in major cities of Dhaka, Chattogram and Rajshahi.

The India-Bangladesh relations despite facing several roadblocks is on its way to the sky and this is also a testament to India’s foreign policy outlook which emphasises on collective growth of the world.

By Subhakanta Bhanja

Subhakanta Bhanja is a multi-disciplinary writer with a passion for exploring the intersections of science, technology, and geopolitics. A Utkal University graduate with a background in Science, he brings a unique perspective to the world of writing, combining technical knowledge with an understanding of the political and social implications of new innovations.