It is rare for a large figure on the world stage to visit Bangladesh, and so when the aeroplane bearing Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, touched down this weekend, cabinet members queued up on the tarmac to greet him. Their boss Sheikh Hasina, well on track to become South Asia’s longest reigning prime minister, was there too. She was eager to receive a stamp of approval from the leader of the world’s biggest democracy—and to help him make history in another way too.
For Mr Modi came bearing Bangladesh a gift half the size of Hong Kong island: 40 square kilometres of territory, along the two countries’ shared border. With a stroke, after 41 years of dithering, India has agreed to tidy up almost 200 enclaves that lay along their previously indeterminate boundary. Till now its landscape had been riddled with enclaves and counter-enclaves on both sides. The history behind this crazy quilt work is cryptic: one theory is that it resulted from a series of chess games played between two maharajahs centuries ago. (A more academic assessment by Brendan Whyte, of the National Library of Australia, is that the enclaves were borne of 18th-century treaties signed between local rulers and the Mughal empire, before the emergence of the British raj.)
The bits to be rationalised include such historical freaks as a “counter-counter-enclave”: a patch of Bangladeshi land surrounded by Indian territory which is in turn ensconced within Bangladesh. In all about 50,000 people were living in these impoverished patches; India and Bangladesh have at last brought them into the benefits of statehood.
The swap was long overdue. Manmohan Singh, Mr Modi’s predecessor, had done the legwork in the run up to a state visit to Bangladesh in 2011. But it was only only last month that India’s parliament got around to ratifying the 1974 Land Border Agreement; ceding any territory whatsoever required a change to the constitution. India’s still has outstanding border disputes with China and Pakistan, and a tiny one with Nepal. Bangladesh has none left.
The most startling feature of Mr Modi’s weekend visit was the tame conduct of Bangladesh’s political opposition. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which is led by Sheikh Hasina’s bitterest rival, Khaleda Zia, is effectively spent as a political force. Early this year it conducted a deadly campaign to force fresh elections, but failed; since then it has been rudderless. Sheikh Hasina’s heavy fist has played a role too. Most of the BNP’s leaders are in exile or in jail, and those who are not, like Mrs Zia, are being processed through the courts on various charges. Most leaders of its main electoral ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami, are facing life imprisonment or the prospect of death by hanging, for crimes in Bangladesh’s war of secession from Pakistan in 1971 (yet even the Jamaat found the grace to welcome Mr Modi’s visit). Out of power since 2006, now out of ideas and running out of manpower, the BNP has never looked weaker.
Mrs Zia is likely to have told Mr Modi what he already knows: ultimately Bangladesh needs to return to a parliamentary system where all political parties can have confidence in the integrity of an election. The legitimacy of Sheikh Hasina’s rule rests on a flawed 2014 poll in which many of the opposition’s leaders were locked away and most parliamentary seats were uncontested. But the day for shoring up that legitimacy may be a long way off. The sense in the capital is that Sheikh Hasina will do whatever it takes to ensure that the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence, in 2021, is presided over by the right people: in other words, those who revere her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the first president of Bangladesh.
Mr Modi’s visit emphasises the fact that under his stewardship India’s relations with its neighbours are no longer to be left in the hands of self-absorbed bureaucrats, spooks and the states’ chief ministers. Their tendency has been to treat Bangladesh as nothing more than a risk to India’s security. Ever since Bangladesh achieved its independence in 1971, struggles over territory and terrorism, rather than the exchange of goods and goodwill, have dominated the relationship with its mega-neighbour.
Many papers were signed during Mr Modi’s visit this weekend to demonstrate the arrival of a new era. It was striking that most of the 20-odd bilateral deals were about things that normal neighbours would not make much fuss about. Mr Modi brought along a business delegation, including two big Modi-friendly firms, Reliance and Adani, who vowed to invest $5.5 billion in Bangladesh’s power sector. There had been hope for a further agreement, on the sharing of the waters of the Teesta, one of 54 rivers that flow from India into Bangladesh, but it proved too thorny to solve on this mission.
Yet politicians and the media on both sides of the border managed to convince themselves that the new era is under way. The question is whether facts on the ground will interfere. Anti-Indian sentiment in Bangladesh remains strong. There are deep-rooted concerns about India’s ambition to become a dominant power in the region. Once celebrated for having played midwife to the birth of an independent Bangladesh, India has since come to be regarded as an overbearing and even wicked stepmother.
The growing influence of China in Bangladesh has helped concentrate minds in India and compel better behaviour. China is already Bangladesh’s biggest source of imports, arms and investment. America meanwhile seems to have outsourced its Bangladesh policy to India. While so much was in flux however, India’s priorities were slow to catch up. It regards Bangladesh through a prism of interlinked security issues. First, worries that it might turn away from its secular and tolerant traditions towards Islamic extremism, exporting terrorist violence in the process; also that large numbers of illegal Bangladeshi migrants are changing the ethnic and religious character of India’s border areas; and finally that Bangladesh acts as a haven for insurgent groups that are fighting Indian troops in the north-east.
The consequence has been India’s construction of a tortuous security fence, made deadly by electrified wire and sporadic gunfire, to help stanch the flow of illicit trade and migration. The 31 districts of Bangladesh that border India are among the country’s poorest.
Back in Delhi, explaining the significance of the revived border agreement to reporters, Mr Modi compared it to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. The analogy was both overstated and unflattering. India and Bangladesh were hardly at war. Indian troops however have been shooting unlucky cattle smugglers and migrant workers at a horrific rate. Over the past two decades the green zigs and zags that divide the halves of historical Bengal have killed far more people than ever died trying to cross the border that separated the two Germanys during the cold war. In the first five months of 2015 Indian border forces have killed 20 Bangladeshis. If Mr Modi’s overture could end that bloodshed, it would be a great thing. (The Economist)