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Maitree Express on track, India hopes for a season of friendship

Maitree Express on track, India hopes for a season of friendship
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First Published: Thu, Apr 24 2008. 12 56 AM IST

Strengthening ties: Maitree Express on its maiden Kolkata-Dhaka run. Train services between India and Bangladesh commenced after 43 years on 13 April, which is also the Bengali new year. (Madhu Kappar
Strengthening ties: Maitree Express on its maiden Kolkata-Dhaka run. Train services between India and Bangladesh commenced after 43 years on 13 April, which is also the Bengali new year. (Madhu Kappar
Updated: Thu, Apr 24 2008. 12 56 AM IST
New Delhi: If wishes were horses, India and Bangladesh could easily ride off into the sunset together.
So, when Bangladesh army chief Gen. Moeen U. Ahmed arrived in Delhi in late February, the first army chief from that country to visit India, army chief Gen. Deepak Kapoor gifted him with two stallions and four mares, handpicked from the army’s Remount Veterinary Corps.
The six horses cost Rs3.6 crore (Rs1 crore each for the stallions and Rs40 lakh for each mare), but Indian officials are emphatic about the fact that its money well spent.
“The fact that this Bangladesh army chief is a muktijoddha (freedom fighter) indicates that he is well disposed to India,’’ said a senior Indian government official, who did not wish to be identified.
Strengthening ties: Maitree Express on its maiden Kolkata-Dhaka run. Train services between India and Bangladesh commenced after 43 years on 13 April, which is also the Bengali new year. (Madhu Kapparath / Mint)
The reference is to 1971, when India supported the rebel army in erstwhile East Pakistan called the Mukti Bahini, or freedom force, to fight and secede from Pakistan. The Indian Army provided logistics, arms, training and aid to these freedom fighters, thereby helping midwife the independent state of Bangladesh.
With the Bangladeshi army once again running the country, albeit behind the façade of a caretaker government, India is hoping the army chief will be able to break through the political deadlock between Bangladesh’s warring Begums—as Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh National Party and Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League are known—which has affected both the country’s domestic politics, as well as its relationship with neighbours.
“In the interregnum until elections are held later this year, India is hoping that the caretaker government of Fakhruddin Ahmed and the army can help resolve a number of issues ranging from terrorism to border demarcation to improving bilateral trade and enhancing connections,’’ well-known columnist B.G. Verghese said.
Another senior Indian government official agreed that the India-Bangladesh relationship had been a victim of domestic politics between Zia and Hasina. “We now hope that the army chief—although there may be the danger that he becomes another Pervez Musharraf—can now deliver,’’ he added.
“We must be pragmatic, India can neither change her geography, nor choose her neighbours,’’ this official, who did not wish to be identified, said. That pragmatism seems to be working. Within six weeks of the army chief’s visit, train service between Kolkata and Dhaka commenced on 13 April, celebrated across undivided Bengal as Poila Baisakh, or the Bengali new year; the services had been disrupted for 43 years.
As the “Maitreee Express’’ was flagged off with much fanfare, nostalgia and soul-searching about “soft borders and cross-border connections,’’ passengers on both sides expressed happiness at the restoration of the service.
India’s high commissioner to Bangladesh, Pinak Chakravarty, told PTI, “With a new India rising, we want Bangladesh to be a part of it.’’
“A poor neighbour syndrome is a liability which is why we want an integration of markets, connectivity and communication with Bangladesh,’’ Chakravarty said.
Back in Dhaka, the finance ministry in the caretaker government was instructing its Board of Investment to restart negotiations with the Tata group on a $3 billion (Rs12,000 crore) investment in the country’s power, steel and fertilizer sectors, Bangladeshi newspaper Daily Star reported.
Until talks fell apart in 2006 over rising anti-India feeling, the Tata investment would have been Bangladesh’s biggest investment ever. Talks were on for a 15-year guarantee on the state’s supply of 1.25 trillion cubic feet of gas as well as 3 million tonnes (mt) of coal annually. Dhaka had also agreed to allow the Tata group a 10-year tax holiday.
People in India’s home ministry familiar with the development, but who do not wish to be identified, have confirmed that after Gen. Moeen Ahmed’s visit— he met external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee, defence minister A.K. Antony, and West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee—the around 4,000-km border between India and Bangladesh has been unusually quiet; Bangladesh shares borders with all seven states in India’s North-East .
Bangladeshi sources admitted that during Khaleda Zia’s tenure, “relations with India were very tense’’ because Delhi believed that her government was allowing Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency to plot against India from the country.
“But after the army chief’s visit to India, there is much better understanding between Delhi and Dhaka. The army chief assured India that Bangladesh would take action against anti-Indian insurgent camps as well as against religious fundamentalists who are using Bangladeshi territory against India,’’ said a person in the Bangladeshi establishment familiar with the matter.
All through the political churning in Bangladesh last year, Delhi kept extremely silent. Unlike the newly appointed US ambassador to Bangladesh, James Moriarty, (who moved from Nepal to Bangladesh earlier this week), who publicly called for the state of emergency to be lifted before “credible elections’’ can be held, India has held its peace.
When Zia’s son Tarique Rahman was thrown in jail on corruption charges, India kept its counsel. Then the two Begums were arrested. In December, they were charged by the Anti-Corruption Commission for colluding with Canadian gas exploration company Niko to the detriment of the state.
Political analysts say India plays its cards quietly. “India would clearly like to see Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League come to power in the elections, because she is much more disposed to India. However, Delhi and the rest of the world can only quietly encourage Dhaka to keep to the election timetable. Dhaka must be encouraged to take the credit of cleaning up the corruption and then hold elections,’’ said an Indian analyst, who did not wish to be identified.
According to Indian government officials, Delhi has repeatedly asked Dhaka for dates to settle the 6.5km demarcation of the boundary that emerged the core issue in the border dispute between the two countries.
According to the Indira Gandhi-Mujibur Rahman Land Agreement of 1974, the two sides agreed to demarcate the around 4,000km-long boundary as well as settle “adverse” possessions and enclaves— small pieces of territory in the other country—left over from history. Since then, most of the boundary has been demarcated except 6.5km in Noakhali, Dinajpur and Sylhet districts because both sides refuse to accept the other’s documentation and maps.
In Noakhali, for example, both governments continue to argue how to divide the Feni river between themselves.
“India, with roughly eight times Bangladesh’s population and more than 12 times the GDP, must show some generosity in settling the disputes of the past,’’ said Verghese. “The problem now seems to be that India wants to settle the whole issue as a package, while Dhaka prefers the piecemeal approach.’’
Indian officials defend the approach, arguing that Delhi has already offered zero duty tariffs to all least developed countries, including Bangladesh and Nepal. A few months ago, it repealed ban on Bangladesh’s investment in India that had been in place even after Bangladesh became a free country.
Officials in India’s commerce ministry, who did not wish to be identified , admitted that removing Bangladesh from the negative FDI (foreign direct investment) list did not mean much. In 2006-07, Indian exports to Bangladesh (manufactured goods, semi-manufactured goods, foodgrain, industrial raw materials, vehicles, trucks, etc.) amounted to $1.5 billion, while Bangladesh’s exports to India were a lowly $228 million.
That works out to around $1.73 billion of trade, although experts say goods worth $2 billion are smuggled across the border.
India’s exports to Bangladesh have gone up by an additional $1 billion this year, largely because of the 1.5mt of foodgrain the country bought from India after its large parts were ravaged by a cyclone last year, and the government was forced to feed a full third of its population (50 million of about 145 million) for six months.
Bangladeshi officials say the India-Bangladesh economic relationship is hugely unequal, partly because Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world, with half its population living below the poverty line, and partly because the country’s manufacturing base is very thin.
“We know that allowing the Tatas to invest in Bangladesh would galvanize Indian investment in our country,’’ one Bangladeshi official said. “Even if India were to give duty-free access to all our goods, our exports would not be much higher. We have to expand the production base and we can only do that with foreign investment,” he added.
Even though informal trade amounts to another $2 billion, Bangladesh continues to reject a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the two countries, on the lines of the successful India-Sri Lanka FTA.
Indian officials say in the Khaleda Zia period, anti-Indian feeling ran so high that all proposals from Delhi were discredited. One such proposal is for Indian trucks to transit through Bangladesh all the way to India’s north-eastern states. So far, though, Dhaka has not permitted this.
Similarly, an Indian request to upgrade the Chittagong port and use it as a hub for the region was summarily rejected. Eventually, Delhi persuaded the military government in Myanmar to allow India to build, use and operate the Sittwe port on the Bay of Bengal, via the Kaladan waterway that connects Mizoram to Sittwe.
“Bangladesh lost out to Myanmar because we were not willing to join India in creating these commonalities,’’ the Bangladeshi official added.
Farooq Sobhan, former foreign secretary and president of the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, a think tank, said Bangladesh should convert its geostrategic location into its hottest selling point. “Bangladesh’s biggest strength has always been its geographical location, since we connect South Asia to South-East Asia. That is why it is crucial to develop the Chittagong port, which has the potential to serve as a regional port not only for Bangladesh, but also Nepal, Bhutan, and north-east India,’’ Sobhan added.
Part 4: Bhutan
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First Published: Thu, Apr 24 2008. 12 56 AM IST