South and Southeast Asia

Bangladesh Table of Contents


Relations between Bangladesh and India have often been difficult. There was considerable hostility on both sides of the border when East Pakistan was established in 1947 in the midst of intense communal struggles among various ethnic groups. As part of Pakistan, East Pakistan was at war with India in 1947 and 1948 and again in 1965. During the 1971 war of independence, Bangladeshi freedom fighters were aided by India, but the country's distrust of its giant neighbor reemerged as soon as the fighting ended. In general, a considerable body of Bangladeshi public opinion has viewed India as a bully, throwing its weight around and threatening the sovereignty of its smaller neighbors. The fact that the two nations are so closely intertwined--with 2,400 kilometers of border, common river systems, and numerous transborder cultural or economic contacts--has provided numerous opportunities for bilateral disputes that often reinforce Bangladeshi fears. Conversely, the fact that the two countries are so closely interconnected has sometimes forced them to come to terms with each other, and as of mid-1988 bilateral problems had not escalated into a major armed conflict. Indeed, relations between Bangladesh and India have been diplomatically proper, with a trend toward increasing cordiality and cooperation over time.

Mujib's government, which lasted from 1971 to 1975, owed a large debt to India for aid to Bangladesh during its independence struggle, and relations were initially positive. In March 1972, the Indo-Bangladeshi Treaty of Cooperation, Friendship, and Peace pledged each nation to consultations if either were attacked. This was an important safeguard for the new nation, but critics have pointed out that the treaty does not specify the external threats to either nation, suggesting the possibility that India could use the treaty as an excuse for intervention in Bangladesh. The series of coups that replaced Mujib's government brought bilateral relations to their lowest level and led many Bangladeshis to fear Indian intervention. The Indian government, then controlled by Indira Gandhi's Indian National Congress, looked with misgivings on the anti-Indian and anti-Soviet stance of the new military regimes. For several years, pro-Mujib guerrilla forces operating along the Indian border reportedly received covert support from Indian sources. In 1977, however, Gandhi's government fell, the new Janata Party leadership took a more accommodating stance toward Bangladesh, and Zia's government stabilized. Indian forces cooperated with the Bangladesh military in disarming Bangladeshi rebels in the summer of 1977, and a number of bilateral agreements were signed shortly thereafter. When Gandhi again became prime minister in 1979, she continued a policy of accommodation with Zia's regime. Subsequently, she recognized Ershad's government, and she met with Ershad in October 1982. After Gandhi's assassination in 1984, her son and successor as prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, encouraged cooperative agreements with Bangladesh and enjoyed a good relationship with Ershad.

Events during the 1980s suggested the prospect of a new era in Indo-Bangladeshi relations. In 1981 both countries drew up the Memorandum of Understanding on Technical Cooperation. In 1982 the first meeting of the Joint Economic Commission was held, and in 1987 the bilateral Cultural and Exchange Programme was renewed for two years. A bilateral trade pact was extended from 1986 until October 1989. In addition, an inland trade and transit protocol, allowing Indian vessels to pass through Bangladesh, exemplified a maturing cooperative relationship, necessitated by Bangladesh's geographical position. The original protocol was signed in November 1972, renewed in 1984, and extended in 1986 on a quarterly basis. The agreement was later renegotiated and, according to its provisions, stayed effective until October 1989. India agreed to pay transit charges and port fees, while Bangladesh agreed to maintain its own waterways. The ability of both governments to compromise on economic issues boded well for the possibility of future bilateral agreements.

Despite considerable progress in expanding contacts between the two countries, a number of serious issues concerning river waters and borders continued to stir up anti-Indian emotions in Bangladesh during the late 1980s. These issues involved national honor and sovereignty--strongly charged topics in both nations--and progress toward resolving them was extremely slow. Every delay in resolving bilateral problems provided fuel for a steady stream of anti-Indian editorials in the Bangladeshi press and for statements by political parties of all persuasions condemning Indian foreign policy. The most difficult long-term bilateral problems revolved around water disputes. These problems surfaced during the 1950s and 1960s, when the major Indian port of Calcutta on the Hooghli River experienced siltation problems. The Indian government decided that the solution was to divert the Ganges River water into the Hooghli River during the dry season, from January to June, in order to flush out the accumulating silt. By 1974 the Indians had built a major barrage, or dam, across the Ganges at Farakka, near the Bangladeshi border. Before the Farakka Barrage went into operation, the Bangladeshi government repeatedly expressed concern that the diversion would adversely affect water resources along the course of the Ganges through Bangladesh. After the Farakka Barrage began operating in 1975, dry-season water levels dropped precipitously in western Bangladesh, and studies showed that salinized water from the Indian Ocean was creeping inland. In 1976, despite Indian opposition, Bangladesh managed to place the dispute on the agenda of the UN General Assembly; this strategy resulted in a consensus statement in which both parties agreed to resolve the issue according to international law.

A bilateral agreement signed in 1977 set up a schedule for sharing the dry-season flow of water controlled by the Farakka Barrage, and it arranged for continuing consultations by the Joint Rivers Commission. The mandate of the commission was to monitor the water availability and needs of the two countries and to study proposals for a more comprehensive plan for water control in Bangladesh and northeast India. A Bangladeshi proposal concentrated on the enormous potential of untapped rivers in Nepal; dams there, it was argued, could provide adequate hydroelectric power well into the twenty-first century and regulate water levels throughout northeastern India and Bangladesh. The Indian proposal concentrated on controlling the wild Brahmaputra River and called for a major canal to divert water from the Brahmaputra to the Ganges, west of the Farakka Barrage; this, the Indians claimed, would help to regulate water levels throughout Bangladesh. India was slow to involve Nepal in what it viewed as a bilateral issue, while Bangladesh refused to agree to the construction of a large canal that would obliterate valuable land and dislocate hundreds of thousands of people. In the absence of an agreement on a comprehensive plan, the two nations were forced to renew previous agreements on the flow of the Ganges at Farakka for periods of six months or two years at a time. In 1986, however, Indian negotiators invited Nepali officials to tripartite planning conferences, opening up the possibility of a future agreement.

Water-sharing disputes have arisen with regard to other rivers as well. India has constructed and operated on the Tista River a barrage similar to the one on the Ganges. India and Bangladesh drew up interim agreements on the sharing of Tista River waters beginning in July 1983. These agreements were renewed in 1985 and 1987, without a final allocation of waters to either party.

In 1974 the borders between India and Bangladesh were settled in a treaty that became the Third Amendment to the Bangladesh Constitution. Since that time, questions over small pieces of territory not covered by the 1974 treaty--such as silt-formed islands (chars) that have emerged in frontier waters and Bangladeshi enclaves accessible only from India--have grown into minor military confrontations.

In the late 1980s, the unauthorized movement of people across Indo-Bangladeshi borders continued to cause tensions. In 1979 two days of communal rioting in the Indian state of West Bengal forced 20,000 Indian Muslims to flee into Kushtia District in Bangladesh. Although they were later repatriated, the incident rekindled transborder communal hatreds. During the 1980s, attempts by Bangladesh military and paramilitary forces to pacify tribal groups in the Chittagong Hills forced thousands of Chakmas to flee into Indian territory. Bangladesh accused India of sheltering tribal guerrilla forces and preventing the voluntary return of the Chakmas. India, in turn, accused Bangladesh of harboring guerrilla bands of the Tripura National Volunteers, a secessionist organization fighting for independence from India. A more significant long-term movement of people across the Indo-Bangladeshi border has involved thousands of Bangladeshis who have illegally moved to neighboring Indian states in search of land and employment. By 1982 the steady influx of Bangla speakers sparked a major ethnic backlash in the Indian state of Assam, leading to the slaughter of thousands of non-Assamese. In order to placate Assamese public opinion, the governments of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi promised to stem illegal immigration, and in order to do so India constructed barbed-wire fencing along the Indo-Bangladeshi border in the area. The fence was seen as an outrage among the Bangladeshi public, and the government of Bangladesh has made repeated protests to the Indian government over the matter.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress