Indian PM Singh begins ‘historic’ Bangladesh visit


Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrived in Dhaka on Tuesday on a much-anticipated visit just months after he triggered a row with comments that many Bangladeshis were “anti-Indian”. A raft of landmark agreements — including deals on ending long-running border disputes and sharing water from the Teesta river — are expected to be signed during the two-day visit.
Relations between the two South Asian neighbours have been marked by decades of mutual mistrust and low-level border clashes that have prevented the development of substantive trade and political ties. The last visit by an Indian premier was in 1999 and Singh is the first prime minister from India’s Congress Party to visit in nearly 40 years.
“We attach the highest importance to further developing and strengthening our relations with Bangladesh,” Singh said in a statement issued before his trip. “Our partnership with Bangladesh is important for the stability and prosperity of our own northeast region.”
His visit comes after an embarrassing slip-up in June, when remarks by Singh claiming that many Bangladeshis were “very anti-Indian” were posted on his official website before being swiftly removed with the explanation that they were “off the record”. Nevertheless ties have improved since the traditionally pro-Indian Awami League party, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, swept to power in 2009 polls. Last year India gave Bangladesh a billion-dollar soft loan, the biggest credit package New Delhi has ever earmarked for any nation. “Singh’s trip is an historic visit. It will pave the way for a prosperous future for the whole region,” Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Dipu Moni told reporters on Sunday. The two sides are to sign a key agreement to definitively demarcate their 4,000 kilometre (2,500 mile) shared border. “There were many deaths and shootings on the border because we did not have a clear cut boundary,” said Bangladeshi official Kamal Uddin Ahmed, adding that Singh’s visit will “comprehensively resolve all outstanding border issues”.
As part of the deal, they will swap scores of enclaves — tiny, landlocked communities in each other’s territory — in which more than 50,000 people live, cut off from their respective governments and without access to even basic services. The enclaves date back to ownership arrangements made centuries ago between local princes, and they survived the partition of the sub-continent in 1947 after British rule and Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence with Pakistan. They are also scheduled to sign a water sharing agreement for a key common river, the Teesta, which would guarantee the flow of water to Bangladesh’s most impoverished and water-starved northwestern districts.
However the signing has been put in doubt after the chief minister of West Bengal — the largest Indian state bordering Bangladesh — pulled out of Singh’s delegation, saying the new treaty conceded too much. “The subject is acknowledged as a very sensitive issue,” Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai told reporters on Monday.
“Nothing will be done without consultation with the state governments. Any agreement that we conclude will have to be acceptable to them and at the same time it has to be acceptable to Bangladesh.” Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, won independence in 1971 with Indian military help, but relations have been patchy ever since.
India is currently seeking to improve ties with its close neighbours, partly in a bid to counter the growing regional influence of China, which is Bangladesh’s largest trade partner.