India and Bangladesh celebrate the golden jubilee of their relationship, which is unique and organic, cemented in the battlefield during the glorious War of Liberation in 1971. This relationship has come a long way in the last half century and the people of the two nations have traversed a great distance together. As we move towards the first half-century of Indo-Bangladesh relations, it is time to take stock of the achievements, acknowledge the problems and challenges and think outside the box about what could be done to take forward this association for GenNext.
As the new generation takes over, while it may value the historical and civilisational bonds shared between the two countries it may not have the same emotional investment in the relationship or the collective memories shared by the previous generation, the question arises: How do we make the relationship relatable for them? In an age of geopolitical change, how can Dhaka and New Delhi’s younger generation navigate the changing landscape in unison? Can we move beyond the rigmarole of routine bilateral issues and forge greater convergence on global issues?
Ties on firm footing
Despite myriad challenges, our relations are on firm footing currently. A large portion of the credit goes to the political leadership in both Dhaka and New Delhi, for investing a significant amount of political capital in bringing the relationship to its current level. This year, the highlight of the Republic Day parade was the contingent from Bangladesh, consisting of 96 soldiers.
There are three major issues challenging the youth of both the nations and hence, a collaborative mechanism for the same could be worked out. The first one is collaboration on counter-terrorism and de-radicalisation. Strategies need to be worked out, as this is fast becoming a significant challenge. The second is the development of joint strategies on prevention of violent extremism (PVE) and developing combined net assessments on the evolving threat of violent extremism and terrorism in the coming decades. Third, countering terrorism financing is another potential for bilateral cooperation that must be explored.
Post-Covid, the unprecedented economic downturn is expected to offer a fertile ground for youth-radicalisation by terror/militant groups operating in the region. A potential nexus between organised crime and terrorism needs to be countered in the near future. Apart from terror, extremism is a major regional security threat. The means of countering and containing these extremist organisations/forces must also be initiated with similar urgency by both the countries.
In the post-Covid world, the monitoring of the cyber domain is a necessity, as most transactions and engagements have and shall continue to occur on virtual platforms. Use of the cyber domain by terror/militant groups for radicalisation, which has already been an existing threat, shall also increase. Owing to the common threats faced by the two countries, potential for bilateral cooperation for countering such activities in cyberspace exists, and must be explored.
The issue of illegal Bangladeshi migrants needs to be given appropriate consideration, but extremism must be stopped on both sides. Secular politics must be mutually encouraged. Instances of border killings of Bangladeshis (many as cow smugglers), etc., for example, often receive significant publicity, adversely influence Bangladeshi sentiments and hurt bilateral relations. Over 1,000 such instances have occurred in the past decade. The issue needs to be tackled more maturely. With respect to the Rohingya issue, Bangladesh has been disappointed with India, China, as well as Russia. Pressure should have been put on Myanmar to take its people back.
Connectivity, tourism, and bilateral trade between the two countries is crucial and have great potential for improvement. While both India and Bangladesh engage more with farther countries, low mutual engagement between the neighbours is an aspect for concern. Bilateral trade worth US$9.8 billion was carried out last year. Two special economic zones have been offered by Bangladesh to India in this light.
More Indian companies should be involved in infrastructure development, especially in building roads and the hydro-electricity sector. At least 30 points could be opened in the borders for better trade cooperation and greater people-to-people contact. This connectivity will help tackle the vulnerability of the Siliguri Corridor. Plus, easing of visa regulations is an aspect that needs urgent attention, given the perpetual difficulties and delays in the process. On the education front, there should be a further increase in quota for Bangladeshi students in Indian universities.
With the younger generation’s interest in the internet and the cyber domain, there remains immense scope and opportunity for greater technological collaboration, especially in the areas of artificial intelligence, communications technology such as 5G and satellite technology. More integration of the scientific communities and the creation of IT hubs and networks, not only by the Government but also private players, will open a window of opportunities for the youth of both the nations.
There is a need to make the relationship more centered on the emerging generation. Greater contact between the youth of the two countries is a need of the hour. In an era of disinformation, fake news and deep fakes, it is quite easy, especially for the youth segment of the population to fall prey to misperceptions about each other. Enhanced contact will not only dispel the myths about each other but also open an opportunity for constructive debate, conversation and opportunity to develop greater understanding. We spend a lot of time talking about the connectivity of roads, bridges and waterways, but it is the connectivity of the minds that is the ultimate investment.
The youth of both India and Bangladesh need to continue their journey together as partners for the coming decades, in the areas of education, information-sharing, cyber domain, infrastructural developments and deradicalisation efforts. This will help in making our friendship sustainable and rock-solid.
Jyoti M Pathania is a Senior Fellow and Chairperson, Outreach at Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi, India.
Shafqat Munir is currently Head, Bangladesh Centre for Terrorism Research and Research Fellow at the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies, Bangladesh.