In his maiden trip to Bangladesh as India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi and Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina are expected to sign an historic but long delayed land-swap deal this weekend that will boost bilateral ties.
The Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) calls for the neighboring countries to exchange a small amount of territory – just 9,822 hectares (24,270 acres or 38 square miles) in total.
But striking the deal will be huge.
Trading this territory will allow 50,000 people living in Bangladeshi and Indian enclaves on the wrong sides of the Indo-Bangladeshi border to be absorbed into their respective countries.
“The move will improve the lives of thousands of people living amid uncertainty within each other’s borders for over four decades,” former Indian Foreign Secretary Salman Haider told BenarNews.
The deal had been in place for 41 years, with Bangladesh ratifying it in 1974, but decades of political wrangling on the other side of the border held up its ratification in India.
Modi pressed hard to get Indian lawmakers to ratify the deal during his first year in office, and they complied last month.
“The border deal could have been reached at least two decades before, but due to murky politics the same could not be achieved earlier,” Haider added.
“Nevertheless, it will help a good deal in strengthening bilateral ties and address all other outstanding issues between two countries in a phased manner.”
Under the agreement, Bangladesh will acquire 111 parcels of land spread over 6,944 hectares (17,160 acres or 27 square miles) from India. In return, India will regain 51 parcels spread over 2,877 hectares (7,110 acres or 4.45 square miles).
Teesta deal on hold
But while analysts see the Land Boundary Agreement’s signing as a big boost for Indo-Bangladeshi relations, another long-awaited bilateral deal on Teesta River water-sharing likely won’t be clinched during Modi’s two-day trip, which begins Saturday.
Last week, Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj signaled that a deal on the Teesta probably wouldn’t happen this weekend.
The Teesta flows through Sikkim, in northern India, a portion of West Bengal and northwestern Bangladesh. Millions of Bangladeshis depend on the river for their livelihoods.
“It’s very disappointing that there’ll be no deal on Teesta, which Bangladesh needed most,” Mohiuddin Ahmed, a former diplomat and a leading columnist, told BenarNews.
“One thing must be clear – that India is not doing us any favors,” he added. “It’s our right. It is the Indian internal politics that thwarted the LBA deal for so long and it’s the same thing that is also delaying the Teesta deal.”
The people of Bangladesh were ready to let bygones be bygones and move on, but “India must reciprocate by resolving the Teesta issue fast, if it wants to earn their trust,” Ahmed warned.
Yet there is hope that significant progress on the Teesta matter could be achieved during Modi’s visit, because West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee will accompany him to Dhaka.
In 2011, Banerjee’s strong objection to the water-sharing agreement led to a deal being scuttled at the last minute, when she refused to accompany then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on his visit to Bangladesh.
“Her willingness to come to Dhaka with Prime Minister Modi is a very positive indication that the issue will be resolved soon,” Joyeeta Bhattacharjee, a senior member of the Observer Research Foundation, a think-tank in New Delhi, told BenarNews.
During a visit to Dhaka in February, Banerjee also told the Bangladesh people to have “faith in me so that we can solve the problem without hurting people on both sides who depend on Teesta water.”
A boon for Bangladeshi politics
Apart from bilateral issues, Modi’s trip could have a positive impact on Bangladeshi politics, observers say.
“The political parties in Bangladesh are divided over their relations with India. I think this visit will motivate the opposition not to use the anti-India card in domestic politics,” Delwar Hossain, a professor of International relations at Dhaka University, told BenarNews.
The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is known for its anti-India stance, but it has changed its tune ahead of Modi’s visit.
“The BNP is not an anti-Indian party,” Asaduzzaman Ripon, the BNP’s spokesman and international affairs secretary, told BenarNews. “We want better ties with India.”