Addressing concerns of neighbours(Comment)

By Shubha Singh

Regular interaction with neighbours helps to keep relations harmonious. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankars visit to Bangladesh and Nepal last week completed the round of visits to South Asian neighbours for the NDA government in its new term.

The minister's visit came immediately after Prime Minister Narendra Modi's successful visit to Bhutan. Modi had earlier visited Maldives and Sri Lanka to attend the inaugural of Maldives President Ibrahim Mohammad Solih. India is keeping up its regular interaction with the neighbours even as China has increased its influence in the region. China has tried to woo the South Asian countries with large infrastructure projects under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)in the past few years. Jaishankar's low-key visit had an added significance following the abrogation of Article 370 and scrapping of special status to Kashmir. It provided the opportunity for the Indian government to convey its position to its friends and neighbours.

While Bangladesh had supported the Indian government action, Nepal made no official comment and its initial response was that it was watching the situation. Later, Nepali Foreign Minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali said that Nepal favoured dialogue and peaceful resolution of India-Pakistan disputes including the Kashmir issue.

The Indian leadership was capable of resolving any issue peacefully, he added. Bangladesh held that it was an internal issue of India. Bangladesh Foreign Minister, Dr A.K. Abdul Momen said that Bangladesh has always advocated, as a matter of principle, that maintaining region peace, stability and development should be a priority for all countries.

India-Bangladesh relations have bloomed in the past five years but there are some niggling issues that need to be resolved. The issue of the Teesta River waters has been hanging fire for some time. Jaishankar reiterated Modi's assurance that the issue would be resolved during his tenure.

The Rohingya issue is exercising the Bangladesh government which had made plans to repatriate about 300 Rohingya families to their homes in Myanmar's Rakhine province. However, on the date of departure, all the families cleared by the Myanmar government, refused to board the buses provided for their return by the Bangladeshi government. When the Rohingya influx into Bangladesh took place in 2017, India's response had faltered, seeming to back the Myanmar position as against acknowledging the problems faced by Bangladesh.

India later made amends by providing generous quantities of relief material and provisions for the refugee camps. It also constructed prefabricated housing for the return of Rohingya families to Myanmar. However, Dhaka would like New Delhi to persuade Myanmar to hasten the repatriation process.

The issue of "illegal Bangladeshi immigrants" in Assam has also caused concern in Bangladesh but Dhaka has been careful in not mentioning it in public. India has maintained that detection of illegal immigrants was an internal matter. But the question of what will happen with those declared as illegal immigrants in Assam has not been revealed as yet, and the issue continues to cause concern in Bangladesh, despite the Indian government's assurances. Some of these issues will be taken up during Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's planned visit to Delhi in October.

Jaishankar's Nepal visit was to participate in the fifth meeting of the India-Nepal Joint Commission with his Nepali counterpart, Pradeep Kumar Gyawali; he called on Nepali Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli and Nepal's President Bidya Devi. He also met former prime ministers Sher Bahadur Deuba of the Nepali Congress and Nepal Bhattarai whose Unified Communist Party later merged with the Maoist party to form the ruling Nepal Communist party.

Jaishankar had last visited Kathmandu in September 2015 when he was Foreign Secretary; his visit had taken place just before the new Nepali Constitution was adopted by the Legislative Assembly. An agitation was brewing in the Terai region as the demands of the Madhesi parties were ignored. The Madhesi agitation led to the blockade of goods and cargo from the Indian border to Kathmandu causing severe shortages of essential items. Nepalis blamed India for

instigating the blockade which caused immense hardship to the people of Nepal. India-Nepal bilateral relations are currently coming out of the trough into which they had fallen after the controversial blockade; they had got aggravated with the election of the Maoist party headed by K.P. Sharma Oli.

The Joint Commission meeting made some slow progress. The two sides agreed to an early conclusion of the review of treaties and agreements related to the trade, transit and rail services," according to Nepali foreign ministry statement. They also agreed to the upgrade infrastructure and logistic facilities for trade and transit at all major border crossing points. High level visits vitalize bilateral relations, but India needs to impart greater energy in implementing the promises made to the neighbours and addressing issues of concern.

(Shubha Singh is a foreign policy and strategic affairs commentator. The views expressed are personal. She can be reached at shubhasingh101@gmail.com)

--IANS

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