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    India hopes Bangladesh will crack down on insurgents

    New Delhi (IANS): Having correctly read Bangladesh's electoral mood, India now hopes that the new Awami League government will finally start cracking down on anti-India insurgents who have for long made that country their base.

    The presence in Bangladesh of leaders and key operatives of several militant groups from northeast India has been a thorn in bilateral ties that otherwise improved under the country's army-backed caretaker administration.

    But the insurgents, in particular the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), continued to use Bangladeshi soil. Although the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) also has a presence in Bangladesh, it is now in talks with India.

    Another group giving the Indian establishment a headache is the Harkat-ul-Jihadi-Islami (HuJI), a Bangladeshi group linked to terrorist actions in India.

    New Delhi is also hoping that the new government of Sheikh Hasina will sign an extradition treaty with India - another longstanding Indian wish.

    All these will be hard decisions since Bangladesh, which has repeatedly denied harbouring militants from India, has political forces that have thrived on anti-India sentiments. But with a solid parliamentary majority, the Awami League should be able to break with the past and embark on a new friendly course with its larger neighbour.

    India's three major concerns vis--vis Bangladesh cover security, water transit and land connectivity to the Indian northeast. Although the army-backed caretaker government steadily improved relations with India, these areas continue to cause hiccups.

    The Indian establishment was confident that the secular Awami League, the party of Bangladesh's founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman now headed by his daughter, would get a majority in the 300-seat parliament with help from allies. But it did not expect the sweeping win by the Awami League. The pro-Pakistan Islamist forces appear to have been crushed, say analysts here.

    India will be very keen to engage the new government. Since the caretaker government came to power in January 2007, New Delhi has shown it is ready to walk the extra mile to improve relations.

    It allowed Bangladesh to export eight million pieces of garments to India, increased the number of duty-free items Dhaka could export to India, and lifted the ban on Bangladeshi investments in India. To facilitate exports, the Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution was recognised by India. The trade gap is now heavily tilted in favour of India.

    The long-awaited train service resumed between Kolkata and Dhaka after a 43-year gap. India also offered a huge quantity of rice at a "friendship price" last year.

    All this did help. There was some clearing of the air. Bangladesh this year invited Indian war veterans to commemorate its liberation from Pakistan. Indian Army chief General Deepak Kapoor visited Dhaka in July - the last such visit took place in 2000 -- following the earlier visit to India of Bangladesh's General Moeen U. Ahmed, the real power behind the caretaker government.

    Gen Ahmed's visit boosted army-to-army ties. The realisation that strategic relations needed to be improved with India, a growing economic powerhouse, set in. Also that Bangladesh's Look East policy, meant to be a snub to India, had failed to bring tangible benefits.

    In keeping with its economic ambitions, India is keen to get access to Bangladesh's Chittagong port and make Ashuganj in that country a port of call.

    All this - and more - will be possible only if Bangladesh has a stable government that is able to take key decisions without being pushed around.

    Bangladesh too has concerns vis-a-vis India. There are complaints that India's Border Security Force (BSF) often kills innocent Bangladeshis in the name of checking illegal border traffic. India's border fence has ignited tensions. And many Bangladeshis feel that India is a hegemonic power and their own ties with Pakistan and China are meant to counter this.


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