Friday, January 8, 2010

Will India reciprocate Bangladesh moves?

PRIME Minister Sheikh Hasina's extremely important visit to India is now just days away. The visit will take place in the backdrop of a couple of important developments in very recent times that could encourage India to relent on its stand on three important bilateral issues, namely, sharing of the waters of the common rivers, a fair deal in bilateral trade and accepting Bangladesh's stand on delimitation of maritime boundary.

One of the developments is the arrest of the ULFA Chief Aravinda Rajkhowa and his associates by Bangladesh authorities and handing them over to India that has been widely and enthusiastically welcomed in the Indian media. Rajkhowa has been leading the ULFA insurgency in Assam for the last three decades. Till his arrest, he has been the most wanted insurgent by the Indian security. Former Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh in the 1990s, Dev Mukharji has described the arrest of Rajkhowa as a major event. He added: “It is a very positive move that demonstrates Dhaka's intent.” The High Commissioner who knows Bangladesh-India relations like the back of his palm was obviously referring to the commitment that Sheikh Hasina made on her second day in office, that her government will not allow Bangladesh soil to be used for terrorist attacks against India.

The other act of Bangladesh that has made the Indians happy is Sheikh Hasina's role in Copenhagen in the UN Conference on Climate where she backed the document tabled at the Conference by the five biggest polluters, the United States, China and India together with Brazil and South Africa that passed as the non-binding Copenhagen Accord and saved the Conference from falling apart. Majority of the developing countries either opposed the Copenhagen Accord or rejected it outright.

Indian newspapers have urged their government strongly to generously reciprocate Bangladesh's action to handover the ULFA insurgents keeping in view that the arrests are serious enough to sound the death knell of the ULFA movement. This notwithstanding, Bangladesh has denied any role in the matter with no official reaction from India either. Bangladesh a few months ago had handed to India two Lasker-e-Toiba extremists.

The developments have created a positive impact on the build up to the visit by removing the negative vibes that had emerged in the past before such an important visit. India has refrained from raising issues of land transit or the presence of “20 million illegal Bangladesh migrants” on Indian soil that it had customarily raised in the past, to set negotiations before a visit of the nature that Sheikh Hasina would be undertaking, on the wrong track.

Bangladesh on its part has also refrained from making public statements on issues that are likely to have a negative impact on the outcome of this important visit except speaking publicly in general terms where the Prime Minister has stated in the media of her intention of discussing sharing of waters of the common rivers, a rather vague intent going by the fact that the Indians did not responded favourably to Bangladesh's proposal for a Ministerial level meeting of the Water Resources Ministers before the visit. She has also not said anything about Tipaimukh that has been a burning issue since the AL Government assumed office.

Sheikh Hasina would thus be arriving in New Delhi on her State Visit for which Bangladesh has made important behind the scene moves to meet India's security needs, at substantial internal political risks, with the arrests and handing over to Indian security the ULFA insurgents.

The three security related agreements that have been finalized at the level of Home Secretary of the two countries for signature during the visit will give India the handle it needs on the security issues without a formal extradition treaty with Bangladesh. Under the agreements, Bangladesh will be obliged to hand-over insurgents/extremists/terrorists running from the law to India once apprehended in Bangladesh. India , under the agreements, will be obliged to hand over to Bangladesh criminals running form the law and apprehended in India where they usually hide following change of government in Bangladesh.

There are a number of other issues/developments in the context of Bangladesh-India relations apart from those examined that should have assured a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations as a consequence of the visit of Sheikh Hasina. In both Dhaka and New Delhi, the parties in power have a historical affinity, with the Awami League having come to office with a major mandate and the Congress with a renewed one.

A favorable wind is blowing in South Asia where for the first time all countries in the region have democratically elected governments. Most important of all, in Manmohon Singh and Sonia Gandhi, the Congress leadership is in the hands of leaders with sincerity to resolve outstanding problems. Sheikh Hasina herself has shown significant qualities of leadership in international affairs.

Unfortunately, it is Bangladesh's partisan politics that could stand in the way of effecting a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations. In fact, because of such partisanship , the AL led government has not sought publicly so far from India anything in return for meeting Indian security needs because of concerns about domestic repercussions. Sheikh Hasina has also made no overtures to discuss her visit with the opposition either. The opposition, on its part, has already stated it would not accept any deal that endangers the country's interests, a veiled threat that underscores the opposition's mood not to accept any deal made in New Delhi.

In the face of such threat, India would be more than happy to sign the three security related agreements and treat Sheikh Hasina with pomp and grandeur, give her the Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace and Development and go through the motion of discussion on “the entire gamut of bilateral relations” and leave the unresolved bilateral issues where they have remained over the last few decades.

Without India making reciprocal gestures, the visit could cause political tension in Bangladesh instead of being a watershed in the development of Bangladesh-India bilateral relations, a fact that India should keep in mind if it really wants to help the AL led government. Such repercussion could also jeopardise the security related deals. Is it possible that India is preparing a new year's surprise for Bangladesh? That would be wonderful because geo-political realities make it imperative for Bangladesh to have friendly relations with India.

Published in The Daily Star, January 9, 2010

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