Saturday, January 29, 2011

Bangladesh-India Home Secretary Level Talks

Published in Daily Sun
Jnauary 30th., 2011
M. Serajul Islam

The leader of the Bangladesh side at the Bangladesh-India Joint Working Group (JWG) meeting that preceded the Home Secretary level meeting held in Dhaka on 20-21 January made an interesting observation. He said that the tone of the meeting “was so cordial that they could not remember when an Indo-Bangladesh meeting was held in such a congenial atmosphere in the last 7-8 years.” I am not sure whether the Joint Secretary was making an honest assessment s or a political statement. Clearly, what he said had serious political underpinning because he roped in the entire BNP period and that of the Caretaker Government to give the impression that both had failed in dealing with Bangladesh-India relations.

The BNP Government was not friendly towards India. One can criticize the BNP Government on a number of grounds but on Bangladesh-India relations, Bangladesh as a nation can honestly feel that India has not been a friendly neighbour. On major issues of water, trade and demarcation of the maritime boundary, India has not treated Bangladesh fairly.

Since Awami League came to power, Bangladesh has taken the lead to create the “congenial atmosphere” about which the Bangladesh leader at the JWG meeting was excited. Bangladesh’s cooperation has broken the back of the ULFA insurgency that was a major security concern for India. In fact Bangladesh’s cooperation has created the grounds for ULFA to return to the negotiating table with the Indian central government with the possibility of assuming political power through constitutional politics. Bangladesh is also pro-actively keeping up on the promise made by its Prime Minister immediately she assumed office not to allow Bangladeshi soil to be used to carry out terrorist attacks on friendly India.

Bangladesh has also agreed to allow India transit from its mainland to the landlocked northeastern states through Bangladesh and to these states, the permission to use its seaport in Chittagong. Both the concessions have long been considered by Bangladesh to be its only bargaining chips with India.

In return, India has signed an agreement with Bangladesh for a US$ 1 billion soft loan for infrastructure development of which a little over
US $ 600 million has been earmarked for use in projects to help build the infrastructure for transit. The loan has been projected by India and excitedly supported by Bangladesh Government as a big concession. Nevertheless, it has now run into trouble as more and more criticisms are coming about it not necessarily from the BNP and its supporters.

It is therefore surprising why the Bangladesh side that has made the major overtures for improving relations with India has also been the side drumming up support for a new era of bilateral relations with the Indian side not matching Bangladesh’s excitement. The Foreign Minister of Bangladesh has taken the lead to convince the people of Bangladesh about Indian intentions to give the positive spin by suggesting that Bangladesh-India are moving towards a paradigm shift for the better in their bilateral relations. The line taken by the Foreign Minister has been strongly backed by other Ministers. In fact, that is the line of the Government.

The Indian media however has been as excited with Bangladesh as Bangladesh Government has been with itself about the prospects of great things happening in Bangladesh-India relations. They recommended to the Indian Government strongly to meet Bangladesh’s major demands on water, trade and maritime boundary demarcation to reciprocate on Bangladesh sincerity in handing over the ULFA terrorists.

That all’s not going well in Bangladesh-India relations was however reflected by criticism of at least one important Minister who expressed in the media serious reservations about Indian bureaucracy to move relations ahead by meeting Bangladesh’s legitimate concerns on the issue of bilateral trade. The BNP that represents a major part of Bangladesh’s population despite its poor strength in the Parliament dismissed the deals with India as “sell out.”

The issue of killing of innocent and unarmed Bangladeshis regularly by the BSF that has been documented by the report of New York based Human Rights Watch has now emerged as a major concern for Bangladesh. The killing of the 15 year old girl Felani and the way her dead body was flung on the barbed wire that India has built on the border had incensed sentiments in Bangladesh just days before the Home Secretary level talks in Dhaka. Bangladeshis were also angry with their government over the long delay to protest the death of Felani. The Foreign Ministry took ten days to call the Indian High Commissioner to hand over to him a protest note.

The Indian side leading to the Dhaka talks had not taken Bangladesh’s protests seriously. In fact, the Director-General of BSF said that the Bangladeshis have been killed in a place where they were not supposed to be in the first instance, thus insensitively thrashing Bangladeshi sentiments and its legal stand on an issue that has potential to destroy gains in improvement of bilateral relations. Human Rights Watch in its Report last year recorded many cases where innocent Bangladeshis had been killed while running away, shot in the back. The report questioned why such unarmed Bangladeshis could not be captured instead. The Report also found no evidence that Bangladeshis killed in the border had any terrorist connections.

It was therefore somewhat surprising that the Bangladesh side was so upbeat at the JWG Talks. At the Secretary level talks, the Indians regretted the death of Felani but added that the Bangladeshi Government should inform people in the border about the dangers of crossing the border illegally. The Indian Home Secretary said that an independent inquiry has been constituted to find out the guilty for legal action. There was however no apology from India for killing Felani or innocent Bangladeshis before.

The Secretary level talks also reviewed the security and related issues that have been on the negotiating table for a long time such as the 6.5 miles of un-demarcated border, enclaves and the need to maintain a peaceful border which extends over 4000 km. The Bangladesh Home Secretary expressed firm conviction that within a month or two, all these issues would be resolved. The Indian Home Secretary backed the conviction. The good news emanating out of the talks was that the Indian Home Minister Mr. PR Chidambaram would be visiting Bangladesh before the Indian Prime Minister comes to Dhaka. The other good news for the Bangladesh Government was India’s willingness to trace out two convicted killers of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, now reported to be in hiding in India.

All eyes would now on the return visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Bangladesh that is being delayed for reasons not known to those watching and observing Bangladesh-India relations. The return visit of Dr. Manmohon Singh was expected to take place last year. Now according to the Indian Foreign Minister, this visit would take place “any time this year.” When Dr. Singh comes to Dhaka, Bangladesh would be looking eagerly for India not just to match the excitement and enthusiasm in Bangladesh official circles about India and Bangladesh- India relations but for some major concessions in areas of trade, water and maritime boundary demarcation. Before he comes though, the killing of innocent Bangladeshis on Bangladesh-India border must cease altogether. No clear assurances came out from the Indian side at the Home Secretary level talks on the last named issue.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and a retired Secretary to the Government.

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