July 17th., 2011
M. Serajul Islam
Bangladesh-India relations are on a roller coaster. After dipping to a low with some offensive remarks made by the Indian Prime Minister, things have brightened up lately following the visit to Dhaka by the Indian Foreign Minister Mr. Krishnan. At the same time, the Indian Prime Minister’s Office removed the offensive remarks from the PM’s official website and the Indian Government announced the dates of Mr. Singh’s visit to Dhaka in early September preceded by a preparatory visit by the Indian Home Minister.
Mr. Krishnan’s visit too was a preparatory one. His visit gave a preview of what Bangladesh could expect from Dr Singh’s visit. There would be a deal on the sharing of the waters of the Teesta. The 6.5 miles of demarcated land boundary that has been pending settlement for over 3 and a half decades would be finally resolved together with exchange of land under adverse possession. There were also hints of concessions from India on trade to help ease the balance that weighs too heavily in India’s favour.
During the visit, the High Commissioners of the two countries signed an agreement on protection and promotion of investments. This agreement has been welcomed by the business community in Bangladesh. They expect substantial Indian investment to come to this country.. The agreement could also open prospect of Bangladeshi investments into northeast India.
Mr. Krishnan’s programme in Dhaka was a tight one. He made courtesy calls on the President and the Prime Minister; held official talks with his Bangladesh counterpart Ms. Dipu Moni and also had a meeting with the Bangladesh Finance Minister. His predecessor Mr. Pranab Mukherjee had given wrong signals by meeting the then Army Chief and avoiding meeting the Leader of the Opposition when he visited Bangladesh in February, 2009. Mr. Krishnan avoided any contact with the military and met Begum Khaleda Zia, thus creating a positive environment for his important visit.
Mr. Krishnan’s visit was defined by his speech at the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Issues where he outlined the nature of relations India wants with Bangladesh. He said that both India and Bangladesh are beneficiaries of development-democracy-demography dividend that will provide the right impetus for bringing the two countries closer together.
The Indian Minister said that both India and Bangladesh are experiencing growth of high proportion of “educated and trained youth, despite the large population” to positively impact on development. In fact, the Minister said that the economic development Bangladesh and India are experiencing “is even more remarkable than the global trend.” Such experiences are setting aside suspicion and conflict and bringing the region in alignment with the rest of the world. He reasoned that for Bangladesh and India, “this is a mission in which we may join hands to create a new global architecture.”
The Indian Minister put forward a vision of a relationship that would tie the two countries in a relationship deep into the future. That vision is documented in the Joint Communiqué that was adopted during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to New Delhi that is now being implemented for the paradigm shift in bilateral relations. He underscored the importance of India’s US$ 1 billion line of credit for infra structural projects for connectivity. He stressed upon the need to build a physical and an institutional framework to strengthen connectivity for improving the livelihood of the people and preparing them for a better future.
Mr. Krishnan also mentioned that a number of agreements are in final stages of negotiations for signature during the Indian Prime Minister’s visit. These agreements are related to outstanding land border issues; on Teesta water sharing; on overcoming the trade deficit and taking forward regional connectivity.
Two important contentious issues did not figure in Mr. Krishnan’s speech. One is the demarcation of the maritime boundary for which Bangladesh has closed the door for bilateral negotiations by going to the Tribunal on the Law of the Seas. Killing of innocent Bangladeshis by the BSF on Bangladesh-India borders that is a very emotive issue in Bangladesh also did not figure in his speech. On the latter issue, Mr. Krishnan spoke elsewhere and hinted that in future, BSF would use non-lethal weapons.
Going by his speech at BIISS, there are elements that Bangladesh would need to examine before believing in the vision the Indian Minister has envisaged. True, terrorism is a regional and a global problem. However, it is not so by a long mile as far as Bangladesh is concerned. For India, terrorism is a major problem; for Bangladesh it is not even a minor one. In fact, Bangladesh has exposed itself to ULFA terrorists by handing its top leaders to Indian security who vowed revenge.
Mr. Krishnan is also off the mark in using the development-democracy-demography model. India and Bangladesh are not on the same plane by a long distance on development and democracy for a common ground for cooperation. Indian democracy is deeply entrenched and institutionalized; Bangladesh’s is not. Indian development has amazed the world; Bangladesh is struggling to remain afloat. On the demographic front too, Bangladesh is today showing signs of sinking.
Nevertheless, Mr. Krishnan’s visit has shown promises; that perhaps India is finally looking at Bangladesh positively. It is likely that some of the issues that had kept bilateral relations almost antagonistic may finally be resolved; issues of water sharing, trade deficit and land border demarcation. Of the promises in the air, the most attractive is regional connectivity. If Bangladesh becomes the sub-regional connectivity hub, then there could indeed be a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations.
India’s track record on keeping promises made to Bangladesh, however, is not encouraging. Even Indian media is not optimistic about these promises; else they would not have called these promises “a bagful of nothing.” In this context, one must take note of what the Leader of the Opposition said upon meeting the Indian Minister. She wanted all the deals r being made to be placed in parliament for sake of transparency before signing.
An editorial by leading English daily was critical of Begum Khaleda Zia for making such a submission to the Indian Minister. This notwithstanding little has come to public domain about details of what India would do for Bangladesh except overtly optimistic statements of Bangladesh officials. The importance of public knowledge of such deals can hardly be underestimated given the partisan nature of politics in the country. It is absolutely essential to know the details of the proposed Teesta agreement because it will set the precedence for sharing of waters of the other cross-boundary rivers. On land boundary, already there are signs of uneasiness on Bangladesh side in areas such as Sylhet.
It is of critical importance for Bangladesh to have friendly relations with India to achieve the full potentials of its strategic geo-political location vis-à-vis India. However, for such forward movement, it is equally important that the nation as a whole and not just the ruling party must be convinced of what Bangladesh would be giving to India and what it would be receiving in reciprocity. Thus far, this does not seem to be the case. One can criticize the BNP for its stand on India but there cannot be sustainable friendly relations with India without the former on board.
Therefore the ruling party in Bangladesh must open discussion with the opposition or else all the optimism that the Government is spreading on Bangladesh-India relations could quickly vanish into thin air. On India’s part, it too should bear in mind this fact while proceeding towards the paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.