Sunday, September 18, 2011

Lingering shadows of a disappointing visit

Daily Sun
September 18, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

I have been trying my best to find out what Dr. Gowhar Rizvi meant when he said that those who are critical of the just concluded visit of the Indian Prime Minister as a failure do not understand the context of Bangladesh-India relations. I have also been reading whatever I can find to assure myself that the visit achieved substantial gains for Bangladesh as the Adviser is telling us.

My search for substance to agree with Dr. Rizvi is being frustrated by what I am reading on the visit instead. There is one report that has worried me particularly. It is a statement from the Bharatiya Janata Party that has asked the central government to release all information regarding the exchange of adverse possessions. Another news that has worried and concerned me is the reaction of RMG groups in India that have expressed their concern over the 44 items in the RMG sector that have been given duty free access to the Indian market.

The decisions to exchange adverse possessions and take 44 items off the negative list have been agreed upon during Prime Minister Manmohon Singh’s visit but not yet implemented. The BJP’s reaction on exchange of adverse possessions could put a spanner on resolution of the problem that has remained an irritant since the 1974 Land Boundary Agreement was signed between India and Bangladesh.

On the Teen Bigha corridor, it surprising that our negotiators are heralding the 24 hours access as a success, forgetting that under the Indira-Mujib Agreement, the Teen Bigha corridor was supposed to be handed to Bangladesh permanently. Later , during the Ershad era, Foreign Ministers Narashima Rao and Shamsud-Doha had signed an agreement under which India had agreed to hand over Teen Bigha to Bangladesh as lease in perpetuity to avoid constitutional hassle in India. In fact, on land exchange, legal experts in India are expressing concern that the agreement in Dhaka would need constitutional amendment, thus raising the scepter of the Teen Bigha corridor.

The Foreign Minister who was conspicuously absent from post visit briefings to the media finally emerged with an interview to UNB. Her optimism has not dampened for in the interview she called the visit a “big success”. Curiously, she also said that if the nation wanted, she would resign. Perhaps, this contradictory statement suggests that her faith in India has dented , having embarrassed herself by her statement to the media that the Teesta deal would be signed after the Indian Foreign Secretary had stated India’s stand to the contrary.

The Foreign Secretary has described the visit as historic and unique through which Bangladesh-India relations would enter a new phase based on friendship, trust and understanding in his press briefing. I am afraid he was playing with words and reacting to a journalist who angered him by describing the visit as a flop. In any case, Dr. Gowhar Rizvi left no one in doubt that the Foreign Ministry was a passenger for most part of the negotiations. The latest leak by Wiki Leaks also suggests the same. In the leak, Dr. Rizvi had told the then US Ambassador that improving relations with India was his main responsibility.

In an ironic sort of way, Bangladesh may not have been a loser because it still holds the transit card. Although it has played its security card by handing over the ULFA terrorists, there is still great value in the card.. Before the visit, there was great expectation in India that ULFA terrorist Anup Chetia would be handed to the Indian security. It was also expected that the two countries would sign an extradition treaty. Bangladesh has held back on both counts that must be greatly disappointing to the Indians who need Bangladesh continuous support for a much longer time for the handle it needs for its security concerns involving Bangladesh.

Most importantly, the hype in the media that India is a changed neighbour that is now ready to become a genuine friend of Bangladesh created by the Bangladesh negotiators has received a major dent. In Bangladesh, across the political divide, questions have come up whether India can be trusted. The ruling party activists are blaming India for back tracking on the Teesta deal. India has thus lost a great opportunity to establish its goodwill in Bangladesh and may have lost friends even in the ruling party that is soft on India.

Nevertheless the two Advisers, Dr. Gowhar Rizvi and Dr. Mashiur Rahman are still optimistic about the future. Dr. Rizvi, while referring to the vision document signed during the visit, has said that people should focus on the “historic” decision for multilateral power development involving Bangladesh, India and Bhutan that will bring enough energy for Bangladesh to achieve a growth rate of 9%! Perhaps, he is feeling sorry that his forecast just days before the visit that Bangladesh would be reaping a rich harvest from connectivity have been frustrated. His unfailing optimism must be welcomed for a nation without optimism is a nation that never progresses. Only, optimism must be based on ground reality that has not been the case with Dr. Rizvi.

Dr. Rahman has said that those who have criticized the visit are living in the past. I am not sure I have followed his line of thinking. The party he represents urges us every day to look at our glorious past to build our future. Why then should we not look at the past concerning our relations with India? The past in terms of Bangladesh-India relations is one that should make us proud. Though the much smaller country in size, resources and power, we have consistently made the sacrifices for better relations. We allowed the Pakistani POWs to return home and for India to run the Farakkha on a trial basis when Bangabandhu led the country.

Subsequently, we gave India water and land transits under the BNP Government in 1979. India availed water transit but land transit protocol was not implemented. We lowered our tariff against India in 1992 that affected us adversely but benefitted Indian immensely. As for agreements signed by India from which we expected to benefit, there is a long list of broken promises of which the glaring one is the Indira-Mujib Agreement of 1974 on land boundary. The comparison shows Bangladesh large hearted and India small hearted.

The Adviser’s suggestion against looking at the past would hide Indian litany of broken promises and Bangladesh’s history of generosity. Sheikh Hasina has followed her father by showing Bangladesh’s big heart by unilaterally offering India land transit and assurance on security. Again, India has failed to reciprocate. In fact, our negotiators’ major mistake was not to look at the past for as traditional wisdom suggests, forewarned is forearmed. By not looking at the past, our negotiators allowed India to take them and Bangladesh for a ride!

There is another storm gathering. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has called for review of the Ganges Water Sharing Agreement, no doubt emboldened by West Bengal.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and Director at the Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.

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