Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Teesta deal, land transit and Bangladesh’s interests

The Holiday
14 October,2011
M. Serajul Islam

Our Economic Adviser’s statement to the media that there is no link between Teesta pact and land transit was very clear, without any room for confusion. There is however a little problem, in fact a major one, for someone like me who is trying to follow our bilateral relations with India seriously, knowing that our future depends to a great extent on how we streamline our relations with our neighbour.

The problem with the Adviser’s statement on Teesta and transit arises from another very forceful statement given to the media on the day the Indian Prime Minister had arrived in Dhaka. Bangladesh had hoped that on that visit, Dr. Manmohon Singh would show India’s big heart for the concessions our Prime Minister courageously and unilaterally made on India’s security concerns and land transit needs.

In fact, we were told ever since our Prime Minister went on that historic trip to New Delhi that we just would have to wait for the Indian Prime Minister’s return visit to Dhaka to see what a magnanimous power India is. Dramatically and what can only be described as an anti-climax of historic proportions, the Indian Foreign Secretary went to the media late on the afternoon of September 5th and announced that the Teesta deal was off.

Quite clearly, our negotiators were caught off guard for the sensitivity of water in Bangladesh is something that no one can in the right mind underestimate. As a result, Bangladesh committed a diplomatic faux pas, again of historic proportions. Next day, with the Indian Prime Minister in Dhaka for his historic return visit, our Foreign Secretary summoned the Indian High Commissioner to the Foreign Ministry and clearly told him as unequivocally as the Economic Adviser now that Bangladesh was withdrawing the land transit because India had taken the Teesta deal off the table.

The Foreign Secretary explained the rather undiplomatic diplomatic move (a country does not do so when it has invited that High Commissioner’s Head of Government for a friendly official visit and that too from a country about whom our negotiators had so positively briefed us) as a part of Bangladesh’s incremental diplomacy. Thus by one act, the Foreign Secretary changed the course of our negotiators who had promised us that Manmohon Singh’s visit would result in a paradigm shift in our bilateral relations.

Of course the Foreign Secretary was dutifully carrying out an instruction in which he had no part to play. So he could not be bothered or was not allowed to bother about diplomatic dos and don’ts. Nevertheless, by what the Economic Adviser has now said, there is definitely a conflict and a serious one between his statement and that of the Foreign Secretary. The Government or whoever has the responsibility of deciding on foreign affairs must clear this confusion on whether Teesta accord and land transit are tied, as the Foreign Secretary has said, or not according to the Economic Adviser.

My own view on this controversy is that the Economic Adviser is right. There was no land transit agreement on the table during the visit of the Indian Prime Minister. In fact, land, river and rail transits were agreed between Bangladesh and India during the first Awami League Government under Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Subsequently separate protocols were also signed on these transits under the government of President Ziaur Rahman. During the visit, the two sides were supposed to merely exchange letters to formalize land transit that had already been granted.

In fact, the US$ 1 billion soft loan that Bangladesh has accepted from India is already being spent to build the road and related infrastructure for land transit to India. Separately, Tripura has already been using land transit as well as rail transit from Chittagong port for its power station for which the Chief Minister of Tripura expressed great gratitude to Bangladesh as this privilege is transforming the economic future of the state.

Recently, all newspapers have carried pictures with news items of containerized cargo being carried from Paschim Bangla on river vessels for trans-shipment to heavy vehicles for the Indian northeastern states. So what was the Foreign Secretary talking about when he so “courageously” told off the Indian High Commissioner that Bangladesh was withdrawing its offer of land transit?

It is not difficult to put together a scenario of what happened in the evening of the 5th among those who negotiated with India to explain the Foreign Secretary’s action. They were expecting that the next day our Prime Minister would go before the nation with a deal on Teesta and Feni rivers and add that these two deals were prelude to sharing of the other common rivers. The deal was supposed to be the icing on the cake for the party for celebrating a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations.

When Mamata Banarjee broke the party on the Teesta, our negotiators were bamboozled. It was then that they came up with the idea of summoning the Indian High Commissioner. It was like withdrawing an item from the menu of the banquet for the Indian Prime Minister that he has already been served! The government through the poor Foreign Ministry tried to cover up in a thoroughly unprofessional manner its unprofessional handling of the botched negotiations with India.

Our negotiators messed up a golden opportunity of a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations, an opportunity that our Prime Minister had opened up by her bold but politically risky gestures to India on security and land transit. It is time to prepare for future negotiations with India for there is now way we can even think we have a future without Indian friendship and cooperation. To do that, first, we need to clarify the land transit issue. Surely, by our ineptitude, we have given it, but almost. We still hold on to it enough to make India come back to us

Begum Khaleda Zia has made a strong statement that BNP would not allow sell out of the country and it was land transit to which she was pointing. The ruling party should pay heed to it and contrary to what the Economic Adviser has said, tie land transit not just to Teesta but also to share of all other cross boundary rivers. We are under-valuing our importance to India. Our negotiators should read former Indian Foreign Secretary and High Commissioner Muchkund Dubey’s article that appeared recently in The Daily Star.

Muchkund Dubey has argued that the land transit is of “supreme significance” to India because it is the key to integration of mainland India with its fragile northeastern states and also India’s pathway to Southeast Asia and Near East. In a way Mamata Banarjee’s move may have been divine intervention for it stopped Bangladesh short of giving this supremely significant gift to India almost free. The infra-structure for land transit will take many more years. We should use this time Mamata Banarjee has given us to go slow on land transit and bring issues of water, maritime boundary and the rest on the table for solution on quid pro quo basis.

India has benefitted a great deal from our security concessions but there is still much more for India here. We should combine the partially spent security and land transit cards together and not just tie in to Teesta but to all other rivers and the rest of our legitimate demands from India. To do that, our negotiators must read MD’s article to restrain their belief on Indian magnanimity. Muchkund Dubey described the attitude of “Indian political leaders, senior officials, business magnates and strategic thinkers towards Bangladesh” as “one of disdain and apathy.”

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt.


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