Thursday, November 24, 2011

Rajeet Mitter’s positive spin to Indo-Bangladesh relations

November 18, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

The outgoing Indian High Commissioner Rajeet Mitter endeared himself to the people of Bangladesh by his demeanour. His low profile was quite a contrast to his predecessor who had a way of upsetting us by his hard line attitude on our issues of concern with India. He will no doubt be missed and more so considering his tenure in Bangladesh was for only 2 years. He left Bangladesh because he reached the mandatory age of retirement.

Rajeet Mitter gave a farewell press interview at the India High Commission that has been carried in all the newspapers. I liked the positive spin he gave to the recently concluded visit of the Indian Prime Minister. He regretted that the failure on Teesta was a disappointment. Nevertheless, he felt that the visit achieved many positive agreements that will move our relations ahead.

Among achievements, the High Commissioner named the 24 hours’ access to Dahagram and Angorpota enclaves, 46 RMG items in the duty free list, exchange of enclaves; joint border management and sale of 250MW of electricity by 2014. Regrettably, the outgoing High Commissioner did not care to look at the issues seriously. If he did, he would not have been as upbeat as he was at the press conference.

Take for instance the 24 hours access through the Teen Bigha corridor. By the terms of the Indira-Mujib Agreement of 1974, India is bound to give Bangladesh the corridor for which Bangladesh has already given to India Berubari in reciprocity soon after the agreement was signed. India reneged on its commitment on the excuse that a case was filed against the transfer of the Teen Bigha corridor to Bangladesh. The two countries later reached an agreement during the 1980s to give Teen Bigha to Bangladesh as “lease in perpetuity” to get around the court case.

What Bangladesh has now got which Rajeet Mitter has highlighted as a success is in fact a regression on India’s commitment under the Indira-Mujib agreement of 1974. Bangladesh has just been given tenancy with India holding the rights to withdraw the privilege anytime it wishes. As for the 46 RMG items that Bangladesh
can now export to India duty free, RMG groups in India have already started putting pressure on the Indian Government against it. The BJP has told the Indian Government to cancel the agreement on exchange on enclaves.

The joint patrol of the border is controversial for many in Bangladesh. The incidents in the border where more than a thousand innocent Bangladeshis have been killed by the BSF in the last one decade have created an extremely negative image of the latter for any joint exercise with it. Many in Bangladesh do not see the usefulness or necessity of the joint exercise because India has unilaterally fenced off the border and in full control of the points of passage across the border where peace can prevail only if India is interested. Further, on this issue, a lot is still not transparent and before such a joint exercise sinks among Bangladeshis across party lines, the Bangladesh Government must come out with all the details of this issue.

That leaves the sale of electricity by India to Bangladesh that Rajeet Mitter has identified as one of the achievements of the Indian Prime Minister’s visit. In an energy starved country, such a prospect must be accepted as positive. However, between an agreement and actual delivery, there is a lot that would need to be done. When Sheikh Hasina visited India, the Indian case of land transit, use of our ports and security commitment was sold by the promise of sale of electricity to Bangladesh together with the US$ 1 billion loan. At that time, the impression given to the people of Bangladesh was that we would receive the electricity as soon as we connected our national grid with the Indian grid. That could now come on our national grid not earlier than 2014.

The outgoing High Commissioner left no doubt that India has already been granted land transit. He advised Bangladesh to set reasonable transit fees so that Indian businessmen would not get disinterested to use the privilege! That left a big question unanswered. What then did our Foreign Secretary withdraw when he met him on the morning of 6th September? From what the Foreign Secretary said that morning after his meeting with Rajeet Mitter, Bangladesh had withdrawn the land transit offer in retaliation for Indian withdrawal of the Teesta Agreement. Surely between Rajeet Mitter and our Foreign Secretary, someone has distorted the truth that must be resolved before any evaluation on where Bangladesh-India relations are going can realistically be made.

The issue has become serious because the BNP has taken a strong stand on the issue. It has said Bangladesh has given India the corridor that is against our national interest. It has vowed not to allow India to use the corridor. Given the fact that BNP carries with it at least half the country if not more, the issue of land transit has to be resolved satisfactorily. Unfortunately, our negotiators have themselves taken confusing and contradictory stand on whether we have or not have given India land transit. They have given fancy prospects of the benefits we would receive from land transit without detailing what these benefits are. More importantly, we have not been told clearly what benefits India would get out of it. Going by former Indian Foreign Secretary Muchkund Dubey, the land transit is of “supreme significance” to India as it would integrate mainland India with its fragile northeastern states and would provide it a pathway to Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia.

On Teesta, our FM expects an agreement to be signed within the tenure of this Government. Our Water Minister who has been mysteriously absent from negotiations said it would be signed in 3 to 4 months. The Finance Minister “guessed” it would be signed in 3. All these guesses were made soon after Manmohon Singh’s visit to Dhaka. Rajeet Mitter feels it would be signed very soon. Against their guesstimates, the key player on Teesta Mamata Banarjee has said that there is not enough water at the point of sharing for India to give Bangladesh any share at all. She further said that there must first be an assessment of the water available before any agreement is reached which makes an agreement on Teesta very uncertain indeed.

Thus, Rajeet Mitter’s positive spin that the Indian Prime Minister’s visit has achieved significant results does not stand up to serious scrutiny. On one of the major issues, namely Teesta water sharing agreement, India has reneged at literally the proverbial eleventh hour leaving its credibility in serious doubt on the trust factor. On land transit, our negotiators have not yet come out with the truth on whether we have given it to India or not with India in no doubt that we have and the BNP determined to deny it to India.

On the less important issues of land boundary, exchange of enclaves, getting more items in the duty free list, access through Teen Bigha and sale of electricity, there have been agreements that could yield positive results. Unfortunately, given India’s past track record on promises and agreements and opposition in India on promises and agreements made during the Indian Prime Minister’s visit, one must wait before making a final judgment even on the less important issues. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had opened a great opportunity for a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations by her courageous initiatives. For the first time in decades, India seemed inclined to match Bangladesh’s initiatives. Sadly, due to our poor negotiating skills and strategy where our negotiators were more eager for upholding Indian interests than ours and the Indian mindset towards Bangladesh aptly described by Muchkund Dubey as one of “disdain and apathy”, that opportunity has been largely wasted, Rajeet Mitter’s positive spin notwithstanding. Once again, Bangladesh has ended giving India the major concessions, like on security and land transit, and once again received a “bag full of promises” that India is not in the habit of keeping.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

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