November 13, 2011
M. Serajul Islam
The meeting between the Prime Ministers of Bangladesh and India on the sides of the SAARC Summit in Maldives has left Bangladesh disappointed again. The Indian Prime Minister was unable to give Bangladesh any time frame about the signing of the Teesta water sharing agreement. Briefing journalists after the meeting, the Indian Foreign Secretary said that the Indian side must consult all the parties, including Paschim Banga before it could sign the agreement. He said this process would take some time.
The Indian Foreign Secretary left many disappointed. The “guess” of the Finance Minister that the Teesta agreement would be ready for signature in 3 months made immediately after the visit of the Indian Prime Minister, now looks like a wild guess. The Water Resources Minister’s hope that the agreement would be ready in ¾ months time now looks like a forlorn hope. The Foreign Minister’s guess was the most realistic one when she said that only an astrologer would be able to say with certainty when the Teesta agreement would be signed.
Against the guesses of our Ministers, the Indians have got whatever we promised them and what they expected from us. The security support and commitment we gave them has already helped India break the many decades old separatist movement of ULFA in Assam. The land transit card that we withdrew from them in retaliation for the withdrawal of the Teesta agreement now seems to have been an empty threat. In the Maldives meeting, we admitted that India has been allowed land transit already on a trial basis and that at present; India is carrying goods in containers over river and land routes from mainland India to the northeastern state of Tripura free of charge. A spokesman of our Prime Minister said that the two sides would meet and work out the details such as charges for moving from trial run to a more permanent arrangement.
The meeting in Maldives has thus removed confusion in many minds over the status of land transit and Teesta. First, it cleared the confusion and contradictory statements of our negotiators on the two issues. The Maldives meeting’s clear message was that the two issues are not tied. In fact, on the Teesta, the two sides have regressed, on land transit there has been forward and positive movement in favor of India. Second, it has underlined the fact that when the Foreign Secretary informed the Indian High Commissioner about Bangladesh government’s decision to withdraw the land transit, it was only a knee jerk reaction to deal with the embarrassment into which the Indians led the Bangladesh government on the Teesta agreement. The Bangladesh side “withdrew” the land transit for domestic consumption, knowing well that land transit was a done deal already.
The Bangladesh side went to the Maldives meeting with high expectations that the Indian side would give some positive hints on the Teesta. Before the delegation went to Maldives, Foreign Ministry sources went to the extent of suggesting that unless the Indians had something concrete to inform Bangladesh on Teesta, Bangladesh would consider slowing on land transit, exposing a growing restlessness and impatience. It does not appear like our Prime Minister expressed any such strong views with her Indian counterpart in their meeting.
The Maldives meeting has thus moved the two countries further apart from the hope of the paradigm shift that our negotiators had promised us. Unless an agreement on Teesta is signed, public opinion in Bangladesh would assess the negotiations so far as one where it was Bangladesh that made all the concessions with India keeping our hopes alive with mere promises. On that note of promise too, the Indians have been less enthusiastic in Maldives. Only an astrologer could now say with any amount of certainty as to when the two sides would be able to sign the accord on Teesta after the statement of the Indian Foreign Secretary that India must first consult the interested parties before it can bring the Teesta agreement before Bangladesh.
Among the interested parties is Paschim Bangla where its Chief Minister holds the handle over the fragile Congress led coalition at the centre. Mamata Banarjee these days is upset with the Centre for a number of reasons. Accusing fingers were pointed at her following the withdrawal of the Teesta agreement from the table at the proverbial 11th hour,. At that time she had reacted strongly by stating in the media that as a friend of Bangladesh and for her personal respect for Sheikh Hasina, she could not agree to a water sharing agreement as recommended to her by New Delhi because there was not enough water in Teesta at the point of sharing during the dry season for an agreement with Bangladesh.
There is news now that upstream on the Indian side; a hydro electricity project is being contemplated. Sikkim has also come into the picture since the signing of the Teesta agreement in Dhaka was aborted. These developments have made the likelihood of an agreement in anytime in the future even more remote.
Clearly India has betrayed Bangladesh on the Teesta. Over the time that the two sides have been negotiating during which we were making the concessions on security, transit and on a number of other issues, the Indians never told the Bangladesh side of the interested parties that it would need to consult. In fact, the Indians had always hinted that the Teesta was ready for signature much earlier and that they were holding it back to be the icing on the case for the visit of the Indian Prime Minister.
Meanwhile, the view of Foreign Ministry sources that Bangladesh would hold the transit card to encourage India on the Teesta is unlikely to happen. The history of trial run is not a good one in Bangladesh-India relations. It brings back to memory the trial run we had given India on the Farakkah barrage only to regret it later. Further, India has a stranglehold on Bangladesh by controlling the waters of the common rivers and a fair demarcation of our share of the Bay of Bengal that is rich in hydro-carbon and maritime resources. Any attempt to tie the Teesta with the land transit could influence India to tighten the screws on us on our share of the waters of the common rivers and in other areas where India has the advantage.
In any case, our Prime Minister has untied the two and hence the issue is settled now. This has placed Bangladesh in a position where it can merely hope India would do the right thing having bargained off its strong playing cards of security and land transit unilaterally without demanding reciprocity.
The high hopes of not too long ago that our negotiators had raised that India would make us rich by making us the regional connectivity hub and provide us fair share of the waters of the common rivers is fast fading. India is living up to its past; an emerging world power interested in playing with its neighbors a zero-sum game. Sadly our negotiators never even suspected it. They went to Maldives with high hopes only to have those hopes dashed again.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.