November 27., 2011
M. Serajul Islam
The Indian decision, taken unilaterally, to construct the Tippaimukh Dam has caused indignation in Bangladesh. Critical statements have come out from the environmental groups as well as the civil society condemning the Indian decision. The opposition has of course come out as strongly as expected and has called a hartal in Sylhet, the district that is at the forefront of the expected environmental and other hazards that people in Bangladesh, across the political divide believe would accrue if the dam is constructed.
When this Government came to office in January, 2009, the issue of the Tippaimukh dam was at the top of the list of issues that had to be resolved in order for Bangladesh-India relations to move ahead. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina communicated the seriousness of building the Tippaimukh dam unilaterally in the context of Bangladesh-India relations during her official visit to India in January, 2010. The Indians accepted Bangladesh’s concern and it was duly reflected in the Joint Communiqué. In paragraph 21 of the Communiqué, the Prime Minister of India “reiterated the assurance that India would not take steps on the Tippaimukh project that would adversely impact Bangladesh.”
During his visit to Dhaka in September, 2011 that ended disappointingly on the failure to sign the Teesta deal, the Indian Prime Minister again assured Bangladesh on the Tippaimukh issue. This time, he did it in an audience that comprised a cross section of the intelligentsia of the country at a speech in the Dhaka University. He said “India will not, I repeat and assure you, India will not take steps that will adversely affect Bangladesh.”
These strong assurances convinced Bangladesh that on the Tippaimukh dam, the Indians were prepared to consider the sentiments of Bangladesh. Therefore, the unilateral decision first announced on October 22nd was totally unexpected. Noted Indian journalist Kuldip Nayyar who was in Dhaka for an event, said that the Indian decision is a “violation of trust.” He asked: “If a country like India has no respect for the word it has given, then what happens to small nations?”
Nevertheless, astute as the Indians are in the art of diplomacy, they had in both the Joint Communiqué and their Prime Minister’s speech in Dhaka the exit strategy so as not to be caught on the wrong foot. They did not commit to Bangladesh that it would not build the Tippaimukh Dam. It did not commit either that if they decided to build the dam, they would consult Bangladesh. The Indian commitment was that India would do nothing to “harm Bangladesh.”
That is exactly the message Bangladesh has been delivered from New Delhi when it sought clarification on the Tippaimukh dam. The Indians have told Bangladesh after being urged that the dam would not divert water from the river for any purpose and that it would be constructed to control floods and produce electricity. They have assured Bangladesh, true to their commitment, that the dam would not harm Bangladesh.
The Indians have not considered it necessary to discuss the issue with Bangladesh because they know what is good or harmful for us. They feel the dam would not harm Bangladesh. Therefore to them what the people of Bangladesh think of it or what experts and environmentalists in the country fear about it are not important. .
The chain of events now places the Bangladesh government, thanks to its naïve way of conducting business with the Indians, in a position where the Indians have been given the right to decide what is good or harmful for Bangladesh. Nowhere has it been put in writing nor have our negotiators pointed out in their negotiations that India would need to consult Bangladesh before building a dam on an international river.
In failing to do so, the Bangladesh negotiators have by implication accepted Indian “guardianship” ; they have also written off Bangladesh’s rights under the international law and convention related to the rights of a lower riparian of an international river. Unbelievably, , when the government has literally been caught with its pants down over an issue that has the potential to blow up as a major issue in our politics, the Bangladesh State Minister for Water Resources has said that India is fully within its rights to build the Tippaimukh Dam. Unsolicited, he handed to Bangladesh’s rights on all other cross border rivers, saying that India could do whatever it pleases with these rivers as internal matters of India!!
The Foreign Minister and the Foreign Secretary have both backed India on the trust factor. They dismissed as political all the misgivings being raised over the Tippaimukh Dam. The Foreign Minister said that the Government trusts completely that India would not harm Bangladesh by the Tippaimukh Dam. She said that those who criticize the Dam “turn a blind eye to reality.” The Foreign Secretary has been more forceful in dismissing India on the trust factor.
It would therefore be futile to appeal to our negotiators to be cautious about dealing with India. Never in the history of negotiations between the two countries have we shown the subservient attitude towards India as have those who are negotiating on our behalf with the Indians now. Indian analysts have blamed their country so critically over the way India has treated Bangladesh under the present government that one has to wonder how our negotiators can be in such of state of denial about the intentions of India.
Our negotiators should spare themselves time and think seriously why after giving India support on the crucial issues of security and land transit, both invaluable concessions, they have not signed the Teesta deal and now gone ahead and decided to construct the Tippaimukh Dam by taking us for granted. Such is their arrogance that they asked our government to read the details of the proposed dam in the website of the External Affairs Ministry! With some honest soul searching, they may realize their mistake in believing in India blindly instead of looking at how India has broken promises and agreements and betrayed us in the past.
India too should do some honest soul searching of its own. Sheikh Hasina had opened a great opportunity for a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations by unilateral concessions on security and land transit. If India had reciprocated, it could have helped build sustainable friendship. The Indian mindset of taking its neighbours such as Bangladesh for granted has brought Bangladesh to a stage where the anti-Indian feeling has enhanced since the present government assumed office, thanks to the Felani incident, Teesta debacle and now Tippaimukh Dam. By its arrogant mindset, India has put at jeopardy both the security assurances and the land transit privilege given to it by Bangladesh. The unbelievably strong pro-Indian attitude of our key negotiators has also helped enhance the anti-Indian attitude in Bangladesh.
The current status of Bangladesh-India is certainly a poor testament to the skills of our negotiators. It is also a testament to the arrogance and lack of common sense on the part of the Indian negotiators. The decision of sending a Special Envoy to India will not help rationalize Bangladesh-India relations, not when the key negotiators see nothing wrong in what India is doing.
The decision to send the Special Envoy to New Delhi has no doubt been influenced to tackle the opposition from the lead it has taken in building public opinion on Tippaimukh. If the Government is conscious of public opinion and national interest and wants India to listen, it should take up the opposition offer for bipartisan Bangladesh stand against the Tippaimukh Dam. The Special Envoy would perhaps be told politely to look at the MEA website again!
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt