Friday, December 23, 2011

Bangladesh-India relations: Historical perspective and current status

The Independent
Liberation Day Supplement
December 16, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

Morning shows the day. So goes the cliché. Sometimes, it happens that way but often it does not. In case of Bangladesh-India relations, the cliché has failed, almost completely so far because the bright and sunny morning of Bangladesh-India relations that we saw in the early days of the present government’s tenure has turned cloudy in the late afternoon with dark and ominous clouds in the horizon.

History and geo-politics places Bangladesh is a position where its full potentials as a nation can only be achieved in the context of India treating us fairly and as a friend. We are dependent on India on a few major counts of which the need to get a fair and equitable share of waters of the common rivers is of paramount importance. Equally important is the issue of a fair demarcation of the maritime boundary where we cannot exploit the rich hydro-carbon resources in the Bay of Bengal without an agreement with India.
We also need India for realizing our potentials on a host of other issues. Our position in between India’s fragile northeast and its mainland places us in a situation where we can help India profusely and ourselves gain a lot from reciprocity. We also hold the key to Indian security, an issue that could make or break India as it reaches out to become a world economic power.
Bangladesh began its journey as an independent nation by helping India fulfill a dream. A lot is said and rightly so about how much Bangladesh owes to India for looking after 10 million of our refugees in 1971 and helping our war of liberation both in the theater of the war as well as projecting our case to the international community. In that, the point what emergence of Bangladesh has meant to India, is lost.

The emergence of Bangladesh has eased for India pressures from Pakistan from the east. In terms of savings on defense, Bangladesh must have contributed to the Indian coffer a mind boggling sum of money and continuing to do so. It has given to the Indians in addition the psychological comfort and support by freeing it from any fear coming from the East. The fact that Pakistan has become nuclear since Bangladesh’s emergence only adds to the direct contributions that Bangladesh makes to the Indians in the strategic, defense and financial contexts.

Nevertheless, it is Bangladesh that has always been asked and has always paid a heavy price to India on the issue of gratitude for its support to our emergence as an independent nation. In order to serve India’s interests to resolve its problems with Pakistan, we allowed India to send back to Pakistan the 193 Pakistani soldiers who were POWs in India after they had surrendered to a Joint Indian and Bangladesh Mukti Bahini Command, soldiers we wanted to try for crimes against humanity during our war of liberation. The sacrifice we made then is more than evidently clear in Bangladesh today as the country struggles to try the war criminals of 1971.

We also allowed India a trial run for the Farakkha Barrage for 40 days that it extended unilaterally to suit its needs that has caused great damages to the environment of northern Bangladesh. We have allowed India river transit for carrying goods from mainland India to northeast. We even agreed in principle to accord India land transit in the Trade Agreement we signed with it in 1972. In 1974, we signed the agreement on land boundary under which we gave India what we agreed. India did not keep its part of the agreement.

In fact, it is Bangladesh that has been paying off to India the price for the help it gave Bangladesh in 1971. Bangladesh never asked anything for helping India break its nemesis Pakistan into two. Bangladesh just wanted from India its legitimate rights as an independent and sovereign nation on issues of water, trade, land and maritime boundaries.
On the maritime boundary, the Indian refusal to negotiate on principles of international law has forced us to go to the international tribunal to seek redress. On trade, the deficit has exploded, with India unwilling to accept agreements at multilateral forum to help our exports to enter Indian market. It has fenced off the border; yet it accuses Bangladesh of mass migration. In last one decade, Indian BSF has killed over a thousand innocent Bangladeshis; most of them killed as a result of smuggling ventures that went wrong for which the control is in the hands of the Indian Border Security Force (BSF). Yet, it sees no reason to regret where its own human rights and international human rights organizations have squarely placed the accusing fingers on India.

The only times the Indians have done something for Bangladesh was when it signed the Ganges Water Sharing Accord in 1996, 22 years after we gave it permission for 40 days’ trial run, and arm twisted the insurgents in the hill tracts that it was encouraging to sign the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord. The Ganges Accord has outlived its utility because upstream withdrawal brings very little amount of water at the point of sharing for Bangladesh to receive its equitable share. The Indians are not even sorry for our predicament and we can do nothing about it as there is no guarantee clause in the agreement. The Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord has been signed because the Indians arm twisted the insurgents that they had been training to harm Bangladesh and that to, not for the same of Bangladesh but for a political party that it thought would serve its interests.

In the BNP’s last term of office, bilateral relations stagnated with India not interested in moving relations ahead because they perceived the BNP Government as an unfriendly one. The BNP was also in no hurry to mend fences with India. Therefore, it was quite a courageous move that Sheikh Hasina made immediately upon becoming Prime Minister to sent strong signals that her government was prepared to work with India for a paradigm shift in bilateral relations. Towards that conviction, she assured India that her Government would not allow Bangladesh soil to be used as a sanctuary for attacks on India by terrorists and insurgents. As proof of her seriousness, Bangladesh handed to India 7 top ULFA insurgents, albeit secretly.

On her official visit to India in January, 2010, she made further concessions. She promised India land transit that had been meanwhile renamed by India with Bangladesh’s concurrence as connectivity for public acceptance in Bangladesh. She also offered to India the use of the Chittagong and Mongla sea ports. In exchange for Bangladesh’s offers on security, and land transit and use of the seaports, the Indians made a number of promises and a firm offer. The promises were to sell us electricity, talk with us on water sharing, trade issues and land boundary. The firm offer was a soft but tied loan of US$ 1 billion.

The visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was heralded by the Bangladesh side as a great success. The Prime Minister’s principal negotiators, Dr. Gowher Rizvi, Dr. Mashiur Rahman and the Foreign Minister undertook a media campaign in which they built up great expectations in the minds of the people. They urged the people to believe that India is a neighbour to be trusted and that India has the goodwill of Bangladesh at heart. They chided those who were critical of India or hesitant to believe in India. Our negotiators assured us that India would make us rich and important by making us the connectivity hub of the region that would not just include its northeastern states but also Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and China.

Our negotiators asked the people to wait for the visit of the Indian Prime Minister during which they told us we would see what a good friend India is. The two countries exchanged high level visits. The Indian Foreign, Finance and Home Ministers visited Bangladesh and our senior Ministers also visited India. The committees between the two countries at the official level on water, border and trade also met in the period leading up to the visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka. These positive developments lent credibility to what our negotiators were telling us, that India could be trusted as a friend and that it was ready to do serious business with us.

The Indian Prime Minister finally came to Dhaka in September amidst great expectations in Bangladesh. Unfortunately, the evening before his arrival, the Indians threw cold water on our expectations by withdrawing the agreement on the Teesta and Feni rivers. They made concessions of trade by adding 46 RMG items to duty free access to India. The 6.4 miles land boundary was finalized and so was exchange of enclaves and land in adverse possession. Bangladesh was also given 24 hours’ access through Teen Bigha to the Bangladesh enclaves of Dahagram and Angorpota.

Nevertheless, the nation was deeply disappointed with the Teesta fiasco. The Indians failed to acknowledge the importance and sensitivity of the water issue to the people of Bangladesh. Our negotiators tried their best to hide people’s disappointment and acclaimed that the visit was successful. They expressed no public disappointment over Teesta. Instead they defended India and expressed firm home that the agreement on Teesta was just round the corner. A number of Ministers said that the two countries would sign the agreement on Teesta in 3 to 4 months. Our negotiators went into denial over the fact that India had betrayed us literally at the eleventh hour!

The negotiators’ efforts to defend India were surprising as it became evident that the agreements and concessions India made were met with strong disapproval from string lobbies in India. The BJP objected to the exchange of enclaves. RMG groups opposed the 46 items put on the duty free list. The 24 hours’ access through Teen Bigha is a regression on the 1974 Indira-Mujib Agreement that had given us the land as ours. The Indians were themselves apparently embarrassed that they had failed to deliver with their Prime Minister’s visit. The Indian Prime Minister expressed regrets over Teesta.

The Indian media was harsh on their Prime Minister and blamed him and his government for failing to match the strong hand of friendship offered by Bangladesh. At least two leading Indians, Kuldip Nayyar and Muchkund Dubey who are well known in both the countries, expressed anger at the “disdain and apathy” of their Government towards Bangladesh. Muchkund Dubey felt that the Indians are behaving in a manner that could turn Bangladeshis to feel the same way for India as does the Pakistanis.
If the Indian Prime Minister was embarrassed on disappointing Bangladesh by his visit, it was only in passing. The Indians however did not regret what they did to Bangladesh over Teesta. They have told us subsequently through various channels that an agreement on Teesta would be a long time in coming. The Indian Prime Minister, after assuring us in Dhaka that the Teesta agreement would be signed soon, has said recently that there is the need to build a consensus before the agreement can be signed! No one from our side asked the question what he and his team doing was doing all this while when they were taking from Bangladesh concessions that they dreamt but never expected, a total assurance on India’s security and an access from mainland to the northeast.

The Indians have now signed an agreement to build the Tippaimukh Dam. They simply did not bother that Bangladesh needed to taken on board after Bangladesh had spared no efforts to convey to the Indians that there exists in Bangladesh bipartisan fear and apprehension over the dam. That fear has been greatly enhanced following the tremors in Sikkim. When we sought information over the dam, the Indians asked us not to be concerned and to have faith that India would not harm us. The two Advisers of our Prime Minister who met the Indian Prime Minister in New Delhi were given the same assurance.

The Indians have said that they would build just the dam and have set aside the barrage that would have harmed Bangladesh. In giving the assurance, the Indians have missed a very vital point, that as a neigbour with sovereign status, Bangladesh deserves to be treated better, particularly when it has made the major concessions. It has more importantly missed the legal point that under international law and convention, a country is allowed to unilaterally build raise the water level of a cross boundary river to the height of 15 meters or thereabouts. For a level higher than that, an upper riparian of a cross boundary river is bound under international law and convention to discuss with the lower riparian about the level it proposes to rise. In case of the Tippaimukh, the level would be raise to 170 meters! By their contemptuous behaviour, the Indians have once again highlighted that they cannot be trusted.

For the first time in many decades, Sheikh Hasina showed India Bangladesh’s interest to accommodate what India wants from us the most, namely sincere assurances for its security concerns and a land transit to its fragile northeast. In doing so, our Prime Minister took great political risks. Common sense dictated, given the importance of the concessions made by Bangladesh (Muchkund Dubey called these concessions as “supremely significant” to India) to reciprocate on water as the first item and then on the other bilateral issues of trade, maritime boundary, border, and the rest. It is not that the Indians did not make the concessions towards which Bangladesh was expectantly looking; it added salt to the injury by treating us as if we did not deserve to be treated with respect. After being treated so disdainfully and disrespectfully, we had to send our Advisers to New Delhi. If the Indians were serious about us, they should have sent an envoy to Dhaka instead to take care of Bangladesh’s hurt feelings.

In retrospect, the Indian attitude was not at all unexpected. This is the way the Indians have always treated Bangladesh. What is a wonder is the attitude of our negotiators. The Foreign Minister and the Foreign Secretary saw nothing wrong with the way the Indians treated us on Tippaimukh. They demanded that the Indians must be trusted. The State Minister for Water saw politics in the agitation over the dam and absurd as it may sound, said that India has the right to build the Tippaimukh dam and any other structure on any of the rivers we share with it! The State Minister’s preposterous comments did not bring him any reprimand although by his comments, he has handed over to India the sovereign right on the rivers we share with it, rivers that are indispensible for our existence.
Between the arrogance of the Indians and the subservience of our negotiators (in case of the State Minister for Water, far worse), we have wasted a great window of opportunity that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had opened in the context of Bangladesh-India relations. The promise of our negotiators that as the connectivity hub of the region we would become rich and important seems to have vanished in the thin air. The promises of water also have evaporated and all the other agreements that we have signed since the government took office three years ago, seem to be going by the way side.

India, its arrogance notwithstanding, has achieved its goals in the short run. The security concessions on the ULFA insurgents has helped India break the many decades old ULFA insurgent movement that would help India save many times more than the much acclaimed money it has given Bangladesh as soft loan. It has also been given the go ahead on land transit on a trial basis. But by betraying on Teesta and Tippaimukh and failing to show that it has a heart to match its size on reciprocating to what Bangladesh has given, India has shown short sightedness because both the security and the transit cards are certain to be in serious jeopardy in the backdrop of rising distrust of India.
The morning sun that Sheikh Hasina brightened in Bangladesh-India relations has now paled into a cloudy late mid afternoon. Indian arrogance, short sightedness and habbit of taking Bangladesh for granted and our negotiators’ unbelievable subservience have almost wasted a historic opportunity opened by Sheikh Hasina to take Bangladesh-India relations to a new level of friendship, mutual trust and mutual benefit.

The writer is a retired career diplomat and a former Ambassador to Japan

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