Janauary 13, 2011
M. Serajul Islam
In the Northeastern States Business Summit held recently, India Home Minister Mr. Palaniappan Chidambaram has said a lot of good things about Bangladesh that is music for any Bangladeshi’s ear. He has complemented Sheikh Hasina for her “vision and statesmanship” that he said has brought Bangladesh and India as close as the two countries were in 1971. He has also assured Bangladesh that the Indian Government is going to grant us most preferred nation (MFN) status. He said: “It is India's responsibility to ensure that capital flows from India to Bangladesh to start businesses." to make Bangladesh the hub of business and investment in the region. One could not miss in Mr. Chidambaram’s statements the echo of what Dr. Gowhar Rizvi had been telling us before the failed visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka.
Any Bangladeshi heart would crave to believe Indian Home Minister. However, the head of the same Bangladeshi receives a different message; a message of caution. The reasons are obvious. Take for instance the Home Minister and his credibility on issues of substance to Bangladesh. He is the Home Minister of India but making promises that are not for him to make. Granting MFN status or businesses and investments are not his responsibilities. Then, this is the same Minister who came to Dhaka in July last year and promised zero tolerance on killings of innocent Bangladeshis in the border by the BSF; a commitment that has not been kept.
As the Home Minister, Mr. Chidambaram understands more than any other Indian Minister the true value of the seven ULFA terrorists that Bangladesh secretly handed to the Indian security. The Indian media had then strongly urged its Government to give Bangladesh whatever it expected from India for this security cooperation. Yet, in subsequent negotiations, there was no recognition of this major gift from Bangladesh to India. The Indian Government also failed to reciprocate of another major gift from Bangladesh, namely land transit, that former Indian Foreign Secretary Mr. Muchkund Dubey considers of “supreme significance” to Indian in general, and the Northeastern States in particular.
Instead, under Mr. Chidambaram’s watch, the Indian BSF still continues to kill innocent Bangladeshis on the border. Still, the Indian Government continues to point fingers at those who are the victims, asking questions why in the first place were they in the border. They conveniently forget while giving such explanations that it is the Home Minister who had committed his government to zero tolerance to killings of innocent Bangladeshis by the BSF. He had said that BSF would use rubber bullets in place of live ones.
One has to wonder whether these Indian Ministers realize that people in Bangladesh have memories; that on the trust factor, people in Bangladesh are no longer confident whether India can be trusted to keep promises/commitments/agreements it makes. The Indian Ministers, unlike ours, do not say anything just for the sake of saying. Their statements in public, particularly those aimed at another country, are made with good reasons. Hence, Mr. Chidambaram is well aware of feelings in Bangladesh about India because of its failure to reciprocate to the concessions made by Bangladesh on security and land transit. Yet he went ahead and made new promises to Bangladesh, renewed old ones and reiterated India’s good feelings and friendship for us for good reasons. He also chose the Business Summit for the Northeastern States for this for equally good reasons.
The Northeast States of India stands to gain in a major way from Bangladesh’s decision to grant India land transit. The trial run that Bangladesh granted to India has already shown the Northeastern States what a big role Bangladesh can play in their future. In fact, the Tripura Chief Minister was gaga talking to the media when he had accompanied the Indian Prime Minister on his visit while explaining how Bangladesh’s cooperation to build the power plant in his state has opened vast economic opportunities for Tripura.
That trial run now needs to be renewed and made long term. The Indians have officially written to the Bangladesh Government in this regard. This time, however, there is a marked change in Bangladesh’s response. Up to the visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka, Bangladesh’s negotiators were the ones excited about the benefits that Bangladesh would reap as a consequence of Indian friendship. In fact, it was Dr. Gowhar Rizvi who was telling us what Mr. Chidambaram has said in his statement in the Northeastern Summit. Dr. Rizvi, the Foreign Minister and Dr. Mashiur Rahman are no longer making the strong statements about friendship with India or the benefits such friendship would bring for Bangladesh.
India’s ability to deliver on its promises on Teesta and Tippaimukh ; continued killings in the border and insensitivity in the way the Titash River has been defiled during the trial land transit run have combined to take away the enthusiasm of the Bangladesh negotiators who were earlier showing the willingness to give the Indians anything without even being asked. This time, the reluctance to grant India extension on the land transit is coming from the bureaucracy. Legal questions are being raised at the desk levels of the Government Ministries concerned where the Ministers and Advisers are no longer in a position to favour India at will anymore. No doubt, the message has finally sunk, thanks to the role of the media, that Bangladesh should not give India one more inch till India shows it can be trusted.
The economics of land transit, that Bangladesh would become rich as the connectivity hub of the region, has thus lost its appeal in Bangladesh. The concept of connectivity hub was very cleverly articulated by the Indians to make land transit acceptable in Bangladesh. Thanks to Dr. Rizvi, Dr. Rahman and Dipu Moni, we were led to believe that we were indeed going to gain economically in a major way as the connectivity hub of the region. By doing nothing on promises and commitments made on issues such as Teesta, Tippaimukh and border killings, the Indians have just not let their friends in Bangladesh down; they have helped strengthen the perception articulated by the opposition political parties in Bangladesh led by the BNP that India is not trust worthy. From being a BNP feeling, the factor of India and trust is becoming more widely acceptable across the political divide.
In fact, in the three years of AL rule, India’s failure to reciprocate has taken the wind out of the sail of those championing the Indian cause in the Bangladesh Government. More importantly in the process, India has put into jeopardy the great window of opportunity that Sheikh Hasina had opened for Indian Northeastern States. It is not just the prospects of these states that are in jeopardy; in jeopardy too is the possibility of a paradigm shift of Bangladesh-India relations that Sheikh Hasina’s courageous decisions to unilaterally grant India land transit and security cooperation had created.
Bangladesh thus has no reason to take seriously Mr. Chidambaram’s offers of MFN, of making Bangladesh rich as the connectivity and investment hub unless it wants to be misled again. His statement was also made to send a message to the Northeastern States that it is seriously pursuing with Bangladesh for its economic future. Nevertheless, it is time for India to do its share for the gifts and concessions that it has accepted from Bangladesh. It needs to sign the Teesta agreement without any further delay and abandon the Tippaimukh project. It needs to show not by promise but by deed that it would not kill innocent Bangladeshis any more on the border. Only then it should ask for the extension of the land transit and furthers security cooperation from Bangladesh. Public opinion has significantly shifted for the Bangladesh Government to grant any further concessions/gifts to India. .
In fact, unwittingly, the ruling party has created for itself a significant baggage looking ahead into the next elections. The India factor seems likely to become major hurdle in the next elections for the ruling party because it has given to India major concessions without receiving from India what it expected. Mr. Chidambaram sugar coated statements about Bangladesh has thus been largely ignored in Bangladesh, even by those who see it our national duty to do whatever India wants. By its greed and small heartedness, India has pushed Sheikh Hasina into a corner. She cannot now allow India extension on the trial run without placing her party and her own political credibility at peril.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.