January 15, 2012
M. Serajul Islam
The Prime Minister’s visit to Tripura is significant in more ways than one. She has been awarded a honourary doctorate there that has enhanced her standing in that state and added to the importance of Bangladesh in Tripura. Tripura had special significance to Bangladesh in the context of our liberation war. In 1971, it looked after a large number of our compatriots who had fled to the Indian state for fear of their lives.
The Prime Minister’s visit, the first by a Bangladesh head of government not just to Tripura but to any Northeastern state, allowed her to express Bangladesh’s gratitude for 1971. However, times are different. The visit has been undertaken after three years of the Awami League government that has gone out of the way to make India happy. The steps Bangladesh had taken were to encourage India to reciprocate on Bangladesh’s long standing demands for a fair share of waters of the common rivers; on trade imbalance and a few other issues.
Unfortunately, India has done very little to match Bangladesh’s generosity from which the state of Tripura has been a major beneficiary. Immediately on assuming office, Sheikh Hasina had said that her government will not allow Bangladesh soil to be used for any acts of insurgency or terrorism aimed at India. In keeping this commitment, Bangladesh handed 7 top ULFA leaders who were in Bangladesh to the Indian security that has broken the back of the ULFA insurgency movement. To this, Bangladesh also granted India land transit on trial.
Very little has come from India for all that the Bangladesh Government did for India, At literally the 11th hour, when the entire Bangladesh was expecting to see if indeed India had the sincerity of reciprocating after accepting the concessions from Bangladesh, they reneged on Teesta. Later they did the same on Tippaimukh and they have not stopped the killings in the border that is a very sensitive issue in Bangladesh.
Importantly for Tripura, Bangladesh’s offer to India to use land transit has had a significant impact on the state. The Chief Minister of Tripura Mr. Manik Sarker gratefully acknowledged this assistance in a press conference he held in Dhaka during the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Bangladesh. In fact, it is to carry heavy equipments to his state to build a power plant that the Indians have insensitively defiled the River Teesta that has had a very negative impact on the standing of the India in Bangladesh.
It is a different Sheikh Hasina who went to Tripura. She has been very badly let down by the Indians. It is therefore quite understandable that she said that India has to be more liberal if it wants to develop relationship with Bangladesh when the Chief Minister of Tripura called on her during her visit. The Chief Minister Sen agreed with Sheikh Hasina. He said that India must come forward and sacrifice as a big neighbour.
Quite clearly Mr. Manik Sarker knows better than anyone that India has let Bangladesh down in general and a friendly government in Dhaka in particular. Nevertheless, the Chief Minister must also consider that so far, it is Bangladesh that has made the sacrifices and that as the big neighbour, it has not shown the heart. The Chief Minister must also know that the government of Bangladesh is no longer in a position to give India anymore and that it is India that must do its part. He needs to talk with the Indian centre because without pressure from people in power like him, the Indian centre will not act to encourage Bangladesh to extend land transit that is so crucial to his State.
There are a few other important issues that Sheikh Hasina’s visit has brought out into open. One criticism that was made against the Bangladesh negotiators when Ms. Mamata Banarjee refused to agree to the Teesta water sharing agreement was that our side should have discussed with the Paschim Bangla Chief Minister ahead of the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Dhaka to know her stand on the Teesta issue. In defense, the negotiators had argued that as a sovereign state, Bangladesh cannot hold discussions on bilateral matters with a state of India. In Tripura, our Prime Minister did not just receive her honourary doctorate; she held discussions of a whole range of issues that should be discussed with the Indian centre. Central leaders, for example Vice President Mr. Hamid Ansari was present in Tripura for Sheikh Hasina’s visit.
In fact, there should be more such initiatives by Bangladesh to interact with the neighbouring states of India, in particular with the Indian Northeast. Bangladesh would stand to gain better results with this strategy than by depending on the Centre and being let down almost every time. Our foreign policy leaders have failed to understand that in India, the Centre is not as strong or as dependable as they think.
The states of India these days play a significant role in maintaining the government at the Centre. The old theory that India is a quasi-federation where the Centre has the power and authority to impose its will on the states is no longer the case. The emergence of the small parties with roots in the states that play a significant role to form a government at the centre has made the states powerful these days.
We have seen state power in the way Ms. Mamata Banarjee rejected the Centre’s request to sign the Teesta deal right at the 11th hour. On the stand that water is a state subject, she dictated the Centre and opted out of the entourage of the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka, leaving Mr. Manmohon Singh and the Indian Government to appear to have betrayed Bangladesh. The fact that foreign affairs is the responsibility of the Indian centre had no bearing at all to convince the PB Chief Minister that she was out of her line in refusing to sign the Teesta Agreement with Bangladesh.
It is not clear whether the foreign policy guardians of Bangladesh have taken this factor into account while organizing the Prime Minister’s visit to Tripura. If they have not, they should take this factor into consideration and interact more with the Seven Sisters and PB to build leverage so as to be able to get its voice heard in New Delhi. Sheikh Hasina’s generosity for past three years may have brought little for Bangladesh for New Delhi. It has however proven to the impoverished Northeastern States the great value of Bangladesh. It may be a good strategy if Sheikh Hasina would look at other Universities in these States for more honourary doctorates and do some diplomacy that her team in the past has failed to do.
It was a surprise to see that Dr. Gowhar Rizvi and Dr. Mashiur Rahman were not members of the Prime Minister’s delegation. They were the ones who were arguing strongly the Indian case from the perspective of its centre. Perhaps, the Prime Minister is taking charge of our relations with India. It would be good for her, Bangladesh and Bangladesh-India relations that she would because her team has let her down badly by being more Indian than the Indians, making the India factor a liability for her party looking ahead to the next general elections.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.