February 5, 2012
M. Serajul Islam
Mamata Banarjee has served another salvo. After derailing Indo-Bangladesh relations over the Teesta water sharing issue the evening before the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Dhaka, she has now said that she has objections to the exchange of enclaves. To remind readers, our negotiators had described this decision on exchange of enclaves reached during Manmohon Singh’s visit as a major achievement to sidetrack disappointment in Bangladesh over the failure to sign an agreement on the Teesta water sharing.
It has been five months now since the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Dhaka. A good number of our Ministers, including our Minister for Finance, had said in the media that the Indians would sign the Teesta agreement in 3 to 4 months to prop up public feelings of disappointment. Our Minister for Foreign Affairs went to see Mamata Banarjee in Kolkata and came back to report that the Teesta agreement would be signed shortly. Before meeting Mamata Banarjee in Kolkata, Dipu Moni had also met the Indian Foreign Minister SM. Krishnan and he too had told her that the agreement on Teesta was just round the corner.
The corner seems to have vanished from our sight. Instead Mamata Banarjee has put in our path a new obstacle that stands to take away even the crumbs we had received from India during Manmohon Singh’s visit to Dhaka after giving India two of its most important needs from Bangladesh; namely total support for its security concerns and land transit. The news of Mamata Banarjee’s objection on the exchange of enclaves came to surface after the decision went to the Indian Parliament for ratification. The Indian Prime Minister informed later that the ratification has to be postponed because of objection from Paschim Bangla.
Under Indian law, an agreement such as the one on exchange of enclaves has to be placed in the parliament for ratification that is not the case in Bangladesh. This is something that our negotiators seem not to have known for if they had, they would not have acclaimed the decision as an achievement. They must also have forgotten how the Indian’s used the ratification issue to deny us the Teen Bigha corridor to our enclaves of Dahagram and Angorpota for which we handed to the Indians Berubari as part of the Indira-Mujib Agreement of 1974.
In negotiating with the Indians, our negotiators just failed to look at history of Bangladesh-India negotiations. If they had, they could have served the interests of Bangladesh that they have instead sacrificed through poor home work and lack of diplomatic skills. Humayun Rasheed Chowdhury, former Speaker; Foreign Minister and President of the UNGA, had said while serving at MFA that dealing with the Indians required skills because Indians are the descendents of Chanakyya, sometimes referred to as the Hindu Machiavelli, and not accustomed to giving an inch in negotiations. HRC should know better having dealt with the Indians in 1971 when he defected from the Pakistan High Commission to join the war of liberation and then as Foreign Secretary and Foreign Minister.
Stephen P Cohen, a South Asia expert with the Brookings Institute in Washington offered a similar description of Indian diplomats in his book titled India. He wrote of the Indian External Affairs Ministry as “inherently conservative”; “Delhi centric” and one of the most skilled in the world in “getting at no.” Our inexperienced negotiating team trusted these skilled diplomats who are masters in extracting their interests without willing to give anything to any party that can’t earn it. The results are now clearly laid out. The Indians have the ULFA terrorists; have a stranglehold on us as far as their security needs are concerned and have already started using our territory as a corridor for carrying all kinds of goods to its northeastern states over our ill equipped roads and even by defiling our rivers.
In return, we have been denied what we were told we would get. We did not get agreement on sharing of the waters of the Teesta and Feni that we expected would lead to fair sharing of waters of the other common rivers. We did not get any commitment from India not to construct the Tippaimukh Dam where it has decided to go ahead to build an obstruction 150 meters high in gross violation of laws that govern cross border rivers. Despite firm commitments, BSF continues to kill Bangladeshis willfully on the borders. And now Mamata Banarjee has stated that she would not agree to the exchange of enclaves!
All the above is difficult to comprehend because despite the unquestioned diplomatic skills of the Indian diplomats, what India is doing in its relations with Bangladesh is it is destroying its standing in the country. It is pushing a friendly Government led by Sheikh Hasina into a situation where the India factor has started to harm her party badly in politics. Already, the Indians are in need of a nod from her to make land transit that was granted as a trial basis into a long term agreement. The benefits of land transit have opened up huge hopes in states such as Tripura and other States have realized the importance of Bangladesh in their economic development. The Indians also need the continued support of the Bangladesh Government for long term cooperation on security issues.
India could have had these long term concessions from Bangladesh simply for the asking had it reciprocated on Teesta, Tippaimukh and border deaths. Now the Bangladesh Government can go ahead and grant India what it wants only by committing political suicide. Bangladesh Government’s blind trust in India and India’s habbit of saying no has made the India factor stronger as a political issue in Bangladesh than it has even been in the 40 years of such relations.
It is easy to explain Bangladesh’s part in binging Bangladesh-India bilateral relations to its current status. It negotiated with India in a manner that has been naïve to say the least. It believed in India’s good will and gave India what it wanted without ensuring its own interests. Above all, its negotiating team has been disjointed where no one really knew who has been leading and who has been following. Therefore it is natural that Bangladesh has received very little in reciprocity to what it gave India.
India’s part in the current state of Bangladesh-India relations is hard to explain. HRC’s or Stephen Cohen’s description about India’s negative diplomacy provides some explanation. But it does not explain why India has jeopardized the chances of making what Bangladesh has given India, namely commitment on security and long term agreement on land transit, sustainable , that it needs very badly. May be the Indians have assumed that it can force its will on Bangladesh by extending and institutionalizing, as many suspect it is doing, the influence that the Bangladesh Government has provided it over the last three years. Or perhaps, Indian diplomacy has deteriorated and is today negative to the point of being self-defeating.
According to a survey by local English daily survey, Sheikh Hasina’s popularity has slipped from 83% to 38% in the last 3 years. Surely, India is a contributing factor. This is what worries many. Why is India doing this to Sheikh Hasina? The Indian Foreign Minister has postponed his scheduled visit to Dhaka for more pressing reasons in New Delhi and the Indian Finance Minister is scheduled to visit Dhaka later in the month. Even if these visits take place, it may be late already to turn the tide in Bangladesh against India. Something very dramatic has to happen from the Indian side in Bangladesh-India relations and without further delay.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.