As I see it column
February 5, 2012
M. Serajul Islam
The Indian Government is in the process of appointing the next High Commissioner to Bangladesh to succeed Rajeet Mitter. The name that has come in the media is that of Pankaj Saran who was posted to Dhaka early in his career in the late 1980s. He would be coming to Dhaka from the important post of Joint Secretary at the Prime Minister’s Office where he has been a part of the team with responsibility for India’s external relations.
Nevertheless, in the midst of the good issues that make Pankaj Saran’s appointment a welcome one, there are other issues that cause worries as well. The fact that Pankaj Saran is an officer of the level of a Joint Secretary is one issue of concern. It goes without saying that it is the prerogative of the sending country to send anyone it wants as Ambassador/High Commissioner to the receiving country that has the prerogative either to accept or reject such an appointment. This fact notwithstanding, the choice is a sensitive matter and a lot of factors are taken into consideration in appointing an Ambassador/High Commissioner so that on this issue, the receiving country is not given any offense.
Among the factors that are taken into consideration is the issue of level and reciprocity. A sending country normally sends to the receiving country as Ambassador someone of the same level as what the receiving country has sent to the sending country. In our case, we have in New Delhi a High Commissioner who is one step beyond the highest bureaucratic level. Our High Commissioner in New Delhi Mr. Ahmed Tareq Karim has been given the status of a Minister of State. He is a retired career diplomat with high credentials.
Clearly, there is lopsidedness on the issue of level here. Such lopsidedness could lead one to conclude that India may have downgraded the importance of Bangladesh. A look at High Commissioners India has sent to Bangladesh in the past would make the point clear . The first Indian High Commissioner to Dhaka was Subimal Dutta who stood as a colossus in the annals of Indian Foreign Service, having held the post of Foreign Secretary when Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was the Indian Prime Minister. He was followed by Samar Sen, another giant in the Indian Foreign Service who was the Indian PR in New York during the birth of Bangladesh and played a very important role in building up world opinion in favour of the Bangladesh.
These two served during the first AL term when, given by the role India played in our independence, it was inevitable that Bangladesh would figure very high in India’s foreign policy priorities. After the change of government in August, 1975 and Samar Sen’s recall, India sent to Dhaka as High Commissioner KPS Menon, son of India’s first Foreign Secretary and later to be Foreign Secretary himself. It was widely known in MFA circles at that time that KPS Menon was sent in deference to the request of Bangladesh to send a non-Bengali High Commissioner to Dhaka.
The only exception in a long list of senior diplomats sent by India to Bangladesh was IP Khosla who was a Joint Secretary at the time he was appointed to represent India in Bangladesh. He came to Dhaka when the country was under military rule of President Ershad for whom the Indians had no love lost. In case of IP Khosla, the Indians may have considered the fact that he and President Ershad took a course together at the National Defense College, New Delhi. Thereafter, India sent to Dhaka IP Chadda, Muchkund Dubey, Krishnan Srinivashan and K. Raghunath, the last three returning to New Delhi to become Foreign Secretary. K. Raghunath was followed by Dev Mukherjee, Mani Tripati, Veena Sikri, Pinak Chakravarty and Rajeet Mitter, all senior IFS diplomats with Veena Sikri having the added distinction of standing first in her batch.
The level of High Commissioners India sent in the past, except in the case of IP Khosla that has an explanation, and that of Pankaj Sarin does not match. Clearly Bangladesh could take offense from the issue of level and reciprocity. The issue assumes serious proportion because as a practice, India sends senior diplomats to all its neighbours as it has to Bangladesh over the years till the case of Pankaj Saran. The appointment of Pankaj Sarin is a curious one not just on the issue of level and reciprocity.
It has come at a time when it is the ill wind that is blowing in Bangladesh-India relations. In response to the courage and vision of Sheikh Hasina who unilaterally granted India full cooperation on it security concerns and land transit, India failed to reciprocate on all of Bangladesh’s expectations. There has been no movement on water sharing; killings in the border continue and India has shown no intention to abandon the Tippaimukh Dam. The optimism in Bangladesh official circles that the Teesta Water sharing agreement would be signed in three months of the failed visit of the Indian Prime Minister has not materialized. Instead Mamata Banarjee has now raised objection to the exchange of enclaves that Bangladesh had heralded as an achievement from Manmohon Singh’s visit to Dhaka.
At a time like this, the general feeling in Bangladesh with the appointment of Pankaj Sarin would legitimately be that India takes Bangladesh for granted to be bothered with its sensitivities. There is however one aspect about the new High Commissioner that is worth noting. He is coming from the PMO where he has worked closely with the National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon, the architect of the Indian Government’s policy under which Bangladesh-India relations have been conducted since the AL assumed office in Bangladesh.
In this sense, Pankaj Saran would be coming to Dhaka with better connections with those in Delhi who are important to Bangladesh that could encourage one to set aside his comparatively junior level in the Indian bureaucracy. This may be to Bangladesh’s advantage but then his PMO connections could also work in a negative way. It is the PMO that had fed the Prime Minister the statistics that 25% of the people of Bangladesh are anti-Indian and swear by the ISI. Pankaj Sarin’s connections with SS Menon may also work against him in Bangladesh because of the latter’s role in successfully executing a zero-sum game in Bangladesh-India relations; where India has taken whatever it wanted and expected from Bangladesh without reciprocating.
Therefore, Pankaj Saran would need a lot of diplomatic skill to win hearts in Bangladesh and his connection with the PMO may not really be to his advantage. He would of course also need a lot of concessions from his Government to Bangladesh, concessions and commitments long overdue to launch his tenure in Bangladesh on a positive direction. He should not be misled by his Deputy who recently said Bangladesh-India relations have never been better in a hundred years. It is definitely not which is why the Indian Foreign Minister is taking his trip to Dhaka in two weeks time and the Indian Finance Minister expected to come later in the month.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt.