Sunday, March 4, 2012

Bangladesh-India: The Home Ministers’ talks

Daily Sun
March 4th., 2012
M. Serajul Islam

In the opening session of a seminar organized by a leading NGO on Bangladesh-India relations recently, Finance Minister Mr. AMA Muhit made a very valuable reference. He spoke of the need of political will to take relations to newer heights. The Minister would have done himself and his Government a world of good if he had just given his Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina the credit she deserves in showing that political will and by that token held the Indian Prime Minister responsible for failing to show that political will.

In a talk show on a private TV channel last week, I had said that Sheikh Hasina should be given 10 out of 10 for the political will of which the Finance Minister spoke. I added that by the same token, Manmohon Singh should receive a big zero. The failure by India to show even a little of the political will that Sheikh Hasina have shown has resulted in Bangladesh-India relations being caught in quick sand today. When Sheikh Hasina had made the moves on Indian security concerns and granted it land transit on trial basis, there were high hopes that India would come forward and reciprocate and a new era of mutually beneficial Bangladesh-India relations would begin.

That has not happened. After accepting the Bangladeshi offers that have been answers to the Indian dream, India has so far not given Bangladesh what it had legitimately expected on issues of water and border. The Teesta deal was taken off the table at the proverbial 11th hour. Tippaimukh is going ahead despite promises by India to take into consideration Bangladesh’s fears and concerns. India has instead offered Bangladesh duty free access for 65 items in the RMGG sector. The two sides also signed on the dotted lines on the exchange of enclaves. India has also offered Bangladesh a US$ 1 billion in soft loan for infrastructure development related primarily to developing infrastructure for the land transit that Bangladesh has granted to India on a trial basis.

Bangladesh and India reviewed some of the issues that Bangladesh has been hoping India would resolve to take forward the bilateral relations when the Home Ministers of the two countries met in New Delhi last week. The Indian Home Minister stressed that already there has been a dramatic fall in the number of dead in the Bangladesh-India border in the last 3 months. He however fell short of convincing Bangladesh that it would be gone altogether. The Indian Minister also did not disown the demand made by the DG, BSF, UK Bansal that his force would continue to shoot to kill if their lives are threatened when the issue was raised at the Meeting. The Indian Home Minister who had assured in Dhaka in July last year about the zero tolerance and use of rubber bullets seems to have forgotten his commitments.

On another important issue, namely the exchange of enclaves where India had conceded to Bangladesh during the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Dhaka, the Indian Home Minister assured that in the next session of the Indian parliament the agreement would be placed for approval as required under the Indian constitution. Under the Indian Constitution, any change to the territory of India that the enclave exchanges would cause has to be made through a constitutional amendment in the Parliament. That process would now be undertaken. It would not be as easy as the India Home Minister seems to have suggested.

The reason is the BJP that has already taken a tough stand against the exchange of enclaves. There are additional factors here that should worry Bangladesh. The Chief Minister of Paschim Bangla Mamata Banarjee has also lent her strength against the exchange of enclaves. The Centre of India is now very weak and clearly Manmohon Singh is not in a position to commit and deliver anything to Bangladesh when forces as MB and BJP are in opposition.

During her stay in New Delhi, the Bangladesh Home Minister also met the Indian Prime Minister. She got an assurance from him that New Delhi is trying its best to expedite a deal with Bangladesh on the sharing of the Teesta waters. This time though, he was not as optimistic about a deal being imminent soon or like his Foreign Minister had assured our Foreign Minister late last year that a deal on Teesta is “round the corner.” Clearly, New Delhi, because of internal politics of India, is now weak and unable to deliver on its promises to back the political will and courage of Sheikh Hasina for a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations and made the unilateral concessions to India.
On the TV programme, I was also asked what marks I would give to our diplomatic skills. I did not get to answer the question completely as I got into another issue. Later I remembered a recent seminar in which a well known public figure had some harsh comments for some of us who had been critical of India on recent overtures in Bangladesh-India relations. He dismissed concepts like good relations. He held our side responsible for what we have not got from India. He said that we should not blame India for failure of our negotiating team.
I had to agree with him on skills of our negotiators. We are where we are today because of some rank poor diplomacy. If I have been able to answer the viewer on the TV programme, I would have said that where our Prime Minister had scored 10 out of 10 against Manmohon Singh’s zero on political will, our negotiators have scored zero against the Indian diplomats who have taken 10 points out of 10. Our negotiating team has been a hopelessly fragmented team with no leadership and no vision except a fond hope that India would open its doors for Bangladeshi exports to make us rich and also make Bangladesh the connectivity hub of the region involving Bangladesh, Indian northeast, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and South China with fabulous economic prospects.

India would have to come up very fast with the economic promises having failed very badly with the political ones. At the meeting of the Prime Ministers in September in Dhaka, India agreed to allow 65 items in the RMG sector duty free access to the Indian market. That access would allow Bangladesh to reduce the huge trade gap but not substantially. The promise of making Bangladesh the regional connectivity hub must be fast tracked for a very threatening dark cloud is developing against the very few bright spots. India has decided to go ahead with linking the Ganges with the Brahmaputra on their side. The consequences of such linkage could have a tsunami like impact on Bangladesh-India relations.

Bangladesh India relations are not going in a positive directions Bangladesh’s political will and concessions notwithstanding. The Home Ministers’ meeting in New Delhi has not given any reason for optimism, although our Home Minister has claimed success without giving any details. She has said the Indians have committed to a zero tolerance of border killings but only if BSF is not attacked! Her statement is a curious one because the hundreds of Bangladeshis killed have been unarmed. She has backed the DG, BSF instead of putting him on the dock for a very insensitive and inaccurate statement. In fact, she has followed a pattern that our negotiators have adopted with India which is to claim success for their meetings in general terms without providing any details.

In fact our negotiators prepare their success story even before they prepare their talking points for meetings with their Indian counterparts. As a result, the Indian negotiators are under no pressure to deliver. The public in Bangladesh is now suspicious of such claims of successes of our negotiators because there is little of it that they could see!

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan

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