Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Is the AL shifting its India policy?

Daily Sun
Sunday, 1st April, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

There is a perceptible change in stance in the way the AL leaders are talking about India in recent days. In her recent speech in Sylhet, the Prime Minister has stated in forceful terms that Bangladesh would oppose the construction of the Tippaimukh Dam if it goes against the interest of the country.  

Earlier, when the new Indian High Commissioner had made his courtesy call on her, the Prime Minister asked India to conclude the Teesta deal quickly; to include Bangladeshi experts in any study for constructing the Tippaimukh Dam and  to reciprocate to the gestures that Bangladesh has made for improvement of bilateral relations. She also asked India to take concrete steps to stop the killing of innocent Bangladeshis on Bangladesh-India border. 

Bangladeshis are pleasantly surprised that the Prime Minister is talking about her displeasure with the Indian Government for they were getting accustomed to this Government’s eagerness to please India even before they asked. Foreign Minister Dipu Moni who encouraged people hitherto to consider it their national duty to please India mustered the courage to decline the Indian offer to deal with Bangladesh’s case with India bilaterally on demarcation of the maritime border. 

Nevertheless, the voice of disapproval with India is still not as forceful as most people would like. On the proposed Tippaimukh Dam, the bipartisan consensus in Bangladesh among the people is that it would bring disaster to the country. To those who are aware about the conventions concerning international rivers, India’s decision to build a dam nearly 170 meters high is a major violation. An upper riparian of an international river can only build such structures unilaterally if their height is limited up to 15 meters.  

The landmark decision at Hamburg by ITLOS has been received by the people of Bangladesh on a bipartisan basis as one of the best piece of news since we became independent. The news was particularly welcome as Myanmar and India through the equidistant principle had threatened to take away a major portion of our access to the Bay of Bengal. The way the two countries had intended to draw the line refused to take into consideration the concave nature of our coast and our population as well as the need for our people to have adequate access to the sea. 

The Hamburg decision has eased our access to the Bay of Bengal on the Myanmar side but still we need to have a similar decision in our case with India that will be decided in another forum, the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. At this stage, we can legitimately expect that we will be able to get a favoruable verdict at The Hague as well because ITLOS has set the precedence by accepting   the equity against the equidistant principle.  Nevertheless we would not know for sure what we will receive for the Tribunal till the decision is finally made in 2014 although Hamburg should give us the confidence in the strength of our case.

Given their consensus view against Tippaimukh, the people of Bangladesh expected the Prime Minister to tell the Indians that their decision is arbitrary and against the interest of Bangladesh. Instead, the Prime Minister in her speech at Sylhet seemed not yet convinced that the Dam would be a nightmare for Bangladesh. She appeared still convinced that India would not do anything without consulting Bangladesh. She asked people not to worry over it and assured them that Bangladesh would raise the issue in the JRC.

The Foreign Minister in rejecting the Indian offer for bilateral resolution of the maritime boundary issue also hesitated to displease India completely. She also held out the possibility of bilateral consultations if India accepted the principle of equity. At a time when most Bangladeshis have taken the Hamburg decision as a prelude to a similar decision at The Hague, the prospect of also talking with India bilaterally as the FM has hinted has frustrated many who, going by the history of Bangladesh-India bilateral relations, feel that such a step would be walking into a trap particularly when they have very little confidence in the team that has negotiated with India bilaterally under this government. 

The Prime Minister and her Foreign Minister, by their respective statements, have nevertheless acknowledged that India has emerged as a political card with both mainstream parties now preparing their respective strategies for the next elections due in two years time. India’s failure to deliver on the issues of sharing the waters of the common rivers, stopping the Tippaimukh and stopping killing of innocent Bangladesh by the BSF on the Bangladesh-India border has enhanced the anti-Indian feelings in Bangladesh. Bangladeshis have been particularly disappointed that India has not tried to resolve these critical issues after promising to do so, on reasons that are not very convincing. The fact that India has accepted  Bangladesh’s concessions on the important issues of security and land transit that Sheikh Hasina provided at great political risks and so far  has failed to reciprocate has made many curious about what India has in mind. 

Awami League has now realized that they have negotiated with India without doing their homework. They just convinced themselves that India would not disappoint the Awami League Government.  Both Dipu Moni and Gowhar Rizvi expressed their hopes on the Teesta deal late into the evening of 5th September even after the Indian Foreign Secretary had announced in a press conference that India was taking the Teesta deal off the table during the Indian Prime Minister’s Dhaka visit the next day. The na├»ve hopes of the two left no one in doubt that they believed in India unreservedly. Even after the Dhaka fiasco over Teesta, Ministers of the Government made statements that India would sign the deal in 3 months time out of their conviction in India’s good intentions. 

That has not happened.  Border killings have not stopped. India went ahead and decided to sign a contract to build the Tippaimukh leaving Bangladesh to learn of it from the website of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs. A disappointed AL now realizes that India’s failure to reciprocate has placed the party in a tight political corner where the BNP is beginning to gain favour with the people with the rising anti-Indian feelings in the country. Hence it is beginning to express its disappointment with India although not yet in a position to make its case against the Indians strongly.  

There are some who supported the AL’s move to make unilateral concessions to India in the belief that India would open its market to Bangladesh and make it the connectivity hub of the region. These people, mostly economists, have not bothered about issues of water, land border, Tippaimukh or killings at the border. Unfortunately for them, the economic benefits are not coming fast enough. India has already become an issue in the context of the 2014 elections. 

It is to this reality to which  the AL is slowly reacting. They have also belatedly woken  to the fact that New Delhi is in no position to deal with Bangladesh on water, trade and exchange of enclaves issues without consent of provinces/parties and interest groups. In fact, politicians like Chief Minister Mamata Banarjee, parties such as the BJP and interests groups such as India’s RMG sector have the power to deny Bangladesh its rights on the contentious bilateral issues and the centre has little power to do anything. 

AL’s dissent is expected to increase in the time ahead because India is now in no position to deliver what Bangladeshis legitimately expect from it. There is talk of an election in India within a year following the recent provincial elections. This will further delay for India to deliver on promises, of course if they had the honest intent to deliver in the first instance, which in turn will only increase anti-Indian feelings that the AL can now overlook only at its political peril.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan

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