Bangladesh-India Foreign Office Consultations: Relations deadlocked
July 28, 2012
M. Serajul Islam
The Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Mijarul Qayes and his Indian counterpart Ranjan Mathai met in New Delhi on July 24 for Foreign Office Consultations (FOC). The FOC took place nearly 11 months after the visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka on September 6, 2011. Therefore, it provided the first comprehensive review of where relations stood between the two countries following that frustrating visit from Bangladesh’s viewpoint.
The issues at the table of the FOC were mainly those that were left un-resolved by their Prime Ministers. The Teesta Water Sharing agreement that was pulled off the table abruptly during the Indian Prime Minister’s visit when Bangladesh was assured unequivocally that it would be signed was the most important issue at the New Delhi talks. The land boundary agreement (LBA) and exchange of enclaves’ agreement that were signed at the Prime Ministers’ summit but has been held up since in the process of ratification due to the opposition of the BJP was another major issue at FOC.
On the Teesta water sharing agreement, the consultations did not bring any good news. The Indian informed Bangladesh that it is continuing the process of consultations with the mercurial Chief Minister of Paschim Bangla Mamata Banarjee. All the Indians could say on this issue that has emerged as one of major political concern for the ruling party in Bangladesh’s domestic politics is that it would be “sooner than later.” The Indians were also vague on the ratification of the LBA and exchange of adversely held enclaves’ agreement and were unable to make any commitment on when Bangladesh could expect the ratification to go through.
The killing of innocent Bangladeshis in the border by the BSF was another issue tabled at the consultations. The Bangladesh Foreign Secretary raised concerns in line with the way the government has in the country where it has become a highly emotive bipartisan issue. The Indian side nevertheless maintained that the infiltrators are not always innocent villagers straying across the border but individuals with criminal intent who cannot be allowed to cross the border illegally. The Bangladesh side maintained that the BSF should catch and jail these infiltrators and not shoot and kill them. The Bangladesh Foreign Secretary proposed to his Indian counterpart to improve communications to deal with infiltration and in that context recommended interfacing the local administrations of the two countries in the border districts. The Indians assured that they would consider the Bangladesh recommendation.
On the controversial Tippaimukh dam, the Indian Foreign Secretary informed the Bangladesh Foreign Secretary that the Indian MEA has already received from the Indian Water Resources Ministry the names of its delegation for the Joint Survey. The Bangladesh delegation has also been firmed up. Therefore there has been some positive movement on this controversial dam issue at the FOC over which there has been bipartisan opposition in Bangladesh.
The Indians also tried to make the Foreign Secretary’s trip to New Delhi worthwhile by sugar coating the major disappointments. The Indian Foreign Secretary reiterated the commitment earlier made by then Indian Finance Minister and now the President Pranab Mukherjee that India would convert US$ 200 million of the US$ 1 billion loan into grant. He also informed his guest that interest on the rest of the US$ 1 billion loan would be reduced to 1%. The Indian Foreign Secretary also allayed the fear and opposition in Bangladesh about the proposed linking of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra on the Indian side.
The Consultations also reviewed issues of security, trade, and power sector cooperation. Projects worth US$ 183 are in the pipeline out of the US$ 1 billion soft loan that India has provided. Nevertheless, from the Indian side, their priority was on issues of connectivity and in that context, they wanted the use of Ashuganj as a port of call and sought new waterways link. It is interesting to note that in his opening statement at the Consultations the Indian Foreign Secretary avoided referring to the substantive issues of interest to Bangladesh such as Teesta, LBA that are holding back smooth development of bilateral relations. The FOC also brought the two countries closer to signing three agreements on “Avoidance of Double Taxation”; “Health Cooperation” and “Small Development Projects.”
When journalists pressed the Bangladesh Foreign Secretary at the press conference after the talks whether there is a date for signing the Teesta agreement, he said that “it is not right to ask when the agreement will be signed.” The response was hard to understand as Indians had agreed to sign it during the visit of their Prime Minister as a reciprocal gesture to the unilateral concessions made by Bangladesh on Indian security concerns where it handed 7 top ULFA terrorists to Indian security and provided India a trial run of their much sought after land transit. It seemed that the Foreign Secretary was making efforts to explain Indian difficulties instead of clearly expressing Bangladesh’s disappointment and frustration.
The Foreign Secretary however expressed urgency over the Indian delay to ratify the LBA, reminding India that “it is important to deliver.” Nevertheless, he did not express Bangladesh’s concern as strongly as he should have. He perhaps forgot that it was his Minister who had described in the media that the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Dhaka was a big success and had used the LBA agreement as a main example of that success. In fact, some strong words would have been appropriate to underscore India’s failure to honour an agreement that its Prime Minister signed and that too after accepting from a much weaker neighbour concessions that were of tremendous value.
The government, in recent times, has shown its willingness to touch base with the nationalistic passion of its people over the Padma Bridge issue. It felt insulted and humiliated when the World Bank cancelled the US 1.2 billion loan on charges of corruption and showed the courage to take the fight to the World Bank and challenged it by raising nationalistic feelings. Why can’t the same government feel aggrieved and insulted that it is being treated by India in a manner that is humiliating? Why can’t this government tell the Indians that their excuses of consultations with Mamata Banarjee for signing the Teesta water sharing agreement are delaying tactics? Why can’t the government ask India to provide a time line to ratify the LBA? Does the Foreign Secretary’s admission that “I am not talking about any time line” mean that we would have to wait for India to ratify the LBA as long as we waited over the transfer of Teen Bigha? Is FS not aware that the Indians have made us wait many decades for that ratification which incidentally never came?
Recently the former Indian State Minister for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor made strong points on both the Teesta and LBA on Bangladesh’s behalf in his book ““Pax Indica: India and the world of 21st century.” He blamed New Delhi for failure on the issues and urged immediate action on both to avoid the perception growing in strength in Bangladesh that India does not deliver on promises. It is a mystery why we have lost the courage even to express our disappointment at India for its failure to keep commitments and promises. It is also mystifying why the ruling party is not seeing that the longer India takes to deliver on its commitments on the major issues, the more politics would be moving in favour of the opposition. Most importantly, the courageous initiatives of Sheikh Hasina for a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations would be wasted.
The above notwithstanding, it is time for the government to take up its disappointment strongly with India at the highest level. The Times of India’s caption “Bangladesh willing to give India time to seal Teesta, and boundary pacts” says it all that Bangladesh officials have lost the courage to confront India over its delay to deliver. Unless the Prime Minister takes charge, Bangladesh-India relations would remain deadlocked for reasons of lack of political will on India’s part.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.