Friday, January 25, 2013

India: Bangladesh relations: Major issues in cold storage

The Independent
22nd December, 2012
M. Serajul Islam
Najma Heptullah, Vice President of BJP and Member of Rajya Sabha said in Dhaka recently that the BJP will agree to the ratification of the land boundary agreement (LBA) if it is in the interest of India.  The LBA was signed in Dhaka during the visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka in September 2011. After the Teesta Agreement (TA) was withdrawn from the table during that visit, a pall of gloom had descended at the Prime Minister’s Office that had expected the TA to be the icing on the cake of successful negotiations with India leading towards a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations. When the TA was withdrawn by India, the Bangladesh side tried to cheer itself and the nation by using the LBA as a proof that the failure on Teesta notwithstanding, the negotiations with India was on right track and Manmohon Singh’s visit was successful. In fact, the Indians led the Bangladesh side to believe that the LBA was as good as a done deal.

Instead, the LBA got stuck at BJP’s door that refused to lend support that is crucial to the ratification process. The BJP’s refusal should not have surprised anyone in Bangladesh least of all those who were negotiating for Bangladesh because that is its stated policy that India would not cede an inch of territory to another country by agreement or otherwise. In fact, the BJP’s policy is also the Indian stand that Bangladesh should have remembered with the Indira-Mujib Agreement of 1974 when India used the ratification excuse to deny Bangladesh the Teen Bigha corridor (one acre of land!). With Mamata Banarjee now on warpath against the Congress and in an irrational mood in leading her state, the prospects of the TA being signed during the current term of the Congress led government that has more than a year and a half to go, is remote.

As the AL led government enters its final year in office, domestic politics in India has taken over New Delhi’s desire and ability to resolve problems with Bangladesh. It is no longer a question of political will on India’s part to resolve the major problems in Bangladesh-India relations; New Delhi led by the Congress and its allies is just not in any position to do anything for their political survival. The elections in India will be held in the middle of 2014. Till then, the resolution of the TA and the ratification of the LBA will remain in cold storage. With these two major issues there, serious forward movement as envisioned by Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh-India relations would also have to wait till new governments are installed in Dhaka and New Delhi.

While waiting for the changes that could be a long one, it would be useful to do some introspection to try and understand what had motivated the Bangladesh negotiators to put economic issues ahead of the political ones where they failed to envisage any problem with TA and LBA and instead went gaga with Bangladesh  about to become the connectivity hub of the region to reap major economic benefits with Indian assistance.  The negotiators were not fair to anyone who raised doubts about India’s intent.  In fact, they questioned the patriotism of those who tried to caution them not to write off Bangladesh’s land transit and security cards without receiving from India what Bangladesh legitimately expected on sharing of the waters of the common rivers; on bilateral trade; a ratified LBA and stopping the massacre of innocent Bangladeshis in the border by the Indian BSF.

The promises and prospects about which the Bangladesh negotiators had harped from 2009 to 2011 after Sheikh Hasina had taken the courageous decision to provide India complete security assurance and a promise of land transit for a paradigm shift of Bangladesh-India relations now appears like matters that had happened ages ago. There was a time immediately after the disappointing visit of the Indian Prime Minister when our negotiators and Ministers were telling us that the TA would be signed in a few months after the document was withdrawn from the agenda when the Indian Prime Minister visited Dhaka in September, 2011. The Finance Minister said a few times that the Agreement would be signed in 3 to 4 months. The principal negotiators said likewise. The Indians took cover under the diplomatic cliché “soon.” While the Indians knew that soon would never be soon enough for Bangladesh and failed to be honest about it; our negotiators and Ministers believed that the Indians would come back with MB and sign the TA in 3 to 4 months. They also believed India would convince the BJP and the LBA would be ratified.

Clearly, the Bangladesh side negotiated with India  in good faith without doing any homework at all. Even a casual check on Mamata Banarjee and Trinamool politics would have alerted Bangladesh negotiators that MB was not to be trusted. In fact, if they had checked on MB through the Bangladesh Deputy High Commission in Kolkata, they would have known that she could just not agree to the Teesta water sharing agreement that New Delhi had promised because she was about to contest in a bye-election to the Paschim Bangla Assembly from the constituency through which the Teesta flows on the Paschim Bangla side. Likewise, our negotiators, had they done their homework properly, would have known that the LBA that Manmohon Singh signed in Dhaka was just a piece of paper because the BJP would not support its ratification! The Indians knew but our negotiators heralded it as a great achievement!

In the backdrop of the failures to clinch the Teesta and the LBA deals, the much heralded US 1 billion soft loan by India seems to have fallen by the way side by default. One would like to hear from our negotiators about the current status of these deals and agreements. Unfortunately, they seem to have gone into hibernation. Nevertheless, like the cliché that every cloud has a silver lining, what our negotiators, despite their efforts to highlight Indian goodwill ahead of the courageous initiative of Sheikh Hasina notwithstanding, have achieved a few positives. It has established in Bangladesh across the political divide about the economic benefits of good relations with India through connectivity. It has also established that India can have land transit and security guarantee only on a quid pro quo basis for its legitimate demands from India. The BNP has stated this categorically while the AL has learnt this truth the hard way.

The ball for improvement of Bangladesh-India relations is now in India’s court. Despite the domestic problems, the Congress led government did not make serious efforts to overcome these problems. It did not also properly explain to the Banagladesh government these problems and still continues to take cover under the cliché “soon.” Meantime, while there has been some progress on the border killings and Tippaimukh Dam where the Indians have accepted a joint study, there is depressing news that recently the Indians have decided to build two more dams in Meghalaya on cross boundary rivers without discussing with Bangladesh. The failure to move Sheikh Hasina’s initiative for a paradigm shift in relations thus rests squarely on India’s shoulder. In fact, on its failure to deliver to Bangladesh, India has been criticized in its own media and in the international as well that it cannot be trusted.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

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