September 20, 2013
M. Serajul Islam
The Congress-led government’s efforts to deliver the land boundary agreement (LBA) to Bangladesh failed when it gave up its attempt to raise the ratification bill on the last day of its monsoon session of the Indian parliament amidst opposition from two members of Trinamool and Asom Gana Parishad. The next session of Indian parliament will be in December when Bangladesh would be going for elections. Thus India’s chances of delivering the LBA to the AL-led government during its present term are over. The Teesta deal had earlier met the same fate over Mamata Banarjee’s unrelenting intransigence. Although New Delhi has ordered retrial of the Felani murder after outrage in Bangladesh over the first trial, the damage over it in the context of Bangladesh-India relations has already been done when the special tribunal had handed the not guilty verdict.
New Delhi’s failures for which the AL led government had taken great political risks would undoubtedly be a major factor in Bangladesh’s elections. In fact, New Delhi has been fully aware of this in recent times as the AL-led government became stuck with major issues of governance. It did not want to add to the AL’s burden by embarrassing Shekih Hasina for being too overtly pro-Indian with India betraying her. New Delhi thus went out of the way to convince the BJP/ Trinamool/Asom Gana Parishad to back its efforts to ratify the LBA and Trinamool by withdrawing its objection on the Teesta deal. New Delhi decided in favour of trial for the Felani murder after remaining silent for nearly 3 years because it realized in recent months that it needed to help the AL to come out of the political corner.
Unfortunately, New Delhi’s realization came too late. A lot has been written and said about how Bangladesh’s negotiators played away Bangladesh’s invaluable security and land transit cards to India without seeking reciprocity from them on its concerns on issues of water sharing, land boundary demarcation, trade, killing of innocent Bangladeshis on the Bangladesh-India border by the BSF, etc. All said and written on the naïve way the Bangladesh team negotiated were true. They behaved as if they were representing New Delhi, not Dhaka. Many wonder why AL leaders should lose their temper when critics cautioned them about New Delhi’s intentions.
The composition of the negotiating team to deal with India was also wrong. In dealing with India, Bangladesh needed a team with the best professional competence the country could offer under well-defined leadership. Many felt that the PM herself should have provided that leadership, having proved her leadership qualities in dealing with India in her first term when she had achieved the Ganges Water Sharing and the Chittagong Hill Tracts Agreements. Instead, the team was disorganized nobody knowing who was leading. To compound the confusion, at times every minister thought it was his/her responsibility to deal with India.
It was therefore no surprise that Sheikh Hasina’s vision for a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations for which she unilaterally took courageous steps of providing India with total security assurance and grant of land transit on trial basis was squandered. Also squandered was the benefit that Bangladesh should have received from New Delhi for handing 7 top ULFA insurgents that helped New Delhi break the back of the many decades old ULFA insurgency. After literally gifting away the 7 ULFA leaders, Bangladesh is now holding on to Anup Chetia hoping to force New Delhi for concessions that only underlines the humungous mess that Dhaka made. Anup Chetia is a mid level ULFA leader while the 7 Bangladesh gifted were top ULFA leaders.
The Bangladesh negotiators realized their mistake in blindly believing New Delhi while committing Bangladesh’s only playing cards without ensuring reciprocity during Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Dhaka in September 2011. The Indians withdrew the Teesta deal when Dhaka was ready to celebrate it as a major victory of its foreign policy initiatives with India. Although the additional protocol to the 1974 LBA was signed on that visit and was publicized by the two sides as a major achievement, it got stuck in the ratification process soon afterwards as the BJP and Trinamool refused to lend the numbers in Parliament for he 2/3rd majority needed. The twin failures thereafter stranded what promised to be the best times in Bangladesh-India relations.
New Delhi, nevertheless continued to lighten Bangladesh’s concerns by repeated promises that the deals would be delivered anytime no doubt to keep Bangladesh happy for continued security support that it needed very badly. It will remain a mystery why the Bangladesh negotiators continued to believe these empty promises when it became obvious that New Delhi was not making them seriously. Nevertheless, while the Bangladesh negotiators could be faulted for lack of their professional competence but they failed more because India did not negotiate in good faith. Take for instance the Teesta Water Sharing Agreement. New Delhi was aware of three things regarding the Teesta deal during the negotiations. First, the agreement would need West Bengal’s concurrence as per the Indian Constitution. Second, New Delhi was having serious problems with Mamata Banarjee. Finally, Mamata was facing election from the constituency through which the Teesta flows to Bangladesh where the constituents were not favourably disposed towards Bangladesh.
Delhi misguided Dhaka
The position on ratification of the LBA was also similar. New Delhi knew when it signed the additional protocol that the BJP and Trinamool would not back it with the numbers for ratification. The BJP’s position against the LBA was well articulated and was available on its website clearly and unequivocally. Yet Prime Minister Manmohon Singh said categorically in Dhaka that he would be able to deliver the LBA to Bangladesh upon his return to India from his official visit to Bangladesh. The way the Bangladesh side was taken off guard when the Teesta deal was withdrawn from the table during the Indian Prime Minister’s visit left no one in doubt that Dhaka did not have even the faintest idea of what was happening and that New Delhi had alerted it in any way.
In fact such was Dhaka’s blind faith in New Delhi that while the Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai had told reporters that the Teesta Deal off the table in the afternoon of the day before the visit of the Indian Prime Minister, Foreign Minister Dipu Moni insisted few hours after Mathai’s statement that the Teesta Deal would be signed the next day. Dhaka exposed its disappointment by an unusual undiplomatic gesture. While the Indian Prime Minister had landed in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s Foreign Secretary called the Indian High Commissioner to the Foreign Ministry and informed him that Dhaka was withdrawing the exchange letters from the table that would have given India land transit on a permanent basis.
The Indians showed bad faith also on the issue of the border killings. While Bangladeshis continued to be killed regularly by the BSF that was causing bipartisan anti-Indian feelings to rise, New Delhi went into denial over it. The Felani case was the ultimate example of the Indian denial where it failed to react to Bangladesh’s concerns while knowing that the BSF was caught committing a crime that had barbarity written all over it. New Delhi took the inexplicable and unreasonable stand that the Bangladeshis killed were not their responsibility because they were killed in a place where they were not supposed to be. They refused to take note of the fact that most of these Bangladeshis killed were shot from the back while running away and could have easily been arrested.
Bad faith, bad taste
New Delhi’s promises to Dhaka since Manmohon Singh’s visit to Dhaka were made when it knew that the chances of delivering those promises were becoming less and less. The marriage and photo session description to the LBA by the Indian Foreign Minister was the ultimate proof of bad faith by New Delhi one that also had a spattering of bad taste. It was therefore unbelievable that the Prime Minister’s Adviser would give a spin to that weird description to legitimize New Delhi’s sincerity! When two members representing Trinamool Congress and Asom Gana Parishad raised their voices against the LBA on the final day of the Indian Parliament’s monsoon session, the Foreign Minister did not even make a feeble attempt to speak out for the ratification bill! He had conveniently forgotten that Dhaka was desperately waiting for the photo session of the LBA marriage deal to happen!
Thus while it would be undoubtedly correct to assume that Sheikh Hasina’s vision for a paradigm shift failed because of lack of diplomatic/professional skills of the team to which she had entrusted responsibility, New Delhi’s lack of sincerity in the negotiating process was equally, if not more, the reason for what happened in Bangladesh-India relations in the last five years. The Bangladesh negotiators may not have said so for reasons they alone can explain but prominent Indians have. Editor of Indian Express Sekhar Gupta; and four former Indian High Commissioners – Muchkund Dubey, Dev Mukherjee, Veena Sikri and Rajeen Mitter – and many others in India have blamed New Delhi for frustrating Sheikh Hasina’s vision for a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations for which they have sympathized with her for her current political troubles over it.
In fact, a recent IBM/CNN/The Hindu poll has named Bangladesh, as the nation Indians trusted most. Analysts said that Bangladesh was placed there because Indians were unhappy with New Delhi for letting Dhaka down when the latter had provided India what it needed most from Bangladesh, namely security assurance and land transit.
The writer is a retired career Ambassador