Saturday, May 3, 2014

Teesta: Strange Flow and Ebb and Bangladesh-India relations under BJP

Posted: 03 May, 2014
Teesta: Strange flow and ebbM. Serajul Islam

 Teesta: Strange flow and ebb

The nation witnessed, during the official visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka in September 2011, a drama concerning the Teesta River upon which millions in Bangladesh depend for their lives and livelihoods. The Awami League-led government was assured by India that it would sign the Teesta Water Sharing Treaty during that visit. That agreement would have given Bangladesh a 50 per cent share of the Teesta flow in the dry season at Gazaldoba on the Indian side, after 20 per cent was reserved for the river's navigation.

That agreement was not signed. New Delhi withdrew the Teesta deal literally at the 11th hour for its failure to complete "internal discussions" with the Paschimbanga government. Sources close to the Indian side stated unofficially that the deal got stuck because Mamata Banarjee had objected to it and as water was a provincial subject, the centre's hands were tied. For the next three years, New Delhi failed to complete the "internal discussions" but kept promising Dhaka that the deal would be signed "soon'. In return, New Delhi received from Dhaka major concessions, most notably on its critical security needs. New Delhi also got from Dhaka land transit on a trial basis and with that concession, built the 700MW Palatana gas-fired power station in Tripura that caused great damage to Bangladesh's roads as heavy equipment were carried over it.

New Delhi's promise to deliver the Teesta deal was never soon enough. In February this year, the Indian Prime Minister personally regretted to the Bangladesh Prime Minister his country's inability to give Bangladesh the Teesta deal until a new government assumed power in New Delhi. Meanwhile, without a water-sharing agreement, water flow in the dry season in the Teesta in Bangladesh came down to a trickle. As a result, millions in the Teesta catchment area have been condemned to desperation; some have already lost their livelihoods and become beggars. Farmers are close to giving up farming because of lack of Teesta water and unable to extract water from underground source, as it is too costly.

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) organised a 'long march' on April 23-24 to attract people's attention to the failure of the government in getting legitimate share of Teesta waters. The march attracted national attention that the BNP expected and the media focused it as a major political issue. All on a sudden, a miracle happened with the flow of the Teesta on the Bangladesh side a day before the march was due to reach the Teesta Barrage at Dalia Point. People in the catchment area woke up that morning to find that the river, which had been gasping for life with a flow of 300 cusecs, had suddenly become alive and vibrant with a flow of 3000 cusecs!

The sudden flow in the Teesta was a repeat of another drama like the one people of Bangladesh witnessed in September 2011 but only in reverse. The BNP was taken by surprise by the sudden flow. It needed a dry Teesta to draw national and international attention to the adverse effect of the lack of water in the river. It also needed a dry Teesta to hold India responsible for the desperation of the people and for the environmental damage. The major political intention of the long march for the BNP was, however, to put blame on the Awami League-led government for its failure in negotiating a deal on the Teesta with India and instead wasting its precious security and land transit negotiating cards.

The BNP was quick to claim that its long march was the reason why New Delhi decided to send more water flowing. That claim led the Awami League (AL) to claim that the water flowed because of its successful diplomatic negotiations with New Delhi. The minister for communications, who speaks in the media all the time that neither helps his image nor the interests of the government, had it right when he said that both the BNP and the AL made claims that were not true. The people believed his statement. There was no reason for New Delhi to feel any pressure from the BNP's march and release more water. There was no reason either for New Delhi to feel Dhaka's ability at diplomatic negotiations to be so brilliant so suddenly to encourage it to release the water.

Further, before the AL made its claim, there was no news at all that Dhaka and New Delhi were in diplomatic negotiations over the Teesta. In fact, after the Indian Prime Minister had advised Dhaka to discuss the future of the pending Teesta deal with the new government in New Delhi, the government leaders, including the foreign minister, had stated in the media that they would act as advised. The AL-led government's claim of successful negotiations for the sudden increased flow therefore contradicted what its leaders had stated publicly about Teesta negotiations before the flow. The claim landed the AL into an even worse predicament when another drama occurred with the Teesta - this time similar to the one in September 2011. The flow of the Teesta ebbed as suddenly as it flowed! As the smiles of the people in the catchment area vanished with the receding water, so did the AL's claim that its diplomatic skills had resulted in the dramatic flow. The AL-led government, as the cliché goes, was caught with its pants down when the water vanished from the Teesta!

Therefore, in between the claim and the counter-claim, it was the AL that ended embarrassing itself. The BNP would have faced serious political problem if New Delhi had not stopped the flow as suddenly as it had started it. If the flow had continued, the people would have trashed BNP's claim against New Delhi and the AL-led government and rejoiced in the flow instead. They would have also set aside the obvious contradictions in the AL's claim and would have instead given credit to it even if no credit were due. New Delhi would have overcome some of negative perception about it among the people of Bangladesh that has hit a nadir for its role in the country's January 05t elections. Instead, New Delhi not only strengthened that perception, it also left a very poor perception of its ability to conduct its diplomacy.

Clearly, there was no discussion between New Delhi and Dhaka over how to handle the BNP's long march. New Delhi was aware that its failure to deliver to the AL-led government the Teesta deal was a serious breach of trust and that too after Dhaka went out of its way to help it on its crucial national interests at great political risks. Therefore, it had decided to release the water unilaterally to take the wind off the sail of BNP's long march. When the BNP claimed that the flow was the success of its March, New Delhi again unilaterally decided to stop the flow to counteract the BNP's claim. Only, it failed to comprehend that by doing so, it destroyed the AL's claim of diplomatic success! New Delhi by the ease with which it allowed the flow and ebb of the Teesta also undermined its earlier claim that in the matter of river water, provinces had over-riding powers over the centre. It also undermined arguments it had earlier made to Dhaka that releasing Teesta water to Bangladesh Teesta was a complicated technical matter.

In retrospect, New Delhi strengthened a view now widely held in Bangladesh after the January 05 elections, that it saw India's relations with Bangladesh as not with the country but with the Awami League. Just as its foreign secretary had pleaded with HM Ershad to help the AL against the BNP before the January 05 elections to help it return to power, it tried to do the same with the Teesta drama. Unfortunately, it did a very poor job in trying to help the AL and instead burdened the AL further with the pro-India tag without giving it anything to show to the people for its pro-Indian stance, leaving many to conclude that in the strange drama with the flow and ebb, India left a very poor show of its diplomatic skills.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador.

The BJP rhetoric and future of Bangladesh-India relationsPost Editorial
Saturday, 03 May 2014
Author / Source: M. Serajul Islam

With the last leg of the Indian elections going on, it is very likely that the Congress led United Progressive Alliance  (UPA) is on its way out and the BJP is on way to form the next government in New Delhi. The BJP’s fortunes are shining bright. One credible national poll gave it 275 seats with the Congress likely to get 90 seats that would give the BJP the luxury to form a government without allies if it wanted.  Narendra Modi would most likely become the 15th Prime Minister of India in a BJP/NDA government.

In the Indian elections, Pakistan dominates as a major political issue. In the present elections, Bangladesh has become, if not a competitor to Pakistan, one on which the BJP is attaching significant importance to get votes particularly in provinces bordering Bangladesh.  Narendra Modi himself has used Bangladesh to give impetus to BJP’s blatantly Hindu fundamentalist agenda. The BJP has also mentioned Bangladesh in its election manifesto in a way that would mean if it were to implement that promise, a serious conflict would engulf any hope of the type of relations that Bangladesh would need with India that holds the power to slow poison the country with, among a host of important issues, its control of the waters of 54 of the 56 rivers that are literally the arteries that are keeping this country’s heart pumping.

One of the issues upon which the BJP is cashing on its Hindu fundamentalist agenda by using Bangladesh is the one related to the alleged 20 million illegal Bangladeshis in India. In his most recent election speech, Narendra Modi has asked these alleged Bangladeshis to get ready with their “pillows and beddings” to be “pushed back” to Bangladesh as soon as he leads the BJP to power. In his speeches in Assam and other areas bordering Bangladesh, he has blamed Bangladesh and alleged infiltration from Bangladesh for many of their misfortunes. BJP leader Dr. Subhramanium Swamy has asked for 1/3 of Bangladesh as compensation for the alleged Bangladeshis in India.

The BJP leaders have also stated in their election campaigns that BJP Government would complete the small part of the barbed wire fencing on the India-Bangladesh border as a priority so as to stop any future alleged infiltration. So far, the BJP leaders have used Bangladesh for bashing and have uttered nothing that would suggest a BJP government led by Narendra Modi would be interested in building any meaningful relations with Bangladesh, except to force it into subservience. The way the anti-Bangladesh pitch is picking up traction among voters in the border areas and places where these alleged Bangladesh are reported to be residing in India, it may be difficult for Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister to treat   these blatantly anti-Bangladesh speeches as merely rhetoric more so because these rhetoric have been written in the BJP’s election manifesto.

Therefore, there are reasons for Bangladesh to be alarmed with the anti-Bangladesh speeches of the BJP and Narendra Modi’s latest warning to alleged Bangladeshis. Unfortunately, the Awami League and the BNP who have the responsibility to articulate the concerns of Bangladesh have looked at the dark and ominous cloud emanating from the BJP camp through their respective prisms. The Awami League has not even acknowledged these dangers. In fact, the Bangladesh Foreign Minister has said that the AL led government is already in discussion with the BJP leadership and has been given assurance that New Delhi’s relations with Bangladesh would be the same as under the Congress led government. On a major talk show, an Adviser brushed aside these concerns stating that he has not followed what has come out in the Indian media regarding Bangladesh!

The BNP has also failed to articulate the dangers brewing up for Bangladesh from the BJP camp. The BNP is hoping that a Narendra Modi led BJP Government would bring about a major change for its own political objectives by declining to give the AL led government the type of support the Congress gave in complete disregard to the traditions of Indian democracy and policy of conducting foreign relations, particularly with its neighbours, on principles of good-neighborliness. BNP is hoping the BJP Government would come back to conducting relations with Bangladesh with the country and not with just a particular political party. Therefore, the BNP has been cautious and has so far not taken any stand on the BJP rhetoric in order not to push it to support the AL led government the way the Congress led government did.

Therefore, Bangladesh is an unbelievable position because of the strange dynamics of its domestic politics with both the AL led government and the BNP wanting to be friendly to a party as blatantly anti-Bangladesh as the BJP. Nevertheless, at a time when history has come into the public domain in Bangladesh with no holds barred, the developments in India are raising questions in the public mind about India’s role in Bangladesh’s liberation war in 1971.People are starting to think and think seriously whether in 1971 India really wanted to help the people of Bangladesh to create an independent and sovereign state that would be guided by the principles of democracy, nationalism and secularism or to break and weaken Pakistan so that on its eastern border it would have a country that it would be able to control in every way it wanted.

The ball is in the AL’s court to articulate Bangladesh’s concerns were the BJP to form the government. It is already carrying the pro-India baggage even after it was let down very badly by the Congress government. It was the BJP and the Trinamool that is likely to become a force in New Delhi after the elections that had together forced the Congress led government to betray Bangladesh with both the Teesta and the LBA deals to appease their supporters. Therefore, the new BJP government would not in all likelihood offer these deals to Bangladesh upon assuming power. Hence the AL led government would commit political suicide if it were to be friendly with New Delhi under a BJP government without taking a tough stand on the issue of alleged Bangladeshis and at the same time demand the Teesta and LBA deals. Its dependence on New Delhi to remain in power however does make it likely that it would not want to upset the new government in New Delhi.

Bangladesh is therefore moving to a historical cross road with relations with India led by the BJP government. The two mainstream parties that should be uniting or fighting separately to get from India the LBA and Teesta deals and its other interests are instead seen appeasing the BJP even when it is raising the new and absurd  “push back”/1/3 Bangladesh issues. The AL and the BNP could be pushing Bangladesh towards a nationalist movement with India as the enemy. Already, civil society groups/academia who are digging into 1905 Partition of Bengal and 1947 Partition of India are coming out with facts that show how Bangladesh was a victim in losing large territories that should legitimately have been its but now parts of India. In fact, such historical facts if articulated effectively by Bangladesh as a nation would not just show how ridiculous and absurd was Dr. Swamy’s claim but put the BJP on the defensive on the claim of 1/3 of Bangladeshi’s territory.

One hopes that the BJP’s anti-Bangladesh statements would turn out to be just rhetoric and that the BJP government would understand that Bangladesh-India conflict would not be in India’s interests. In India, Narendra Modi has lately come under pressure on many issues and some related to his character. Perhaps there is hope that sense would prevail upon the BJP to discard the controversial and rabidly anti-Muslim, anti-Bangladesh Narendra Modi. Mamata Banarjee whose Trinamool could be very important for BJP to form government has only recently called Narendra Modi “the Butcher of Gujarat”! For Bangladesh however national unity is the only way to deal with new threats under the BJP that seem likely. Therefore, the immediate future of Bangladesh’s relations with a BJP led government in India should not raise optimism in any quarter.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador. His email id is

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