The Teesta runs through it

Sheikh Hasina addressed India’s security concerns with unambiguous firmness. Her visit is an opportunity to build on mutual trust.

Written by Deb Mukharji | Updated: April 8, 2017 12:43 am
India, Bangladesh, India-Bangladesh bilateral ties, India-Bangladesh relations, Teesta waters, Teesta river water sharing, Modi, Sheikh Hasina, Sheikh Hasina-India, india news, indian express Illustration by C R Sasikumar

Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, is visiting India. This is her first bilateral visit to India since 2010. Being committed to a state visit to Japan, the Bangladesh prime minister was unable to attend the inauguration of Narendra Modi in May 2014, when the heads of government of SAARC countries had been invited.

There has been a significant and cumulative change in India-Bangladesh relations, and mutual perceptions, over the past few years. The tone had been set in the joint statement at the conclusion of Hasina’s visit in January, 2010, which held out the vision of future partnership, overcoming past mutual concerns. The Framework for Development and Cooperation signed the following year during then-PM Manmohan Singh’s visit, though under the shadow of the Teesta imbroglio, laid out a charter of cooperation encompassing a large spectrum of activities. The spirit of these mutually reinforcing positive approaches was maintained during PM Modi’s visit in May, 2015, which also saw closure to the long awaited Land Boundary Agreement.

India is not a direct party to the issue of the Rohingyas of Myanmar, who continue to flee to Bangladesh, which now hosts over 1,00,000 in camps. Despite some international assistance, the Rohingyas pose a serious economic problem for Bangladesh. Perhaps more important is the alleged involvement of Saudi-linked organisations in nurturing Islamic fundamentalist groups among the uprooted refugees. This provides an explosive cocktail which would be a nightmare for any nation, most so for Bangladesh, battling its own homegrown as well as IS-inspired
terrorist groups.

The visit may provide the occasion for an exchange of views on how the issue may be handled and whether India has a role in advising the friendly government of Myanmar to ensure that the flow of refugees is stemmed. Tangentially, India itself is involved as some Rohingyas have sought shelter in India.

With a great display of zeal, China has been seen to be active in India’s periphery in promoting One Belt One Road and bilateral relations. They have received some setbacks in Myanmar and Sri Lanka in bilateral relations, but will surely pursue their objectives. Pakistan continues to be a willing accessory to Chinese desires to curb and contain India. Nepal had appeared to be moving sensibly towards positive relations with both her giant neighbours, until the ultra-nationalist K.P. Oli made it an either/or choice, which has done no good to Sino-Nepal relations as his successor’s recently concluded visit to China demonstrated. China has had a stable relationship with Bangladesh and is a major provider of defence hardware. A slew of agreements were signed during President Xi’s recent visit to Dhaka, including for the provision of substantial loans and grants. While carefully observing the developing relations between Dhaka and Beijing, India should avoid a Pavlovian reaction.

Since assuming the reins of government in 2009, the Awami League has tried to ensure that anti-India activities are not carried out from Bangladesh’s soil. This would not have been an easy task as elements within the establishment had been ingrained by previous administrations to promote such activities. There were, of course, areas of congruence. The Jamaat-inspired, Pakistan-supported terrorist elements had in their sights both India and the Awami League.

The Awami League government’s continuing effort to deal with terrorists has not deflected it from trying to bring to a close the consequences of the crimes committed in 1971. In this respect, Sheikh Hasina has kept the promise she had made to the electorate. But for this, she has had to face strong western criticism. The ludicrous argument has been advanced that incidents of terrorism in Bangladesh have been encouraged by the War Crimes Trial. As a noted Indian journalist recently commented, “Far, far away from the streets of Gulshan, where terrorists killed over 20 innocent people on July 1, their nominal patrons are using slick US and British lobbyists to discredit Hasina’s efforts to battle radicalism and punish perpetrators of war crimes committed during the 1971 struggle for independence from Pakistan”.

Though the Jamaat remains the fountainhead of all terrorist outfits in Bangladesh, the frenetic efforts of their lobbyists abroad, including elements of the US government influenced by their Pakistani friends, have been desperate to provide cover and legitimacy to it and prevent Bangladesh from stabilising as a liberal, secular, progressive democracy. This was true of the US state department notably under John Kerry and intelligence regimes in recent years; it remains to be seen if Donald Trump makes a difference.

Indo-Bangladesh relations presently reflect both maturity and political will. Yes, much more requires to be done to take our relationship forward. But we also have to see the present in the context of the past: Only a decade ago, the current scenario of a cooperative framework of the relationship would have seemed impossible. Since then, the long-festering maritime boundary issue has been resolved; the international award favouring Bangladesh accepted gracefully by India. The seemingly ever-lasting land boundary question is behind us. Few note that the apprehensions of large-scale communal movements of peoples simply did not come true; people decided to remain with their land, albeit with a different nationality.

Meanwhile, communications have improved dramatically as also trade and investment. The supply of electricity from India is making a difference to the lives of people in Bangladesh. Above all, Bangladesh has ceased to be a sanctuary for elements inimical to the Indian state.

A signal lacuna has been India’s inability to deliver on the sharing of Teesta waters. It is possible that even without an agreement, Bangladesh may be receiving about the same quantity as was envisaged in the discussions. The issue, however, is as much about the quantum of water as Bangladesh’s right to receive it. Not least, a demonstration of India abiding by its commitments. The present chief minister of Bengal may wish to recall that her distinguished predecessor, Jyoti Basu, played a signal role in the resolution of the Farakka Barrage issue two decades ago and earned encomiums from both India and Bangladesh.

In a recent public speech Sheikh Hasina recalled that prior to the general elections in Bangladesh in October, 2001, Indian intelligence officials in Dhaka had collaborated with their counterparts in the American embassy in discussing with Tareque Rehman (son of Begum Khaleda Zia, now in self-exile in London) how the Awami League could be defeated. Leaving aside the possibility of such discussions affecting the election results, such a charge coming from a friendly head of government has to be taken seriously. If true, it reflects sadly on Indian intelligence — considering the consistently and virulently hostile attitude towards India of the BNP government that followed.

Amends would have been made following the 2014 elections in which the BNP had chosen not to participate and India had reached out vigorously to foreign capitals to ensure that US-inspired pressures for the annulment of the elections did not succeed.

Sheikh Hasina has been a friend of India and has addressed India’s critical security concerns with unambiguous firmness. While cognisant of her internal political compulsions, and always mindful of Bangladesh’s national interests, she has welcomed the fostering of close economic relations with India. Her state visit provides an opportunity for both sides to assess the progress made on the many agreements reached in earlier years, as also provide guidelines for the future.

Beyond the defence MoU and credits and grants for commerce, and other routine ventures, what is essential is the underlining of shared trust and commitment to preserving mutual interests.

The writer was Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh from 1995-2000

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