Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s recent visit to India (October 3-6) produced some tangible outcomes including a clutch of agreements and Memorandum of Understanding which have had the cumulative effect of cementing the new trajectory relations between the two countries has taken in the last decade.
However, there has been disappointment in Bangladesh that the issue of Teesta river water-sharing issue remains intractable. Not that it was expected to be resolved during Hasina’s latest visit to Delhi and this was clear from the fact that West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who has opposed the Teesta deal for more than eleven years, was to be absent in the Indian capital during the visit. She was present during Hasina’s previous visit to Delhi in April, 2017, appeared in a joint media appearance with Hasina and Indian PM Narendra Modi at the Hyderabad House and had a separate meeting with the Bangladesh PM. Obviously, there was no change in Mamata’s stand on Teesta. The main obstacle in solving the Teesta issue is structural—the federal character of India’s governance under which water is on the concurrent list of the Constitution which it makes it mandatory for the Indian government to take the concerned state government on board for deciding the issue of sharing of a common trans-border river.
The continued stalemate on Teesta has given rise to a perception in Bangladesh that India might fail the Hasina government on such an emotive issue. After all, Hasina has ever since returning to power in 2009 and being re-elected twice since then has broken a long-held view that India-Bangladesh relations are prone to fits and starts. One of the most important achievements of Hasina’s foreign policy in the last ten years is that Delhi-Dhaka ties have followed not only a linear path but a consistently upward curve encompassing a much wider agenda of cooperation.
Hasina has also ensured that bilateral relations do not get bogged down by non-resolution of one or two key issues like Teesta, howsoever big they are for Bangladesh. Since Mamata opted out of a visit to Dhaka in September 2011 and refused to sign the Teesta deal, the two countries have resolved their land and maritime boundaries without any fuss, showing they are ready to move ahead despite some remaining hiccups. The solving of land and maritime boundaries bring out that even long-festering rough edges in ties can be smoothened out if there is mutual trust and a willingness to engage on equal terms. One hopes it is the same spirit that will bring about a solution to the Teesta issue at the earliest.
Teesta apart, certain quarters in Bangladesh have criticized Hasina’s visit on three counts: (1) the deal on India’s withdrawal of 1.82 cusec of Feni river water for a drinking water scheme in Tripura’s small Sabroom town (with a population of about 6,000 people) whose ground water is unfit for human consumption (2) sale of liquified petroleum gas to India and (3) allowing India to use Chattogram and Mongla ports. Sadly, a section of the media in Bangladesh had even reported that India was being given natural gas from, conveniently forgetting that what would be sold to India is bottled LPG Bangladesh imports. LPG supply to and use of the two ports by India are purely commercial deals that would fetch revenue for Bangladesh. So, the criticism of the Hasina government or India (as reflected in many Facebook comments by Bangladeshis that “India sudhu nitey jaaney ditey jaaneynaa”) is entirely misplaced.
The deal on allowing India to withdraw water from Feni river envisages a small volume. But it is high on symbolism for Bangladesh as a lower riparian country. Hasina has shown a heart for humanitarian concern for drinking water for Sabroom. It was the second time when Hasina government showed such regard for humanitarian consideration, after allowing use of Bangladesh territory for transportation of essential goods from mainland India to Tripura which was cut off by road from the rest of India due to heavy mudslides some years ago. The Feni deal also juxtaposes with India’s inability to deliver for whatever reasons on the Teesta issue and underscores why New Delhi should address Bangladesh’s concerns on it which found reflected in the joint statement issued after Hasina’s talks with Modi on October 5.
There are two other reasons why Hasina should be commended for doing in New Delhi. First, she showed remarkable diplomatic skill in flagging in a spirit of jest the issue of difficulties the people of Bangladesh found after India’s sudden ban on export of onion to contain its soaring price in domestic market. Secondly, addressing the India Economic Summit in New Delhi, Hasina has said that pluralism is a strong point of South Asian region and countries in the area should move beyond “majority-minority mindset” to uphold diversity which has been a hallmark South Asian countries for centuries. It was difficult to miss the import of Hasina’s majority-minority remark in the context of her talks with Modi in the backdrop of the contentious National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam which has brought to fore religious, ethnic and linguistic fault lines in the state.
There is no doubt growing concern in Bangladesh over the NRC and the proposed Citizens Amendment Bill (CAB) to give Indian citizenship to religious minorities from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to two key advisers of Hasina, the NRC and the CAB could chip away at the moderate character of Muslm-majority Bangladesh.
The advisers said people in Bangladesh were worried about the matter, especially in light of remarks by BJP leaders about deporting all “foreigners” who are left out of the NRC. They are of the view that the issue could give a boost to hard-line elements in Bangladesh whose activities had been successfully checked by the Hasina government. Public remarks by BJP leaders about allowing in Hindu refugees could encourage “land sharks” in Bangladesh to force Hindus out of the country in order to take over their lands.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a
journalist based in India