July 25, 2013
By Shayan S. Khan & AKM Moinuddin
The Indian edition of Dutch media giant Endemol’s hit reality franchise series, Big Brother, is rather clumsily titled “Bigg Boss”. The necessity of keeping the spelling mistake isn’t quite clear. Perhaps they had allowed Bollywood legend Salman Khan, the show’s superstar host known for violent outbursts, spell it. In any case, the invocation of the boss figure is a regional tweak. It may owe a debt to the region’s politics, where the Indian state’s inclination to play the regional boss is quite apparent. To the detriment of all South Asia. The last four-and-a-half years have witnessed the most significant recalibration of relations between Bangladesh and India, since the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman put a halt to the Awami League’s ascendancy in newly independent Bangladesh. Always recognised as the keeper of the gate to Delhi from this part of the subcontinent, it wouldn’t be until the League would form another government in Dhaka more than two decades later that the two countries would pick up the conversation again. A water-sharing agreement was signed for the Ganges, so there was something to wave around at least. How the benefits from it have accrued though, is altogether more dubious. There’s a strong argument that Indian negotiators managed to gain more than their rightful, through clever diplomacy subscribing to the Realist school of international relations. For Sheikh Hasina in her first term, the signing of the treaty with a country that held special personal significance to her (having aided her father’s greatest triumph, and when he was killed, even shielded her and her sister) possibly overwhelmed any need for a rational perusal of its contents. Still, the sum of the effort expended upon relations with India during that term falls far short of what’s been thrown up since the current government took office in 2009. A slew of factors – some imagined, others quite real – heightened the sense of expectation. There can be no denying that the Indian economy is a quite different animal these days to the one just starting to reap the benefits of its post-1991 liberalising reforms. In 2008, with the West in the throes of a financial crisis, the Indian star was at its zenith, only outshone by China. You couldn’t fault any policymaker for looking to reap the advantages of being a neighbour such as Bangladesh. Surrounded as it is on three sides by the Indian behemoth, what is also true is that it separates the 7 north-eastern states in India’s federal system from the rest of the country. Ravaged by insurgency, the ‘7 Sisters’, as they are often known, remained dreadfully and in some cases defiantly untouched by the Indian growth story. No “Shining India” on display here. Policy wonks in Delhi though remained desperate to impart some reflection of the rapid growth in the rest of the country on Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Tripura, Mizoram, Nagaland and Meghalaya. And their best chance of this goes through Bangladesh, where additionally, many of the insurgents hid or chose to base themselves. As such, plenty of opportunities were potentially on offer, from the realm of security to economics. What received far too much attention though, was the overzealous assertion on the part of the Hasina government that her party’s nearly familial ties to the Congress (cast in stone, some were led to believe, by ties between the prime minister’s family and the Gandhis) would ensure a good deal for the country. One could censure them for such an assumption, if only it wasn’t so clear that those who pushed this line truly believed it as well. And so we can only pity their naivety. Because at every turn on every issue, the Indians over the last four-and-a-half years have driven a hard bargain. The period has seen three different foreign ministers at South Block, including a Bengali (Pranab Mukherjee, now president) and a Muslim (Salman Khurshid, the current one). Little has changed from one to the other. While securing much of their own interests, Bangladeshi demands under the demure leadership of Foreign Minister Dipu Moni have met almost inevitably with snags, cancellations, and outright dismissals. But you can tell from the official photographs and hear from the journalists who travelled with them, that every Bangladeshi delegation that has visited India during this period has thoroughly enjoyed itself. Sheikh Rehana (inexplicably a part of her sister’s entourage in 2010) will surely cherish forever the photo-op she had with Sonia Gandhi at the latter’s lawn. The parliamentary standing committee on water-related issues that went across in 2009 hardly had any regrets about having to forego a scheduled visit to the site of the proposed Tipaimukh Dam. The thrill of a day out in Ajmer instead quite easily made up for it. Right from the beginning, the very apparent awe in which the Bangladesh government held their Indian counterparts was worrying. A trend was set with the capture of some of the ULFA insurgents hiding here, under murky circumstances surrounding operations that may have been carried out or at least orchestrated by RAW, the Indian intelligence agency. Questions of Bangladesh’s sovereignty being violated did not arise. In summits between the two prime ministers, Dr Manmohan Singh managed to satisfy the Bangladesh side with mere assurances that India would take no steps on an issue that would “adversely impact Bangladesh”. What impacted Bangladesh and how, remained at his discretion. Titas was a river Whenever these points were raised however, by people like Asif Nazrul and Serajul Islam and in various editorials, the government advised patience. The prime minister’s advisor on foreign affairs, Dr Gowher Rizvi (head of the Ford Foundation in New Delhi, in a previous incarnation) admonished those who didn’t appreciate the complexity of the task in hand, given the point from which the two sides were starting this process of renewal. What the defenders of the reset with India failed to grasp was that much of the criticism that was also constructive (partisan elements did exist) recognised the inherent sense of the policy. What they objected to was the government’s approach in trying to achieve it. In short, an excessively deferential attitude was resulting in New Delhi rapidly sewing up even the nitty-gritty behind its own demands, while Bangladeshi aspirations floundered and held out for the long term. Nothing you could term visible or concrete was coming Bangladesh’s way, even as it kept playing its cards too soon. Meanwhile, apart from helping India make the sort of progress it could once only dream of in containing the insurgency in its northeast, Bangladesh even ended up sacrificing one of its most storied rivers. The Titas is a trans-boundary river in southeastern Bangladesh. It originates in the Indian state of Tripura where it is known as Haora. Flowing near Agartala, it enters Bangladesh at Brahmanbaria, then merges with the Meghna River to the south near Ashuganj. As part of an agreement on transit that allowed India the use of Ashuganj port, a road has recently been built over the Titas by dividing it. Though there was already one rail and road bridge over Titas, neither was deemed capable of carrying the weight of enormous Indian vehicles (weighing more than 350 ton) carrying power gears for the construction of a 750-megawatt power plant in Tripura. So the ODC company of India divided Titas to construct a road capable of sustaining the weight of the vehicles. Moreover the transhipment of power gears (from Ashugunj port to Palatana in Tripura) required changes in road alignment leading to land acquisition and displacement of people in the region. The Hindu has reported the public was brought onboard through promises of electricity from the plant being constructed across the border. Hence all the talk of 250 megawatts of electricity soon to be imported from the country. Some would term that a pittance in relation to the cost incurred. But even that is by no means a sure thing yet; the Indian side has recently been warming to the idea of rather exporting the promised 250 mW from West Bengal. The chief minister of Tripura though, has promised in good conscience to write against any such volte-face to Dr Singh in Delhi. Farewell waltz With less than six months left now before parliamentary elections, it’s a sign of the desperation within the ranks of the government that despite the record of disappointment, Sheikh Hasina and her party are forced once again to look towards India for some succour. On July 25, after Dhaka Courier had gone to press, Dipu Moni left for New Delhi to deliver a lecture at the Observer Research Foundation, one of the numerous think-tanks lining the Indian capital’s Institutional Area. It is widely speculated that during her trip, Dr Moni will look to lay the ground for a triumphant visit by Sheikh Hasina to end her term in office, possibly in September. At this point of time, Bangladesh is not left with too many cards up its sleeve. In fact there’s only one, and that happens to be the most sought-after of all the ULFA leaders – Anup Chetia, who has been languishing in a Bangladeshi jail past the end of his sentence. Rumours had it he may apply for asylum in Bangladesh. But home secretary-level talks conducted last week seem to have decided upon how this last hand will play out as well. Instead of holding out for Indian concessions or action on three outstanding issues of significant importance – a water-sharing agreement on the Teesta, that Mamata Banerjee had managed to foil at the last minute before Dr Singh’s visit to Dhaka in September 2011; ratification of a Land Boundary Agreement claimed as historic, but rendered meaningless by the failure of the Indian parliament to pass a constitutional amendment bill (necessitated by territorial swaps stipulated in the LBA); and finally, some way to stop the incessant killing of innocents along the 4000-km boundary shared by the two countries. The Indian Border Security Force’s “trigger happy” attitude has turned it into the world’s bloodiest border. If that isn’t unbecoming of two apparently friendly nations, nothing is. A recent report has linked the killings to the widespread smuggling of cattle that takes place all along it (a disproportionate number of those killed happen to be Bangladeshi cattle-traders). The report goes on to state the tension may be eased a bit through an end to India’s ban on exporting cows. Talking to Dhaka Courier, Professor Asif Nazrul of Dhaka University said “the biggest failure is not having the Teesta deal signed. It was Bangladesh’s minimum expectation.” For an Indian perspective, Dhaka Courier spoke to Dr Joyeeta Bhattacharja of the Observer Research Foundation. “From Bangladesh’s perspective, non-signing of the Teesta agreement and LBA is certainly disappointment. But it would be unfair to judge the whole relationship on the basis of the two agreements. There also have been some gains also, the most important being on the trade front- India allowing duty free access to all Bangladeshi products. Bangladesh should take advantage of this.” Dr Bhattacharja, who heads the Bangladesh desk at her institute, effectively acknowledged the Indian government at the centre’s failure to get Mamata Banerjee on board for the Teesta agreement when she said, without naming names, that “the most important obstacle in the development of the relationship has been the domestic politics of both the countries.” As is the Indian side’s wont however, despite legitimate cause for dismay on the part of Bangladeshis, they continue to insist that we focus on the little that has been gained and run with it. It’s a disposition that comes off as patronising and guilty at the same time. Hence, Dr Bhattacharja’s assertion that the relationship between the two countries “improved significantly” in the past few years, receiving a “major thrust” once the Awami League came to office in 2009. She sounds less convincing when trying to explain the approach India has adopted, which she says has been to “deal with the government, not with any political parties”. The crucial issue is whether a change of government in Bangladesh, as is likely in the next election, will mean a frittering away of whatever progress has been made on each issue. Will a prospective BNP-led coalition including Jamaat mean another period during which the relationship is put on the back-burner? “India will deal with the government of Bangladesh, whichever party is in power,” Dr Bhattacharja says. Professor Nazrul, who has faced criticism from the government for his outspoken views, flatly states there is “nothing to claim that the government has any achievement,” from its dealings with India. Terming Dipu Moni as one of the “failed” foreign ministers, he castigated her for not having “the honest courage to admit her failures.” This followed the foreign minister’s defence of her record earlier in the week at a press conference. Prof Nazrul said the foreign minister was trying to fool people with her words, but she would fail in that as well. Asked about the possible outcome of Dr Moni’s visit (July 25-July 27), Prof Nazrul opined that with an election approaching, they might discuss the outstanding issues (Teesta, LBA, others). “They might try again. But I don’t think there will be any outcome.” No concrete outcome, then we may say. It can serve as the final word on the entire effort surrounding the League’s flagship foreign policy concentration.
Source: Dhaka Courier