by Sadeq Khan
On the eve of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Bangladesh, Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar addressed a press conference and termed the trip as historic. He said, the centre piece of this visit is conclusion of land boundary agreement with Bangladesh: “With the settlement of the land boundary, there was earlier a settlement of our maritime boundary, we actually have completely settled our boundary with Bangladesh.
“There are two concepts at play in this visit. At one level, it is once again an affirmation of our neighbourhood first policy, but is also a part of our Act East policy. The conse-quences, the possibilities of cooperation that would be opened up as a result of these developments really have a very profound impact on our North-East and our policies further east.”
The taming of the opposition
The 36-hour visit went ahead with pompons festivity. The Bangladesh media, political elite and civil society wizards were in awe-struck attendance. But beneath the surface, visitors who went about could feel an undercurrent of public unease. Modi did not forget to seal on his Dhaka visit the stamp of Hindutwa revival in India by a morning prayer at Dhakeshwari Temple and a visit to the Ramkrishna Mission. On the other side of the coin, a murmur of protest was also organised by a group of demonstrators on a road near Dhaka’s National Press Club on June 6 afternoon, hours after the arrival of Modi who is still blamed for inappropriate conduct as State Chief Minister during the 2002 Gujrat riots killing thousands of Muslims killed. Police detained four including a woman while protesters were trying to gather, and cleared the road.
And to quote the Economist of London, while the “most starting feature of Mr Modi’s weekend visit was the tame conduct of Bangladesh’s political opposition,” ordinary Bangladeshis did not mince their words to express their deep distrust of India’s involvement in power games in Bangladesh, cultural invasions, border killings, and beggaring Bangladesh by deprivation of flows in common rivers. The Economist further noted about the political climate: “Most of the BNP’s leaders are in exile or in jail, and those who are not, like Mrs Zia, are being processed through the courts on various charges. Most leaders of its main electoral ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami, are facing life imprisonment or the prospect of death by hanging, for crimes in Bangladesh’s war of secession from Pakistan in 1971 (yet even the Jamaat found the grace to welcome Mr Modi’s visit). Out of power since 2006, now out of ideas and running out of manpower, the BNP has never looked weaker. Mrs Zia is likely to have told Mr Modi what he already knows: ultimately Bangladesh needs to return to a parliamentary system where all political parties can have confidence in the integrity of an election. The legitimacy of Sheikh Hasina’s rule rests on a flawed 2014 poll in which many of the opposition’s leaders were locked away and most parliamentary seats were uncontested. But the day for shoring up that legitimacy may be a long way off.
Modi’s silence on ‘democracy’
“Mr Modi’s visit emphasises the fact that under his stewardship India’s relations with its neighbours are no longer to be left in the hands of self-absorbed (India’s) bureaucrats, spooks and the states’ chief ministers. Their tendency has been to treat Bangladesh as nothing more than a risk to India’s security. Many papers were signed during Mr Modi’s visit this weekend to demonstrate the arrival of a new era. It was striking that most of the 20-odd bilateral deals were about things that normal neighbours would not make much fuss about.
“Yet politicians and the media on both sides of the border managed to convince themselves that the new era is under way. The question is whether facts on the ground will interfere. Anti-Indian sentiment in Bangladesh remains strong…. Once celebrated for having played midwife to the birth of an independent Bangladesh, India has since come to be regarded as an overbearing and even wicked stepmother.”
Daily News and Analysis of India (www.dnaindia.com) noted how Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Bangladesh has evoked a positive response across the country’s political spectrum: “It does not always happen that a major opposition leader tells a visiting Prime Minister of a big neighbouring country about the absence of democracy in her own country. But that is exactly what the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leader and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia told Prime Minister Narendra Modi during her meeting with him. This surely is an indication of the trust Modi seems to have evoked in the political class of Bangladesh, …. attributed to his success in pushing through the India-Bangladesh Land Boundary settlement in Parliament. Even the right-wing Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami welcomed Modi’s visit and the historic land agreement. Ironically, its only disappointment was Modi’s silence on the lack of democracy in Bangladesh.”
Deals done were noted
A Xinhua news analysis said: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrapped up his two-day maiden state visit to Dhaka leaving behind “thirsty Bangladesh”. The News Analysis noted how Delhi a few days before Modi’s visit made it clear that the Teesta issue would not be tabled for discussion during the visit and how, in a diplomatic flip-flop, Delhi in September 2011 also scrapped the draft of the proposed deal on sharing of the waters of the common river Teesta, a day ahead of the then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Bangladesh.
At the joint press briefing with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina after their talks, Prime Minister Modi enumerated the following as highlights of his hectic official programme: “We launched two bus services that will connect our citizens more easily and our two nations more closely. We were privileged to have with us the Chief of Minister of West Bengal; as our economies get more integrated and our people better connected, our nations will become more prosperous. It will also open new economic doors for India’s Northeast. And, it will enable our two countries to integrate South Asia and connect it with the dynamic East.
“Our two nations have a settled boundary. Our Parliament’s approval of Land Boundary Agreement reflects the consensus in India on relations with Bangladesh. We accepted the settlement of the maritime boundary last year.
“We have renewed existing trade and transport agreements. We have added new dimensions to our economic ties. The coastal shipping agreement will boost bilateral trade. The Indian Economic Zone will promote Indian investments in Bangladesh.
“I am conscious of the huge trade imbalance, despite duty free and quota free access to Bangladesh in India on all but 25 items. …. I will also try to make trade smoother and easier, including at the border. The agreement on standards and testing is a step in that direction. Power supply from India to Bangladesh will grow from 500 MW to 1100 MW within two years. The 1320 MW Rampal power project is making progress in accordance with your laws and regulation.
Hopes expressed to solve all
“Bangladesh’s decision to allow transit of power equipment and food-grain to the Northeast echoes the strength of your human values and our shared economic opportunities. Connectivity by road, rail, rivers, sea, transmission lines, petroleum pipelines and digital links will increase.
“We are pleased to extend another line of credit of 2 billion U.S. dollars to support infrastructure and other development activities in Bangladesh. As the three agreements on human trafficking, fake Indian currency and maritime safety show, our security cooperation is growing.”
Modi gave a public assurance that “we can reach a fair solution on Teesta and Feni rivers.” An MoU was also signed on the blue economy and maritime cooperation in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, as well as on the use of Chittagong and Mongla ports.
Tricky issues were covered in the Bangladesh-India joint declaration after the visit as follows: “The Coordinated Border Management Plan (CBMP) for better border management …. would enhance cooperation between the border guarding forces of the two countries, and enable them to manage the identified vulnerable areas with a view to preventing criminal activities, irregular movement, acts of violence and loss of lives along the border areas. “
(Both sides) welcomed the finalisation of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for allowing usage of Indian border roads for construction and maintenance of Border Out Posts (BOPs) of Border Guards Bangladesh as well as use of Indian medical facilities in difficult areas in the border area by Bangladeshi personnel, who are deployed in vicinity.
“The two Prime Ministers directed the concerned authorities “that the number of deaths at the border must be brought down to zero. “Deliberations are underway involving all (Indian) stakeholders with regard to conclusion of the Interim Agreements on sharing of waters of Teesta and Feni as soon as possible. The two Prime Ministers noted that discussions on various aspects relating to sharing of waters of the Manu, Muhuri, Khowai, Gumti, Dharla and Dudhkumar rivers were taking place at technical levels under JRC.”
The two Prime Ministers recalled Article-2 of the Framework Agreement on Cooperation for Development of 2011 and reiterated “their commitment to address the issue of water resources management of common rivers including water sharing, in a holistic manner through common basin management” and “Prime Minister Modi conveyed that Tipaimukh Hydro Electric Power Project is not likely to be taken forward in its present form.”
On regional cooperation, the Bangladesh-India joint declaration said: “Both Prime Ministers agreed that the advantages of sub-regional cooperation in power sector, water resources, trade, transit and connectivity should be harnessed to mutual benefit. In this context, both Prime Ministers noted with satisfaction the progress made by the Joint Working Groups on Sub-Regional Cooperation between Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) on Water Resources Management and Power/Hydropower and on Connectivity and Transit.”
Working Groups “are working towards identifying potential future power projects in the sub-region to be undertaken jointly involving at least three countries on equitable basis for joint development and financing.” And “are exchanging ideas on potential cargo (roads and railways) and bus routes involving at least three countries.”
“The four countries are also exploring the possibility of using multimodal transport to meet their commercial as well as tourist needs.”
The Prime Ministers pledged “to work closely in furthering relevant regional/sub-regional cooperation processes including SAARC, BIMSTEC and BCIM-EC,” and “welcomed the potential role the (BRICS) New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank”.
In his public address to Dhaka University Senate invitees from the elite society of Dhaka, the visiting Indian Prime Minister backed up his host government by saying: “Sheikh Hasina and I think the same way,” perfectly matched on economic development.
In conclusion, one may say, borrowing Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s words that the “Modi government has set a new tone in India.” Time will tell what difference it may really make in Bangladesh-India relations.