Teesta, between the barbed wires

The Teesta Accord is the bridge of goodwill. It will foster new optimism and trust between the two countries

Rajat Roy Kolkata 

It was February 2009. After the victory of the Awami League, the Sheikh Hasina government had just been sworn in. India, had sent Pranab Mukherjee, the then foreign minister, to Dhaka to express solidarity with the new government. Though it was an official tour, for once, the Indian foreign minister stepped out of his plane at Zia International Airport attired in dhoti-kurta—a typical Bengali dress— forsaking his customary ‘bandh gala ’. While his Bengali identity was not amiss, the visit laid emphasis on more earthly matters. Sitting in Dhaka’s National Press Club, Rahaman Jahangir, a senior political analyst, commented with a wry smile, “Pranab babu wears dhoti-kurta only when he visits Bangladesh.”

Immediately after this ‘goodwill visit’, it was revealed by the Sheikh Hasina government that India had sought transit facilities to third countries as well as its Northeastern states through 15 road and railway routes and ports in Bangladesh. The news caused a huge uproar in Bangladesh. In Dhaka, newspapers carried stories and views protesting against an imminent ‘sell-out’ to India. “If we offer them transit facilities, what will we get in return? Are they ready to conclude the water sharing treaty on all the major rivers, including the Teesta?” That was the common refrain in this collective voice of protest.

Nihad Kabir is a reputed barrister and closely associated with Dainik Sambad— a prestigious daily published from Dhaka. She belongs to the family which owns it. When, despite categorical assurances given by the Indian side, the much-hyped visit of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could not deliver the Teesta Accord to Bangladesh, Kabir expressed her disenchantment: “If the chief minister of one state is allowed to put up obstacles to a treaty which is crucial to Bangladesh, then how can you expect to take relations forward between the two countries?” 

The failure to conclude the Teesta Accord laid bare the inherent problems embedded in the ‘good-neighbourly’ relations between the two countries. Says Shibajipratim Basu, a Kolkata-based political scientist and a keen watcher of Indo-Bangladesh relations: “The neighbourhood policy cannot be successfully implemented unless the neighbouring states (for instance, West Bengal) are made stakeholders.” He warns, “If states hike their stakes up (as in the case of the aborted Teesta Accord), and the government of India yields to the pressure, then promises might remain unfulfilled, no matter how sincere the intent of India.”

There is a common saying in Bangladesh, “India promises a lot, but cannot deliver at crucial times.” But facts do not conform to this perception. For example, during the prime minister’s visit to Dhaka, all the non-tariff barriers were removed on Bangladeshi textiles, to give their biggest foreign exchange industry easy access to the huge Indian market. A soft loan of $1 billion was given to Bangladesh to ease off their
financial pressure.

Prior to that, in February 2009, when the Sheikh Hasina government was seized with the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) revolt which threatened to topple the government and evoked the memory of military rule, the Indian government silently made it clear to those who mattered in the power game that any attempt to destroy democratic institutions would not be acceptable. Ironically, the failure to conclude the Teesta treaty captured the public imagination in Bangladesh and all the positive ties came to naught. Clearly, there is an image problem for India in the eyes of the people of Bangladesh. 

India will have to pay attention to this aspect and do something in earnest. Mere aid and so on will not be enough. One way of doing this is to go for projects which are visible and thereby can capture the public imagination. For example, the Chinese government had built an integrated bridge over the Meghna river and two other rivers at Daudkandi, in the southeastern part of Bangladesh. This made the road connectivity between Dhaka and Chittagong, their largest sea port, much easier. People associate this bridge with the role of China as a friendly nation. “Similarly, if a giant modern stadium of international standard is built by India in Bangladesh, then this might help create a positive image in the common people’s perception there,” says Basu.

Sonia Gandhi suggested that we should talk to the chief minister of West Bengal. She failed to understand that Bangladesh should not be bracketed with West Bengal. While West Bengal is a state in India, Bangladesh is a sovereign country. If we need to talk with India, then we must be heard by the leaders of India, not by regional satraps’

More creative interaction at the informal level should take place between the two countries; this is currently abysmally lacking. Bangladesh often complains about the insensitive treatment meted out to it by Indian leaders. Some time back, Kabir and leading Bangladeshi intellectuals met UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi. “After some time, she suggested that we should talk to the chief minister of West Bengal. She failed to understand that Bangladesh should not be bracketed with West Bengal. While West Bengal is a state in India, Bangladesh is a sovereign country. If we need to talk with India, then we must be heard by the leaders of India, not by regional satraps.”

Certainly, taking bilateral relations forward should not be the sole responsibility of India; Bangladesh is also reciprocating in a positive manner. The Sheikh Hasina government’s pro-active role in not allowing terrorists to use Bangladesh as their base and thereby conduct operations inside India has yielded remarkable results. Many insurgent groups, including ULFA, have been forced to curtail their activities and initiate peace dialogue with the Indian government.

The recent visit of Begum Khaleda Zia to Delhi should be marked as an important breakthrough. During the talks, she declared that terrorists and insurgent groups would not be allowed to use Bangladesh’s soil for launching anti-India activities. The warm welcome extended to her indicates mature diplomacy. Though Sheikh Hasina is not happy, Khaleda Zia saw it as a positive response from India.

Contrary to earlier perceptions whereby India seemed to have closer relations with the Awami League while keeping away from the BNP, this initiative gives India more options. It can be argued that India is cleverly distributing its cards in two strong but opposing political camps, thereby minimising risks in a changed scenario.

To make India see Bangladesh as a strategically important neighbour, politicians in Dhaka tend to informally play the China card. It is often said that there is a growing demand within the country to ‘Look East’. With help coming from China for building infrastructure, and investments from South Korea in gas-based fertilisers, textiles and shipping, a growing presence of Chinese, Korean and Japanese technicians is visible in Dhaka and Chittagong. In and around Dhaka and the Chattagram University Campus in Chittagong, one can see advertisements like ‘Learn Korean, Japanese and Chinese languages’; this indicates that a growing number of skilled and semi-skilled workers are turning to the ‘east’ for jobs, instead of moving to the Gulf and western countries. As Kabir explained, “The People of India, especially of West Bengal, must realise that Bangladesh is a separate country with its own separate identity. As a powerful neighbour, India has a lot to gain by taking it in its stride.”

Professor of history and Awami League MP Muntasir Mamun echoes this when he says that both will gain if relations are based upon mutual trust and respect. As per Dhaka, the trust deficit can be wiped out with a bold initiative on the Teesta Accord; this has become an acid test for India.

After the exit of Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress from UPA II, Delhi is in a better position to conclude the Teesta treaty and win a lot of goodwill. Positive signals have been sent to Dhaka. Banerjee has formed an expert committee headed by Dr Kalyan Rudra, a river expert. The committee has prepared a preliminary report but she has asked for a larger study. Banerjee wants to oppose the sharing of water with Bangladesh with an eye on her rural vote-bank. 

This is an Assam-like scenario. Political parties often use the issue of ‘foreign nationals’ to stir up chauvinistic sentiments among voters. This kind of narrow, sectarian politics becomes a major hindrance in building friendly relations with Bangladesh.

With the increasing presence of China in South Asia and the Asia-Pacific zone, India is keen to expand its trade relations with countries like Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. India’s interests also lie in establishing road and rail links with its Northeastern states. The road and rail routes sought by India in the proposed protocol with Bangladesh were: Akhaura-Agartala, Sabroom-Ramgarh, Demagiri-Thegamukh, Bibir Bazar-Srimantpur, Belonia-Belonia, Betuli-Old Raghna Bazar, Chatlapur-Manu, Tamabil-Dawki, Borosora-Borosora, Haluaghat-Ghasuapara, Sonamganj-Shellbazar, Darshana-Gede, Rohanpur-Singhabad, Birol-Radhikapur and Benapole-Petrapole.

India has apparently expressed its willingness to import and export goods through southeastern Chittagong and southwestern Mongla ports, and use warehouse facilities under exempted customs duties. With improved relations with Bangladesh and Myanmar, the dream of having trade links via the Asian railways and roadways might become a reality.

Once the agreement is signed, the movement of cargo will be exempted from customs duties and other charges except reasonable charges for transportation, commensurate with the cost of services. Bangladesh knows that it stands to gain if its ports and road links are put to use for Indian trade with south east Asian countries. But, neither Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League nor Khaleda Zia’s BNP is prepared to enter into an agreement with Delhi, till the trust deficit is eliminated.

So far, India has kept its initiatives restricted within prescribed diplomatic norms. However, the Bangladeshi people need to be approached more informally. Indian leaders should seize the moment and take the Bangladeshi prime minister and opposition leader on board by initiating many more informal visits and thereby start a creative, open-ended, productive dialogue. This will create an atmosphere of trust, goodwill and sharing.   

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: DECEMBER 2012