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.”

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