Will Bangladesh and India seal deals to ward off the dragon?

As Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s first bilateral visit to India in seven years draws closer, there is increased anxiety on both sides over the Teesta pact and a host of other agreements that are on the table
Sanjay Kapoor Dhaka

It started quite suddenly as flash mobs do. Last Tuesday, a noisy group of young men clapping and shouting slogans energetically enter the placid Dhaka University campus to overwhelm the quiet chatter of students and the persistent singing of a Koel (cuckoo). Shortly thereafter, the group mutates into a boisterous demonstration with protestors demanding “direct action” against the Islamic militants engaged in a standoff with armed forces in Sylhet. The Sylhet engagement ended after three days, leaving four dead and many wounded. This was followed by another bloody face off with Islamic radicals near Dhaka, which left eight dead. The Islamic State has taken credit for these incidents.

This spike in violence provides a compelling backdrop to the possible signing of a defence agreement during Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India next week. This is PM Hasina’s first bilateral visit to India in seven years. She lands on April 7.

The protestors who belonged to the ruling Awami League’s student body “Chattra league” were demanding strict action against the Islamists that they claimed were acting at the behest of Pakistan and threatening the stability of the country. Dhaka University is at the epicentre of the organised resistance against the forces that want Bangladesh to become an Islamic State. Few years ago, students and liberals organised massive protests at Rajbagh demanding death for the war criminals of the 1971 independence movement. Rajbagh movement gave legitimacy to Sheikh Hasina’s government to hang many of the war criminals.

Details of this agreement are still shrouded in secrecy as there are misgivings about it in Dhaka. Expectedly, a somnolent opposition party—Bangladesh National Party (BNP)—stirred to life as soon as reports began trickling in that Hasina could sign a defence agreement with India. BNP leaders are claiming that their country would lose its sovereignty once such an agreement is signed. They want her to extract a deal on the intractable issue of sharing of Teesta river water first, before embarking on other issues. A section within the Bangla army, it is learnt, also subscribes to the view that if it has an agreement with India then it would lose out on all the gains that would come their way by playing one country against the other. India is worried, not just by this contrived ambivalence, but also by the strategic independence that the neighbouring country is trying to exercise by responding warmly to Chinese overtures.

To put the fears of the Bangladesh military leadership to rest, Indian Chief of Army Staff, General Bipin Rawat, in his first visit abroad after his recent appointment, has flew to Dhaka to engage with his counterpart and others in the defence establishment. He could draw comfort from the views of one of Sheikh Hasina’s adviser, H T Imam. An old faithful of late Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and a strong votary of closer ties with India, Imam, shared his views about the proposed agreement with a group of visiting Indian journalists to Bangladesh. He said that the agreement would be more in the nature of a pact based on co-operation, but would be different from the one that India signed with the erstwhile Soviet Union. He said, “Cooperation would mean, naturally, against external aggression, and within the country, if there are threats to the security of India or Bangladesh, naturally we will cooperate with each other.” He further explained that a serious terror attack like the standoff in Sylhet could be one such situation. Imam held Pakistan and its Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) responsible for much of the problems his country faced.

To strengthen Prime Minister Hasina’s hand, the Indian government is expected to announce the third credit line of US $5 billion. Though this amount seems to be a pittance in comparison to what Chinese President Xi Jin Ping had promised—$24 billion—during a daylong visit to Dhaka last year, this would still be useful for Bangladesh for a reason: Indian credit lines are announced without identifying a project, whereas the Chinese money comes in only after the project is zeroed down. Bangladeshi officials have displayed skepticism about their ability to absorb the Chinese grant of $24 billion, but the truth is that in Dhaka, Chinese influence is no longer confined to the menus of its restaurants.

The biggest test for Prime Minister Hasina ahead of her scheduled visit to India would be to get the Indian government to sign the water sharing agreement on Teesta river. In 2011, when the then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh travelled to Dhaka to sign many agreements, including Teesta as well as one that involved swapping territories, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerji decided to play truant. Since then she could be brought around to endorse the Land Border Agreement (LBA) during PM Modi’s visit to Dhaka, but Teesta issue remains at a standstill. Though foreign policy is a preserve of the Central government, there are aspects of the river water agreement that have to be implemented by WB’s irrigation department. Mamata also claims that an unfair water agreement will hurt the people of the state. The Bangladeshi PM knows Mamata’s political compulsions, but wants New Delhi to find a way out of this quagmire. Recently, the West Bengal CM claimed on a TV channel that the Teesta deal will be signed in May this year when Modi pays another visit to Dhaka. No one was willing to lend credibility to her assertion. She further alleged that she was not kept in the loop about these negotiations—a fact firmly denied by Indian MEA spokesman Gopal Bagley who said that she had been informed about it as part of “cooperative federalism.”

No one in Dhaka or in Delhi expects the Teesta agreement to be signed. Perhaps there is merit in keeping the agreement on hold as it would end up serving as a paradigm to sort out water sharing issues with 52 other rivers that criss-cross Bangladesh and originate from India. The Indian government, therefore, is working hard to show that its relationship with Bangladesh is not confined to fixing water issues and fighting terror. It has put together some 30 agreements that will hopefully be signed in Delhi. These include agreements that were first conceived during the botched up 2011 trip of Manmohan Singh to Dhaka. In Dhaka’s official circles, Singh’s visit and the work that had gone into putting together the draft agreements is still remembered fondly.