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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 40, September 24, 2011

Prime Minister’s Tour of Bangladesh

Wednesday 28 September 2011, by Amitava Mukherjee

There are more in matters of Indo-Bangladesh relationship than what really meets the eye. Although certain quarters having their own axes to grind are now trying to portray Mamata Banerjee, the West Bengal Chief Minister, as a spoilsport, yet the truth lies in the fact that Mamata has done a great service to the nation by refusing to become party to a pact which would have landed agriculturists in North Bengal in great difficulty. Her refusal to accompany the Prime Minister to Bangladesh has also brought into focus the need for a reappraisal of India’s Bangladesh policy which has so far tried to sweep under the carpet Bangladesh’s growing camaraderie with China.

Quite expectedly, Manmohan Singh’s Bangla-desh tour has flopped. Its only noteworthy feature is the agreement over delimitation of the land boundary which has again given rise to commotion and protests in Assam. Certainly there was no harm in Manmohan Singh acknowledging the cooperation from the Hasina Wajed-led Bangladesh Government in handing over some top leaders of the ULFA who had taken refuge there. But the imprint of vested interests behind the agreement has become amply clear from the almost total silence on the issue of continuous illegal infiltration from Bangladesh, the most contentious issue that bedevils the Indo-Bangladesh relationship. An apprehension that attempts would be made to bypass this issue was growing and it became strengthened from the tenor of discussion that P. Chidambaram, the Union Home Minister, recently had with his Bangladeshi counterpart, Sahara Khatun. After the meeting Chidambaram had said that the two sides had agreed to issue orders that there would be no firing on anyone crossing over from Bangladesh to India or vice- versa, a virtual carte blanche for infiltration. The dangerous side to it lies in the fact that international smuggling rackets operate with impunity in large tracts of the Indo-Bangladesh border and the decision not to open fire might compromise national security as well.

If the entire gamut of the bilateral relations between the two countries is taken into consideration, then the issue of sharing of the Teesta waters is a minor one. The three major areas which need immediate attention are the infiltration problem, extreme paucity of water at the Kolkata and Haldia ports due to the unjust sharing of the Ganges waters on account of an ill-conceived earlier agreement, and Bangladesh’s increasing proximity to China. In spite of the media campaign in India as well as in Bangladesh against Mamata Banerjee, the people of West Bengal now look up to her as the saviour of the State having prevented West Bengal from becoming the victim of another ‘injustice’.

The assertions of Manmohan Singh show that he is no statesman. He tries to shift the entire blame for his bungled Bangladesh trip to Mamata Banerjee, the crux of his argument being that Shiv Shankar Menon, the National Security Adviser, had already briefed Mamata about the Government of India’s line of thinking and that Mamata had not objected to it.

However, the truth was that Mamata had originally agreed to part with 25 thousand cusecs of water and then agreed to raise it to 30-32 thousand cusecs after persuasion by Menon. But the draft agreement which Menon had finalised after discussions with the Bangladesh Government had fixed the figure allegedly between 33,000 cusecs and 60,000 cusecs, a clear violation of the understanding reached with the West Bengal Chief Minister. The matter has been further complicated by some ill-informed media reports which talk of various ‘surveys’ that had formed the basis of New Delhi’s calculations. Trinamul sources, however, point out that not a single survey had been shown to the Govern-ment of West Bengal before the Central Govern-ment finalised the draft. Informed circles say these surveys should never form the basis of any water-sharing agreement as there are wide variations between those prepared by India on the one hand and the ones by Bangladesh on the other.

Manmohan Singh has lost an opportunity to raise the issue of China aggressively following its policy of ‘string of pearls’, described in diplomatic circles as an euphemism for a design to encircle India in South Asia, in which it is allegedly trying to rope in Bangladesh too. During Khaleda Zia’s rule in Bangladesh, the Indo-Bangla bilateral relations had touched their nadir due to open patronage of the then government in Dhaka to Islamic militants and the shelter given to the North-Eastern Indian ultras, but it will be better to admit that in the Bangladeshi psyche there is always a mistrust towards the ‘big brotherly attitude’ of India. This was evident during the time of Sheikh Mujibur Rahaman as well.

Her family background and political schooling should make Hasina Wajed feel a special bond with India but even she has not desisted from giving China a wide space in Bangladesh’s internal and external policies. From a strategic point of view what should worry India most is Bangladesh’s agreement with China whereby the latter has been modernising the Chittagong port and constructing a new deep sea port at the Sonadia Island in Cox’s Bazar. In addition, a 128 kilometre-long and China-funded railway system is coming up which will connect the Bangladeshi border town of Gundum first with the Burmese and then ultimately with the Chinese transit systems. Moreover a highway will be constructed linking Chittagong to the Burmese road network. This can be connected to the Kunming Highway of China which will end up in Bangkok.

These projects have tremendous strategic implications. Access to the Chittagong port will give China a big foothold on the Bay of Bengal. Chittagong will be another feather on the Chinese cap, the other ones being the two ports of Hambantota (Sri Lanka) and Gwadar (Balochi-stan in Pakistan). It has to be kept in mind that China has already gained access to the Burmese naval base in the Hanggyi Island and has a monitoring station at the Coco Island, north of the Andamans. The proposed railway link through Burma will reduce the distance between China’s Yunnan province and Chittagong to a great extent.

To any discerning observer, a growing Burma connection of Bangladesh is too noticeable. It may not be out of place to mention that China has developed a very cosy relationship with the Burmese military junta which is now in power in the garb of a democratic outfit.

Except during the time of the brief premiership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahaman, China has always had an influence on the Bangladeshi society and polity. Dhaka and Beijing had come closer during the rules of Ziaur Rahaman, Ershad and Khaleda Zia, a process which even Hasina Wajed chose not to reverse given India’s self- imposed aloofness from Bangladesh. Today China is Bangladesh’s largest trading partner on the one hand and Bangladesh has become the third largest trade partner of China in South Asia on the other.

Manmohan Singh’s objective was to smoothen the ruffled feathers of Bangladesh over some outstanding issues like sharing of the Teesta river waters and impediments in bilateral trade. To what extent this would help in neutralising China is difficult to say for Chinese involvement, which had begun in a brisk way in 2002 after the signing of nine bilateral agreements including defence cooperation, has now struck deep roots. It got bolstered in 2010, when Hasina had already come to power, as more agreements were signed during the visit of the Chinese Vice-President to Dhaka. Beijing is now committed to extend financial and technical help to Dhaka for developing its first space satellite, building a nuclear plant in Pabna and gas exploration apart from various other infrastructure projects.

For India, at this moment, increase in bilateral trade and resolution of the Teesta water tangle seem to be the two best options for shoring up its declining influence in Bangladesh. The Teesta river plain in the northwestern part of Bangla-desh includes more than 14 per cent of the total cropped area of the country and supports nearly 10 per cent of the total population of Bangladesh. Most important, nearly 63 per cent of the arable land here is irrigated which has made the Indian reservoir at the river’s upstream in Gazol Doba in Jalpaiguri district a bone of contention. Dhaka alleges that due to India’s Gazol Doba project Bangladesh’s Dalia reservoir in the Lalmonirhat district has become almost redundant. Dhaka now wants sharing of the Teesta waters available at Gazol Doba on a 50:50 basis.

And here the naivete of the Indian side comes into question. Bangladesh always cites some figures—the number of people dependent on Teesta waters, the amount of investments made for developing irrigation infrastructures in districts like Lalmonirhat, Neelfamari and Gaibandha etc. But if a comprehensive survey is done then it might come out that the number of people dependent on Teesta waters in the Indian side is much more than their counterparts in Bangladesh. What really prevents the Govern-ment of India from making public the surveys already done or admitting the necessity of undertaking the same if no reliable survey exists at all? This was the point on which Mamata Banerjee had raised her objections.

In spite of China having stolen a big march over India, the Indo-Bangladesh relations still show much potentiality. In recent times bilateral trade between India and Bangladesh has increased nearly sixfold. That New Delhi is now laying great stress on improved economic relations with Dhaka became amply clear when P. Chidambaram, the Union Home Minister, rushed to Petrapole in West Bengal on the Indo-Bangladesh border to open an integrated check- post that would facilitate trade between the two countries.

The need of the hour is increased Indian investment in Bangladesh. The visit by Anand Sharma, the Commerce and Industry Minister, to Bangladesh in April last has raised the possibility of a $ 3.5 billion-dollar investment by Indian companies in telecom, food processing, pharmaceuticals and manufacturing sectors in the coming years. Already export of duty-free garment from Bangladesh to India has been raised from eight million pieces to 10 million pieces under the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA). Airtel, a private sector telecom giant, has invested nearly $ 300 million in Bangladesh. Manmohan Singh’s visit will further facilitate import of duty-free goods from Bangladesh to India.

The Government of India hopes, and not without reason, that all these are likely to create a favourable atmosphere for India in Bangladesh. However, if allegations from Bangladesh are to be believed, exports from Bangladesh to India, a very vital sector which can make or mar relations between the two neighbours, sometimes get stifled due to stiff standardisation procedures on our side of the border. India has therefore agreed to help the Bangladesh Standard and Testing Institution with technical expertise to upgrade the certification procedure there.

The China factor has no doubt given India- Bangladesh relations a critical character. Bangla-desh is no more what it had been in the early 1970s. Very recently it has purchased 44 MBTs (Main Battle Tanks)-2000 from China at a cost of $ 162 million out of a $ 1.6 billion defence budget for 2011. In addition, it has 208 older tanks which China has recently upgraded. In Sonadia Island near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh is constructing an advanced air base with China’s help. Dhaka perhaps needs it to guard its various off-shore establishments. But India should have raised the matter with the Sheikh Hasina-led government so that no other power is allowed to use it.

The author is a senior journalist who can be contacted at amitava_muk@yahoo.co.in

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