Indo-Bangla ties: Teesta a test for Modi and Mamata Banerjee

BJP and Mamata Banerjee had both come in the way of cementing good relations with our eastern neighbor. Time for both to move beyond optics

Photo by Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Ashis Ray

This year marks the birth centenary of Indira Gandhi; cumulatively India’s prime minister for nearly 16 years. No matter how debatable her politics and economics otherwise were, her handling of the crisis arising from millions of refugees from East Pakistan escaping to India from genocide at the hands of the Pakistani army, and the consequent planning and execution of the territory’s emergence into Bangladesh in 1971 were meticulous and masterly. Even her trenchant critic, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then of Jana Sangh and later of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was reportedly moved to compare her conquest to the mythological Hindu goddess Durga’s victory over evil.

So, the relationship between New Delhi and Dhaka is founded on the equation established between Indira and the leader of Bangladesh’s liberation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Expressing his gratitude to India at a million-strong rally in Kolkata in January 1972, he declared to thunderous applause he had nothing to offer but “bhalobasha” (affection) for India.

That affection between the Bangladeshi people and India was sought to be ruptured by residual Islamist forces. First, Rahman and a majority of his immediate family were unspeakably assassinated in an army coup d’etat and the minds of Bangladeshis poisoned against India. South Block, too, was misguided in expecting unconditional loyalty. The return to office of Mujib’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina in 2009, though, has re-ignited a restoration of status quo ante.

Of late, there’s been much chatter in diplomatic quarters about an unprecedented closeness between India and Bangladesh. While it is undoubtedly true there is now better understanding between the two neighbours, it may be an exaggeration to suggest anything unanticipated has occurred because of Narendra Modi.

The elation is, of course, understandable. In a situation in which connections with most nations bordering India have nosedived, Bangladesh stands out (with Bhutan) as shining lights in an area of darkness. The fact is, BJP in opposition prior to 2014 did everything to endanger India’s security by sabotaging a consolidation in ties.

BJP and Banerjee were the stumbling blocks

Dr Dipu Moni, Bangladesh’s foreign minister between 2009 and 2014, was clearly anxious about a formalisation of the Land Border Agreement (LBA)—an exchange of enclaves to streamline the border between the two countries, thoughtlessly drawn at the time of Partition—and progress on sharing of waters of the Teesta river, which flows from Sikkim through northern West Bengal into Bangladesh. One of the reasons the Bangladeshi electorate voted for the Bangladesh Awami League was, in her view, its perceived ability to secure benefits from India. A failure to deliver this, she warned, could mean a return of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its ally the Jamaat-e-Islami, thereby reactivating security threats to India.

The LBA required approval by a two-thirds majority in the Indian parliament to implement it. BJP refused to co-operate. Former external affairs minister, Jaswant Singh, was approached. He appreciated the implications and was sympathetic; indeed, he attempted to persuade his colleagues, Lal Krishna Advani and Sushma Swaraj, on the issue. But the party—increasingly under the grip of a virulently anti-Muslim and rising Modi—remained hostile to accommodation.

Opposition to the minor give-and-take of territory also emanated from Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress. What had held up a resolution was Banerjee’s ridiculous sense of prestige. All that was needed was an approach from a cabinet minister at the centre—as opposed to a senior civil servant. As it transpired, the moment Swaraj directly made the request, Banerjee dropped all resistance. To Congress’ credit, the ratification was allowed to sail through unanimously.

On the Teesta matter, Banerjee is also the stumbling block. Her intransigence has meant not even a study to explore the feasibility of West Bengal sparing waters has been undertaken. Banerjee, as a cabinet minister in the second term of the United Progressive Alliance government and then by remote control after she became chief minister of West Bengal, single-handedly prevented a raft of reforms from being introduced.

The relationship between New Delhi and Dhaka is founded on the equation established between Indira and the leader of Bangladesh’s liberation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Expressing his gratitude to India at a million-strong rally in Kolkata in January 1972, he declared to thunderous applause he had nothing to offer but “bhalobasha” (affection) for India.

In the case of Teesta waters, then Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai and National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon called on Banerjee. The latter informed the then governor of the state, MK Narayanan, that she was on board. In reality, she proceeded to deeply embarrass Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Fortunately for India, Hasina’s continuity in authority after 2014 has given the two countries additional time to contain separatist groups in north-eastern India and Inter-Services Intelligence-inspired activities.

Just before Hasina’s recent trip to Delhi, India at the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group meeting in London thwarted a Pakistani bid to censure Dhaka on the hanging of pro-Pakistan elements who were involved in mass killings during Bangladesh’s freedom struggle.

Moving beyond optics

Before he came to power and even to a certain extent afterwards (in election campaigns in West Bengal and Assam), Modi’s references to Bangladesh were in the context of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and the plight of Hindu minorities there. Now clutching at straws after the disastrous outcome of his policy towards neighbours, he went out of his way to personally receive Hasina at the airport on her arrival in Delhi.

Every aspect of co-operation between India and Bangladesh — as mirrored in multiple agreements and memoranda of understanding and the joint statement announced during the trip — is welcome. Some of it, such as amalgamation of efforts in counter terrorism, intelligence sharing, defence, outer space, electric power and nuclear energy, is significant.

But Bangladesh seemingly kept its options open on defence after recently acquiring two submarines from China. Further, there was no specific mention of movement of goods and people between West Bengal and north-eastern India through Bangladesh, or for that matter the Kolkata-Bangkok highway through Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Therefore, for enthusiasts to claim relations between the two nations have transcended beyond Teesta is, perhaps, misleading. To comply with some of India’s wish-list, Bangladesh is likely to hold out until an increased flow of Teesta waters is granted to it in the dry season.

As is generally the case with pracharak Modi, the optics of Hasina's visit were good. The devil, though, is in the details. Given the special partnership forged by Indira and Mujib, the best of ties should be par for the course between India and Bangladesh.

London-based Ashish Ray, former head of CNN in India, is the longest serving Indian foreign correspondent

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Published: 19 Apr 2017, 11:59 AM