Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Risks in Indo Bangladesh Relations

RAHUL K BHONSLE

INDIAN PRIME Minister Dr Manmohan Singh paid a State Visit to Bangladesh on 6-7 September 2011 at the invitation of the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. The presence of the Chief Ministers of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura added significance to the visit. The Prime Minister held extensive discussions with the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. The visit of Dr Man Mohan Singh to Bangladesh was long overdue as momentum for improvement of relations had been built when Sheikh Haseena visited New Delhi in January 2011. Thus it was after a year and eight months that the Indian Prime Minister choose to reciprocate with a visit to Dhaka. Much water has flown under the Ganges or Padma so to say during this period which has resulted in a number of seminal agreements.

Amongst significant agreements, the Protocol to the 1974 Land Boundary Agreement, signed on 6 September 2011 by the Foreign Ministers of India and Bangladesh in the presence of the Prime Ministers, paves the way for a settlement of the long pending land boundary issues between the two countries. While the people on the borders are likely to be the larger beneficiaries, those in the Indian states in the North East particularly Tripura, Mizoram and Manipur may also find transit through Bangladesh a boon. For instance Agartala, the capital of Tripura is 1,650km from Kolkata and 2,637km from New Delhi via Guwahati, the distance between the Tripura capital and Kolkata via Bangladesh is just about 350 km However there are many challenges that are to be overcome at various levels before relations assume normalcy permitting free access of goods and people on both the sides, some of which are outlined as per succeeding paragraphs.

Political Management. Much touted to be a major break through in relations between India and Bangladesh, the visit of Dr Man Mohan Singh to Dhaka in some ways turned out to be a damp squib in some ways as two main agreements the Teesta River Waters Sharing and Transit could not be inked. These were the main touch points. Clearly the West Bengal Minister Mamata Banerjee played spoil sport as she did not agree to ink the Teesta agreement given fall out that it would have in local State politics. Lack of effective political management is therefore evident for the deal should have been worked out well in advance to be acceptable to the state government.

At the same time, the West Bengal Chief Minister lost a chance of emerging as a leader with wider national perspective and able to shape internal space by providing alternate relief to the people through measures such as subsidies and land for loss they may have suffered due to the water treaty.

The Bangladesh opposition was also in a similar mood raising fears of surrender to India thereby vitiating the larger atmosphere for bilateral amity. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) slammed Sheikh Haseena and the Awami League for having given too much and not getting the Teesta River Waters deal through. The need for political consensus on both the sides of the Indo Bangladesh divide could thus be well appreciated given nature of deal with swap of land as well as distribution of water being the most emotive issues in societies which are primarily agricultural economies with small land holdings.

Implementation of Agreements. The people in the enclaves on both sides are keen that agreements should be implemented earliest. A 10-day agitation programme was announced by the India-Bangladesh Enclaves Exchange Coordination Committee simultaneously in all the 51 Bangladeshi enclaves in India and 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh, to underline the demand for merger of the enclaves with the mainland without wasting any further time. Thus any delay will only add to trepidation at the ground level.

On the other hand there are many challenges for implementing some of the agreements due to poor infrastructure such as roads, barriers at the border and lack of development of railways and inland water transport. Indian government is trying to increase the pace and has sanctioned Rs 267 Crore for construction of a new railway link between India's Agartala and Akhaura in Bangladesh. Similar impetus on other infrastructure issues including roads in Bangladesh will be necessary.

Teesta Water Sharing. Apart from the political aspect there are reportedly a number of court cases pending in the Indian courts over the water issue related to Teesta River. How a water sharing agreement will impact the same remains to be seen and should not lead to further complications.

Exchange of Land. The land award has already raised protests in the Indian state of Assam. The impact of the agreements to people on the ground would also have to be carefully factored in land being a very sensitive issue. Resistance at the local level by state officials particularly in India where opposition is likely to continue with a programme of agitations resisting swap given political implications of loss of land at the grass roots may lead to exacerbation of frustration of the people in the enclaves leading to a cycle of protests. Managing the same would be important.

Political Polarisation in Bangladesh. Political polarization in Bangladesh while traditionally being on the lines of two main parties the Awami League which is in power and the BNP in opposition is leading to further factionalisation of politics and may spill over to Indo Bangladesh issues as well. The opposition BNP has raised three key internal issues of differences. Caretaker Government during next elections, removal of name of Tarique Rehman the son of the BNP Chair from the tainted list and August 21 attacks case and finally relief to ally Jamaat e Islami by releasing Jamaat chief Matiur Rahman Nizami and Secretary General Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed charged with war crimes in 1971.

Both Parties have divergent aims on these issues, thus polarization may grow over a period and since the BNP does not have adequate seats in the parliament the aggressive mood will be reflected on the streets of Dhaka and other cities thereby resulting in clashes from time to time. The two party’s inability to see eye to eye has been the bane of Bangla politics and minimum consensus would be the order of the day for effective management of administration which is lacking hopefully this should not spill over to Indo Bangladesh space as well.

First published in Sri Lanka Guardian, October 5, 2011