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Saturday, September 10, 2022

Sheikh Hasina’s “Jamdani” diplomacy

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina with her counterpart Indian PM Narendra Modi at Hyderabad House, New Delhi


After last week’s official visit of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to New Delhi the officials of both sides described the visit as having further strengthened relations between the two neighbouring countries, despite there being several political hiccups according to political observers.

Well, the prime ministers of Bangladesh and India have met 12 times since 2015. Each parley held has added feathers to the hats, except the recent one.

The most significant achievement was the long-standing border demarcation which was finally resolved, pending as it had been since the partition in 1947. The beleaguered citizens of the enclaves were rehabilitated, resettled, and compensated.

Road and railroad connectivity have appreciably improved and are expected to progress further. The transit through Bangladesh to the northeast Indian states is in function.

However, several crucial issues were not discussed or any consensus reached regarding them, which include river water sharing, climate change, border killings, Rohingya refugees, lopsided trade gap, energy and other pending issues.

Meanwhile, the head of German state media Deutsche Welle (DW) Bangla service Khaled Muhiuddin, not an apologetic political analyst, describes the trip as an “election campaign” for Sheikh Hasina’s upcoming national election scheduled at end of 2023.

None of the bilateral agreements – the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed in Delhi comply with the state visit protocol, said the Bangladesh-born broadcaster in DW.

Bangladesh and India share 54 international rivers including the Ganges and the Brahmaputra being major rivers. The legendary rivers are linked to the livelihood of people belonging to both countries.

Presently the two countries have water-sharing agreements with only two – the Ganges in 1996 and the Feni River in 2019. The Ganges water treaty was hailed as historic.

India and Bangladesh last week inked an interim water sharing agreement for the third river Kushiyara (flowing from Assam hills) after 25 years.

Hasina at Hyderabad House in Delhi expressed her dissatisfaction over the pressing Teesta water sharing that has been hanging in balance for over a decade due to opposition from West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

Banerjee argues that the water level in the Teesta has drastically reduced over the years and therefore there is very little water for West Bengal to offer to Bangladesh.

She (Banerjee) instead was pressing for an alternative proposal to link other rivers to augment the water flow in Teesta during the dry season, but Bangladesh turned down the proposal.

Earlier, an arrangement was made in 1983 that gave 39 per cent of water to India and 36 per cent to Bangladesh. The two sides agreed on another interim arrangement in 2011 that would give India 42.5 per cent and Bangladesh 37.5 per cent of the water from the Teesta for 15 years.

Banerjee deliberately poured cold water over the deal, which angered Hasina. New Delhi is equally feeling discomfited about Banerjee’s closing rooms for holding dialogue with hydrology and river-morphology experts from India and Bangladesh.

Joint River Commission (JRC) member K M Anwar Hossain said Pakistan and north-west India are being irrigated by water from the Indus river basin and most of the water canals were in Indian territory. Whereas, the two arch enemies struck the Indus basin water sharing agreement in 1950 when tensions between the two countries were at their peak.

The Hasina-Modi talks failed to reach a meaningful point on two major security concerns of Bangladesh: repatriation of Rohingya refugees and border killings, writes Shamsuddoza Sajen, an analyst in the independent newspaper The Daily Star.

The article states that when the Director-General of the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) justified the border killings by Indian border guards during a meeting in Bangladesh on July 21, 2022, had described that all Bangladeshis killed on the border were “criminals”, the Bangladesh counterpart Border Guards Bangladesh (BFB) conspicuously remained silent.

Bangladesh and India share a 4,096 kilometre border, despite India raised barbed wire fences. There are several porous points in otherwise strict border management by both sides.

Intermittent deaths along the Bangladesh–India border occur around the year. The shoot and kill policy of BSF of people illegally crossing into India from Bangladesh, cross border crimes including gun running, drug trade and cattle smuggling.

To prevent smuggling and illegal migration from Bangladesh, BSF exercises its controversial “Shoot-on-Sight” policy, which empowers border guards to shoot any person with or without cause. A large portion of the victim is cattle traders and farmers with agricultural lands near the border.

Rights organisation Odhikar’s report indicates that between 2000 and 2021 at least 1,253 were killed and another 1,156 were wounded in BSF firing.

Earlier, according to several MoUs and related treaties signed between India and Bangladesh, if citizens of the two countries illegally cross the border, it would be considered trespassing. As per law, those suspects would be handed over to the civilian authority.

From January to September 2022, six Bangladesh nationals were killed, four injured and seven abducted allegedly by Indian border guards, according to Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), a legal aid and human rights organisation.

However, it has been observed that India has been violating treaties, shooting at anyone seen near the border or anyone trying to cross the border, which is a clear violation of international law and human rights, says Odhikar.

Hasina, nevertheless, was assured in Delhi that the border killings will be reduced and the border chiefs of both sides have agreed to stop the killings, which is embarrassing for both Dhaka and Delhi.

Critics, dissidents, opposition and media in Bangladesh are frustrated with the slow progress of signing water-sharing agreements for more than 50 rivers. Hasina’s government came under fire by media and opposition for failing to get a “single drop” of water for Teesta.

What Bangladesh received and what Bangladesh offered to India is surely important. In between parleys and visits outside her hotel, Hasina has been able to draw the attention of the Indian media, Indian top officials and the business community to her century-old traditional handloom ‘Jamdani’ saree she wore during her four-day visit. Some media dubbed her clad in a gorgeous saree as “Jamdani diplomacy”.

First published in the International Affairs Review, 10 September 2022

Saleem Samad, is a Dhaka-based independent journalist, a media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He could be reached at <>; Twitter @saleemsamad

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