Friday, August 5, 2011

Geopolitical Irritations May Derail Singh's Dhaka Visit

Like the misguided prediction of heavy rainfall turning into a cyclone, the high profiled visit to Dhaka of the Indian PM Manmohan Singh is turning more dreadful by the day. Massive polarization within the government had already resulted in fading into oblivion of one of the key advisers to the PM while excessive brinkmanship has set apart the decision makers of the two nations further.

Sources say recent visits to Dhaka by both the foreign and home ministers of India made little headways with respect to preparing final documents relating to border dispute resolution, transit, water sharing and a number of other issues. One of the major stumbling blocks relates to the Indian negation to finance land acquisition for the proposed Akhaura-Agartala railway line and the construction of bridges across the Feni river to connect Tripura with the Chittagong port; something Delhi had promised to do during PM Sheikh Hasina's visit to India in January 2010.
ULFA bogey 
While the media in Bangladesh remained in the dark with respect to what exactly was discussed and agreed upon during P. Chidambaram's recent Dhaka trip, the Holiday had learnt that the trip had dealt with more security matters than the declared agendas, of which the finalization of modalities relating to the adversely possessed enclaves' swap was a priority.

Upon arriving Dhaka, Chidambaram changed the goal post. The border talks not only got pushed to the back burner, it was virtually abandoned due to India fearing of losing about 8,000 acres of land to Bangladesh once the adversely possessed enclaves got swapped. But this problem can not wait further for resolution. About 20% of Bangladesh's enclaves are located along the Indian state of Meghalaya while the rest are along the Bangladesh-West Bengal borders. The Bangladesh-Meghalaya border in Sylhet has long been tense; its population aggrieved and the border guards on both sides posing trigger-ready. This is also the geography on which the first Indo-Bangladesh brief border clash took place in Padua in April 2001.

Despite such dangers, Chidambaram deliberately shifted Delhi's focus on security concerns while meeting our home minister, saying that the ULFA's military chief, Paresh Barua, had announced he would launch attacks to stop Delhi from repossessing from Dhaka the jailed general secretary of the secessionist outfit, Anup Chetia.

Although none within the government would confirm or deny this, the manner in which the visit was orchestrated does lend credence to the allegation. "Barua has planned a series of major strikes with help from the Manipur-based People's Liberation Army (PLA) and the (Indian) Maoists", Assam's chief minister, Tarun Gogoi, claimed on July 22, only days before Chidambaram landed in Dhaka. "He (Barua) is holed up in northern Myanmar but keeps moving around," Gogoi said.
Section 144 
Curiously, that was followed by Indian intelligence reports that Barua himself had moved to the Bangladesh - Tripura border, or, 'may be within Bangladesh where he's having a wife.' These reports are bound to be baseless due to an arrested Manipuri rebel leader, RK Sanayaima of the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) of Manipur, having claimed following his arrest that he had met Barua in China during the Shanghai World Expo that was held from May 1 to October 31, 2010. It also seems highly unlikely that Barua would endanger his life by moving to Bangladesh when Chetia himself is on the verge of being kicked out by a regime that is labelled as hyper-friendly with India.

This was, in fact, a high-staked brinkmanship which India often uses against its neighbours, including with China against which it lodged an official complaint following the report of Barua being seen in Shanghai. This time, his alleged presence along the Bangladesh border prompted Delhi to clamp section 144 along the 50 km stretch of Bangladesh-Tripura border, only hours before Chidambaram's Dhaka visit. The local administration declared that the curfew- like restrictions would continue until September 24 and only Indian armed forces, police and para- military BSF are exempted from the imposed restrictions.

Viewed in retrospect, the ruse seems to have been used skillfully against Bangladesh to defer the scheduled agenda to finalize the enclave dispute. Some Indian media even went to reporting that ULFA operatives were ready to swoop on Indian security forces due to the meeting in Dhaka of the two home ministers having an agenda to finalize handing over of Chetia to the Indian authorities.
Audacious precondition 
Chetia was arrested by the Bangladesh authorities on August 21, 1997, on charges of illegally entering the country by using fake documents. Although he was later convicted and imprisoned on those charges, a concurrently filed asylum application still remains un-disposed, barring his removal from the country. Yet, on August 2, Delhi made it a sort of precondition that Chetia be handed over to India before Manmohan Singh's visit to Dhaka. This was odious, unexpected and audacious. Singh is coming to Dhaka to take more than Delhi is willing to give. Any precondition attached to the visit hence borders on blackmailing. Yet, Chidambaram said, "We have requested Dhaka that Chetia be handed over to us as soon as possible."

This tough stance belied grossly what Chidambaram had said to the Indian media on July 31, upon returning from Dhaka. "In the last two-and-half-years I have been the home minister of India, I cannot recall having made any complaint against Bangladesh." Asked if the Indian complaints about Bangladesh's patronage of separatist elements were still valid, Chidambaram said, "quite the contrary." He also poured out unwavering appreciations for what he called "Dhaka's splendid cooperation in supporting New Delhi to apprehend insurgents."

What had gone wrong that Chidambaram's eulogy for Dhaka lasted only hours, despite Dhaka not formally complaining about the shifting of the main agenda for discussion from border dispute resolution to handing over of the captive ULFA leader?
Our guess is as good as the guessing can go. But we are surprised that Dhaka gathered some pluck to react. Perplexed, the Bangladesh authorities informed India that Chetia could not be handed over prior to the Indian PM's Dhaka visit due to the due process relating to his asylum petition being as yet inconclusive.

Besides, although Chetia was sentenced by a Bangladesh court for illegally entering the country, his sentence expired years ago and the new agreement signed between the two PMs during the Bangladesh PM's Delhi visit in January 2010 relating to the 'Transfer of Sentenced Prisoners' did not cover Chetia's case. "Chetia's current legal status is not that of a sentenced prisoner, rather he's one who is under protective custody due to his prayer for asylum being pending and there being threat to his life within Bangladesh," informed Dhaka.

It was also learnt that the request made for Chetia's immediate handing over was on the ground that Delhi wanted Chetia to join the proposed peace talk to end insurgency in Assam, which the ULFA's military wing's chief, Paresh Barua, strongly opposes. Delhi, however, thought Dhaka would bend laws once again to handover Chetia, and, such an unreasonable expectation was augured by the fact that during Nov-Dec. 2010, Dhaka did allow Indian security apparatuses to apprehend five ULFA leaders inside Bangladesh.
Counter move 
However, concerned that Delhi would react furiously to this rebuff, Dhaka made an instant counter-move on another front. On August 1, a government committee cleared the way for the use of available facilities by India at Chittagong port as a transit point. Abdul Quddus, Joint Secretary of the Ministry of Shipping, headed the six member committee that made the recommendations. The committee further recommended that, "For sending goods to its seven north-eastern states, India may prefer Ashuganj port, instead of Chittagong port." This was in fact a post-fact cover up for allowing the Ashugonj port to India since May last year.

Although Bangladesh has a pipeline plan to increase the Chittagong port's handling capacity from the present 30.5 million tonnes of cargo to 100 million tonnes, the current capacity of the port is barely enough for our own economy. As well, cargo handling in Chittagong port is increasing 15-18 per cent annually. Given that China has already agreed to invest $8.7 billion to upgrade the port, following which the enhanced capacity can be shared by the land-locked north-eastern states of India, Nepal, Myanmar, and China, Delhi should have waited for that to happen first. India could as well join China in developing the port faster.

But Delhi wants things its own way, now and wants much more too. Delhi has also been insisting on granting of rights to operate two inland container terminals (ICTs) inside Bangladesh- at Khanpur and Pangaon. The Khanpur ICT already handles Indian containers with cement clinkers that arrive in waves, every day.
Big game 
Amid these irritations, Singh's visit to Dhaka may bear some fruit only if he declares something bigger than expected. That might entail the release of details of a $10 billion package that Delhi promised to spend on infrastructure development to fashion a cobweb of transit outlays across Bangladesh which could overcome Delhi's logistical nightmares in reaching out to the troubled North Eastern states. The proposed fund, however, is likely to be provided by the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

The scheme, however, sucks Bangladesh into a global Great Game of which the Economist magazine has voiced concerns in its July 30 issue. "The new transit project may be about more than just development. ... it is intended to create an Indian security corridor. It could open a way for army supplies to cross low-lying Bangladesh rather than going via dreadful mountain roads vulnerable to guerrilla attack. As a result, India could more easily put down insurgents in Nagaland and Manipur. It might provoke reprisals by such groups in Bangladesh," the Economist cautioned, adding, "More striking, India's army might try supplying its expanding divisions parked high on the border with China, in Arunachal Pradesh. China disputes India's right to Arunachal territory, calling it South Tibet. Some Bangladeshis fret that if India tries to overcome its own logistical problems by, in effect, using Bangladesh as a huge military marshalling yard, reprisals from China would follow."