It is now crystal clear that the in the eyes of the security state India, a potential world power, prickly relationship with its pygmy neighbour Bangladesh is worth attention at all if India’s security concerns warrant such attention. Otherwise India would habitually continue to sit like the giant elephant it is over the unresolved issues with its small, insignificant neighbour, the status quo being in its favour. This was succinctly brought out in the Banyan column of The Economist of London, Aug. 30th issue, under the title “Go east, old man” ahead of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s official Dhaka visit (the first such visit by an Indian Prime Minister belonging to the Congress Party since Indira Gandhi’s visit for Indira-Mujib border delineation agreement in 1974). The article observed:
“Ahead of a visit to Bangladesh next week by India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, officials from both sides have been acting as if economic ties—stunted by decades of mistrust and neglect—will soon be soaring, such as to match political ties of almost indecent buoyancy.
“Despite the two countries’ shared history and geography, India is not even among Bangladesh’s top-ten foreign investors. India may have close political ties with its eastern neighbour. But China wins the economic competition in Bangladesh hands down. China is Bangladesh’s biggest trading partner, as well as its primary supplier of military equipment. And it seems that not a month goes by without Chinese companies winning contracts to build power stations, roads, telecoms and other infrastructure in Bangladesh. Mr Singh is to visit next week, and his Congress-party boss, Sonia Gandhi, visited last month, but China’s leader in waiting, Xi Jinping, visited Bangladesh more than a year ago.
“Billions of dollars worth of goods are smuggled across the 4,100km Indo-Bangladesh border every year. Making that trade legal would make the official figures look more respectable. This week India’s home minister, P. Chidambaram, laid the foundation stone for one of seven planned trading posts along the border. If this sudden burst of enthusiasm for economic integration catches on, Bangladeshis may soon have to come up with a new nickname for India’s Border Security Force. These days the BSF is insulted as the Border Smuggling Force.
“Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, is not asking Mr Singh to dismantle the iron fence that runs along the world’s fifth-longest international border. It cost India billions of dollars to build and enforce and still defines its wonky border (also one of the world’s bloodiest). Instead Sheikh Hasina appears to be urging India not to let unresolved problems stand in the way of things that can be done.
“The enthusiasm generated by the flying 30-hour visit that Mr Singh has scheduled for September 6th and 7th is not entirely misplaced. He is expected to sign a deal on sharing water from the Teesta river.
“Is it the perceived threat of cross-border terrorism, security concerns in India’s north-east or China’s increasing influence that is renewing India’s interest in its neighbour to the east?
“India is likely to make concessions as long as its security concerns are not compromised. One area where progress is likely to be made is the planned swapping of parcels of territory.”
That prediction proved uncannily accurate one week later when the much-trumpeted Dhaka summit between India and Bangladesh achieved little beyond “planned swapping of parcels of territory.” Throughout the expectant week, though, the government of Bangladesh and the India-friendly section of the Bangladesh media continued to raise high hopes about the final touches being put on a framework of “historic” leap forward in Indo-Bangladesh relations. The priority of India’s security concerns was evident at the same time as India’s National Security Adviser took over the charge of final negotiations of the package of accords to be penned at the summit. Indeed, India’s national security adviser Shiv Shankar Menon, who had left Dhaka only five days ago ending a two-day visit, flew back Saturday (Sept. 3) on a brief four-hour visit and held a ‘comprehensive discussion’ with the Bangladesh side.
He held talks with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s economic affairs adviser Mashiur Rahman and international affairs adviser Gowher Rizvi on the issues to be discussed between the two prime ministers and the details of a draft transit agreement proposed by India. Menon also held a meeting with water resources minister Ramesh Chandra Sen to fine-tune the agreements on sharing of the waters of Teesta and Feni rivers.
There were wide differences between the two sides over the fees payable by India for using Bangladesh territory for trade with third countries as well as passage of goods between its two places. There were also differences over when India would be allowed to use Bangladesh territory for transit. The Bangladesh side wanted time for settling modalities on providing transit.
The two governments are yet to agree on the proportions of the waters of Teesta the two countries would divide. Bangladesh wants 50 per cent share while India is negotiating for 55 per cent of the flow for itself. The ministerial-level meeting of the Bangladesh-India Joint Rivers Commission, which is expected to give finishing touches to the agreements for sharing the waters of Teesta and Feni rivers, was deferred at the request of India.
Water and transit
A Bangladesh government official said that India had tagged agreements on Teesta and Feni rivers to signing of an agreement on transit.
According to the Foreign Ministry, as of Sept. 3, three agreements, five MoUs and two protocols have been finalised and will be signed on Sept. 6, the day Manmohan will arrive and hold official talks with his Bangladesh counterpart Sheikh Hasina. An MoU expresses a convergence of will between the parties, indicating an intended common line of action, while protocol is defined as an international agreement which supplements or amends a treaty. The three agreements ready to be signed were: 15-year interim water sharing agreements on water sharing of the Teesta and Feni rivers and import of 250 megawatt of electricity from India.
The MoUs planned to be signed were on protection of the Sunderbans, cooperation in renewable energy sector, cooperation in fisheries and between BTV and Doordarshan, and joint venture on a coal-fired 1320-megawatt power plant.
Among the protocols, one was to be signed on land boundary while the other was on protection of tigers in the Sunderbans.
Besides, the issue of allowing Bhutan to use Rohanpur-Singhabad sector for transporting goods was to be added to an existing protocol.
The Foreign Ministry said that there might be further developments in the coming two days in terms of signing more deals.
Even on the next day, Dr. Dipu Moni, the foreign minister of Bangladesh assured the press in Dhaka that the two countries were set to sign three agreements including the sharing of the waters of the Teesta and Feni rivers, two protocols and six Memoranda of Understanding, in addition to exchanging letters giving formal consent for providing transit to India.
The signing of an agreement for purchasing power from India was left out, as “several formalities, including approval of the Cabinet committee, were yet to be completed.”
But it turned out that the Shiv Shankar Menon visit on September 3 was in fact a prelude to Indian back-tracking manoeuvre, as the Indian security establishment was not ready to concede much if its primary requirement of an immediate framework deal for possible transit (or corridor for passage, to be precise) through Bangladesh and use of sea-ports at Mangla and Chittagong for India-to-India trade and traffic under cover of existing trade agreements were finalised. A letter of intent at this stage, as offered by Bangladesh side, was not enough for India’s satisfaction.
A spin was therefore created about the water sharing of Teesta water by conflicting reports from Pashchimbanga. According to a report of Kolkata-based Anandabazar Patrika on Sept. 1, Bangladesh was to get 48 per cent of Teesta water while India would retain 52 per cent. It also reported that Pashchimbanga Chief Minister had cleared the draft agreement.
On the other hand, referring to a meeting with Indian Security Adviser Menon, Loksabha member from West Bengal Abu Hasem Khan Chowdhury told BBC Bangla the same day that India would get 75 per cent of the Teesta water and Bangladesh would get the remainder. As some of our experts have later pointed out, there was no contradiction between what was reported in Anandabazar Patrika and what Abu Hasem Khan Chowdhury was told by Shiv Shankar Menon. Available water in Teesta for sharing was to be measured at Gazaldoba barrage, upstream of which India was already withdrawing unilaterally in Sikkim and on Sikkim-Paschimbanga border Teesta water from two dams amounting possibly 36% percent of the river’s flows. So, keeping 10% from Paschimbanga side and 10% from Bangladesh side for the river’s self-dredging capacity, even if Paschimbanga withdrew 39% at Gazaldoba near Bangladesh border, India in fact would be reaping the benefit 75% of Teesta waters. As a matter fact, Bangladesh was being bluffed by the draft Teesta agreement. But even that agreement India was not ready to sign without a binding transit accord. Therefore India drew two steps back after moving one step forward.
Although India-friendly sections of the media, of the establishment and of the civil society are voicing deep disappointment that the Manmohan Singh visit has flopped and produced no real headway for Teesta water sharing and other pending issues from which Bangladesh could benefit (of the 480 items for which FBCCI requested duty-free access to Indian market, only 46 have been allowed by India), overwhelming public reaction in Bangladesh is one of relief. Most people consider the transit demand of India both as a security risk for Bangladesh from northeast Indian insurgency and an economic liability in terms of safety and maintenance costs of proposed transit routes. Many people are also happy that Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in the end did stand up to Indian pressure and refused to concede transit without adequate reciprocity from the Indian side. Effectively, the net progress from the visit, other things being incidental, was what The Economist in the same column noted in its Sept 7th issue as follows:
“September 6th, 2011, marks a watershed in the annals of bizarre geography. It saw the prime ministers of India and Bangladesh sign an agreement (essentially a protocol elaborating the 1974 land border accord) that will consign a whopping 201 enclaves to the history books, leaving just 49 similar exterritorial patches, mostly in Western Europe and on the fringes of the former Soviet Union. The two South Asian neighbours will exchange plots, including a patch of Bangladeshi land surrounded by Indian territory itself improbably ensconced within Bangladesh, clustered on either side of the border between the Bangladeshi district of Rangpur and the district of Cooch Behar, in the Indian state of West Bengal.
“In effect disowned by both states, the enclaves are pockets of abject poverty.
“The Indira-Mujib Land Boundary Agreement in 1974 was meant to change all that. In it, the two countries resolved to exchange enclaves ‘expeditiously’, and India agreed to forgo compensation for the additional area going to Bangladesh. Bangladesh’s parliament ratified the treaty; India’s never did.
“The agreed transfer simplifies the messy boundary but means a 40-square-kilometre net loss for India. It might seem that this is a small price to pay for India to fix its wonky border. Predictably, though, India’s opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has tried to present the enclaves as symbols of Indian territorial inviolability and an opportunity to flaunt its Hindu-nationalist credentials.”
The implementation of the agreed swap of border enclaves may therefore yet turn out to be problematic like the tin bigha corridor.
By : Sadeq Khan.