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Last time I met my old friend Gowher Rizvi at his office in December 2011, he was very upbeat and optimistic about the ‘impending’ Teesta water sharing agreement with India. He seemed to have reposed absolute trust in what Manmohan Singh — a fellow Oxford alumnus — had promised him in this regard. Although I was still a bit sceptical about the deal, I brushed aside my scepticism momentarily, thinking the Oxford Old Boy camaraderie might have worked to the advantage of Bangladesh.
However, Manmohan Singh simply did not keep his word because of some not-so-convincing ‘Mamata Banerjee factor’. Consequently, as Bangladesh was disappointed, so I believe was Gowher crest-fallen. Now, it is irrelevant if I believe erudite, honest, and sincere people have no place in the arena of politics, especially in South Asia, where competence, hard work, and honesty hardly pay off.
Despite the recent ratification of the land boundary agreement with Bangladesh by the Indian parliament under Modi, there is nothing to celebrate about what Bangladesh has so far got from India, and what it had to give to India in return. I have reasons to believe Modi does not enjoy a good reputation in Muslim-majority Bangladesh. To tell the least, Modi’s image — along with that of his rightist Hindu party — is problematic, especially in the backdrop of the Gujarat killings of 2002. At least, 1,500 Muslims got killed in the state-sponsored rioting in the province while Modi was chief minister. The 2003 International Report by the US state department is quite unambiguous about his controversial role in the riots.
If we learn anything from history, then we know India has never been nice and benign to its smaller neighbours. However, India plays a different ball game with Pakistan. And we know the ground reality. What India gets away with Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka, cannot think of doing to Pakistan.
In the wake of India’s signing the World Bank brokered Indus Waters Treaty with Pakistan in 1960, India fought two wars against Pakistan (1965 and 1971) but has not scrapped the treaty. The countries over the years have amicably settled their disagreements over the treaty. One of the most successful water sharing endeavours in the world, the treaty is about sharing waters of six rivers in the Indus river system that includes the Indus, Jhelum, Chenub, Sutlej, Beas and Ravi. Interestingly, India and Pakistan exchange data and cooperate with each other in matters related to the treaty; and have created the Permanent Indus Commission, with a commissioner appointed by the countries.
As there was nothing substantial for Bangladesh in Manmohan Singh’s hyperbole, so is there nothing substantial in Narendra Modi’s basket to be happy about by Bangladesh. India’s empty promises and lame excuses have taught the resolute nation of Bangladesh what to expect from India, and how to live with the mighty neighbour, who has never been a gentle giant across the border. This, however, does not bode well for good neighbourly relationship between India and Bangladesh.
The Bangladesh government is least likely to get much political dividends at the home front by self-praise or extolling the virtues of the Modi government for signing the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) between the two countries. The LBA was overdue. The Indian parliament should have ratified it in 1974. So, there is nothing to go gaga about it by anybody, especially by the Bangladesh government, which had no role to play in the belated ratification of the agreement.
Had the Awami government got any clout in New Delhi, all major issues between the two countries, including Teesta, Farakka and Tipaimukh Dam, would have been resolved by now. It seems even the Bangladesh government — not people in the country — has forgotten about the monster of Farakka, which has turned northwestern Bangladesh into a semi-desert. Although Modi has compared the signing of the LBA with the fall of the Berlin Wall, India has not done any favour to Bangladesh by signing the agreement, which is not something that happened out of the way.
Meanwhile India has erected the longest barbed-wire fence in the world across the Indo-Bangladesh border. More than 70 per cent of the 4,096 kilometre long border has been fenced by eight-foot tall barbed-wire to prevent illegal migrants, smugglers and drug traffickers. The fence is much longer than the now demolished Berlin Wall and the Israeli-built wall across the occupied Palestinian territory in the West Bank.
It is time for Bangladesh to understand while Teesta and Tipaimukh are the proverbial sticks, Farakka a death warrant, the LBA is the carrot for Bangladesh. It is a means towards an end, albeit for India’s benefit alone. Although Modi is coming empty-handed to Bangladesh, he is not returning empty-handed at all. He will get transit facilities and virtually the corridor to link New Delhi with India’s turbulent north-east through Bangladesh.
Nobody in Bangladesh — in the government and media — raises the issue of tens of thousands of illegal Indian white-collar workers in Bangladesh, remitting more than $2 billion to India every year. I also come across op-eds, articles and comments of expert analysts in Bangladesh, which are full of wishful thinking and exuberance about what Bangladesh is going to gain from Modi’s visit. I have not yet read anything in Bangladeshi media on Modi’s recent announcement that Hindus from Bangladesh will get Indian citizenship as they are fleeing the country because of persecution.
I do not think Bangladesh is going to benefit from Modi’s visit. It is fat hope that Mamata Banerjee will play a different role vis-à-vis Teesta water sharing ‘the next time’. I believe irrespective of whoever is the prime minister, India is not going to discuss Teesta, Farakka, Tipaimukh, and other bilateral issues with Bangladesh in a meaningful manner, let alone resolving them permanently. Bangladesh’s enormous trade deficit with India will perpetuate. It is noteworthy that since 2010, while India exports goods worth $6.1 billion to Bangladesh (previously it was worth $2.7 billion), the corresponding figure for Bangladeshi export to India grew from paltry $274 million to $456 million a year.
I think it is time to appraise (a) if India’s Bangladesh policy under the Hindu nationalist Modi government is somewhat more benign and friendly than what it was under his predecessors; and (b) if Bangladesh will be getting its due share of waters from the Ganges, Teesta and Barak. I have not yet seen any such sign. What I see is: Modi is not even going to discuss Teesta, let alone giving Bangladesh its due share of the waters, ‘this time’. One wonders, if there will ever be a ‘next time’!
I think Mamata Banerjee’s opposition to sharing the Teesta waters with Bangladesh is a convenient and flimsy excuse by New Delhi not to ever implement the Teesta water sharing agreement. A provincial government’s refusal to share international waters with lower riparian country is not acceptable in international law. Unless a miracle happens, Mamata Banerjee or whoever is the chief minister of West Bengal is not going to act positively in this regard, ever. In sum, it seems Indo-Bangladesh relationship is likely to remain on an uneven keel, indefinitely.
The author, Taj Hashmi, teaches security studies at Austin Peay State University.