THE prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s just-concluded visit to New Delhi was an official visit unlike her two previous bilateral visits, one in 2010 and another in 2017 which were state visits. Thus, New Delhi did not provide her latest visit with the importance that it had done in her earlier two visits. In 2010, the prime minister was received by the Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh and in 2017 by the prime minister Narendra Modi. This time, she was received by a state minister. And this time there was no 21 gun salute with which she was received on her state visits.
New Delhi was neither in a hurry to give her latest visit the importance that it had given to her visits in 2010 and 2017 nor was apparently interested to accord it the pomp and grandeur of a state visit. New Delhi, perhaps, wanted to send Dhaka a message that it was unhappy with Bangladesh about the way it was conducting its politics, both foreign and domestic, that was not helping India’s strategic interests. If that was, indeed, the case, it so did perfectly with the 53-point joint statement that was issued following the visit.
Sheikh Hasina went to New Delhi with her nation eagerly and expectantly hoping that New Delhi would at least give her a road map for the Teesta deal. And added to that expectation was the new and extremely important and urgent issue of the National Register of Citizens with which India hanged over Bangladesh the sword of Damocles in recent times — that of the threat of pushing what it termed as ‘illegal Bangladeshis’, millions of them in Assam and other parts of India, including West Bengal, across the border to Bangladesh.
The Teesta deal was again thrown out into the distant horizon with another promise from the Indian prime minister that it would be given ‘soon’ which Bangladesh knew from experience could mean many decades as it was made to wait with the Teen Bigha Corridor. Bangladesh was made to wait for those decades for the Teen Bigha Corridor after Bangladesh had given Berubari enclave to India within two months after the signing of the Indira-Mujib Border Agreement of 1974 between Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Indira Gandhi. And for the Teesta deal, Bangladesh gave India security guarantees and land transit that were on top of Indian interests in Bangladesh. India was supposed to hand to Bangladesh the Teesta deal in September 2011.
India’s promise that it would deliver the Teesta deal ‘soon’ was not the worst part of Bangladesh’s disappointment. New Delhi had the cheek to ask, without giving the Teesta deal, water from another major Bangladesh river, the River Feni for drinking purpose of residents in the Indian state of Tripura. And unbelievably, Bangladesh gave in to the demand without any question being asked or raised. The Bangladesh foreign secretary for reasons he alone would be able to explain called it a ‘generosity’ on part of Bangladesh to have acceded to such an Indian request. Perhaps the foreign secretary was unaware that the River Feni was the next river after the Teesta that the prime minister wanted to be discussed for sharing after the Teesta deal was handed to Bangladesh.
And the National Register of Citizens issue went ignored. The joint statement made no mention of it, underlining that it was, perhaps, not even discussed at the bilateral meeting between the two leaders with their aides or in the tete-à-tete between the two prime ministers that had preceded the official talks at New Delhi’s Hyderabad House. The Bangladesh foreign minister, as readers would recall, said after the meeting between the Bangladesh prime minister and the Indian prime minister on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly recently that Narendra Modi had assured that Bangladesh need not be worried at all about the NRC issue.
Bangladesh’s interests were thus sidelined with the way the Teesta Deal and the NRC issues figured, or for that matter not figured, during the visit. That was not all that underlined that ‘all was not well in the state of Denmark’ in the context of Bangladesh-India relations. There was worse piece of news in the 53-point joint statement. In place of Bangladesh’s major interests vis-à-vis India, namely the sharing of the waters of the common rivers on which Bangladesh’s existence as a country rested in the long run and trade, border killings, et cetera, issues of interests to India figured prominently in the joint statement.
Thus, New Delhi asked for and received, in addition to the withdrawal of 1.82 cusecs of water from the River Feni, agreement on coastal surveillance system that would allow India to monitor Bangladesh’s coastal waters, standard operating procedure for movement of goods to and from India in the Chattogram and Mangla ports, the agreement concerning the implementation of lines of credit committed by India to Bangladesh, etc. The two countries also agreed on three new projects that would serve Indian interests. These projects were the import of liquefied petroleum gas Bangladesh to India’s north-east, the Vivekananda Bhavan at the Ram Krishna Mission and the inauguration of the Bangladesh-India Skills Development Institute in Khulna.
The joint statement underlined that New Delhi had ensured successfully that the visit of the Bangladesh prime minister would end in a zero-sum game for India. Groups in Bangladesh hitherto India’s staunchest supporters in the country were unable to take any more what came out of the joint statement. A leader of such groups stated at a press conference that all India was interested in Bangladesh was to turn the country into an Indian market. Analysts, of course, also saw a great deal more on the permission given in the joint statement for surveillance in the coastal waters where the Chinese submarines were permitted berth.
Bangladesh has seen a strategic shift in its relations with its big neighbours India and China in recent times. India that interfered in the Bangladesh elections in 2014 for the ruling party against the opposition kept its distance from the last elections almost totally. That allowed China to make major strides into Bangladesh not just in matters of economic interests that did not bother India but into strategic matters that alarmed India. The joint statement flagged those concerns both implicitly and explicitly and perhaps also with a taint of anger that would explain why the visit of the Bangladesh prime minister was not treated as a state visit as her previous two visits.
Nevertheless, it went to the credit of the Bangladesh prime minister that she spelt out clearly to the Indians diplomatically that the people of Bangladesh were running out of patience with the Indian promises on issues that are matters of life and death for Bangladesh such as its right to justifiable share of water of the common rivers. It was unfortunate that she did not receive the professional support from the mandarins of the foreign ministry who could have, instead of boasting of Bangladesh’s generosity, flagged for the Indian public that a nation that wanted to become a regional and world power could not aspire to do so if it continued to fail to keep its promises made at the highest level on its side to a small neighbour such as Bangladesh.
The Bangladeshi diplomats could and should have also flagged for the world the fact that on the Rohingya issue, the same nation backed, and continues to do so, the perpetrators of an active genocide against the victims, making Bangladesh the victim of massive collateral damage. It would have strengthened the hands of the prime minister to deal with India.
M Serajul Islam is a former career ambassador.
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