Walk­ing the Talk

If Modi’s dis­crim­i­na­tory views are trans­lated into a con­crete pol­icy, the BJP gov­ern­ment stands the risk of los­ing its sup­port in Bangladesh.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Taha Ke­har The writer is a poet and au­thor. He is a law grad­u­ate of SOAS.

Al­though Bangladesh and In­dia have main­tained good re­la­tions, they have been un­able to re­solve their dis­putes.

In May 2014, Naren­dra Modi, the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, be­came Prime Min­is­ter of In­dia. De­spite this vic­tory, Modi has a long way to go be­fore he can strengthen In­dia’s re­la­tions with Bangladesh. The Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity pop­u­la­tion in Bangladesh views Modi’s vic­tory as a dark hour for re­gional co­op­er­a­tion among South Asian coun­tries.

From the out­set, Modi’s elec­toral campaign ap­pears to have un­justly tar­geted Bangladesh. While cam­paign­ing in West Ben­gal, he adopted a hard­line against Bangladesh and vo­cif­er­ously sup­ported the ex­pul­sion of ‘il­le­gal im­mi­grants’. Naren­dra Modi’s re­ac­tion to the pres­ence of Bangladeshi im­mi­grants in In­dia ap­pears ig­no­rant, big­oted and com­pletely un­jus­ti­fi­able. If the dis­crim­i­na­tory views are trans­lated into a con­crete pol­icy, the BJP gov­ern­ment stands the risk of los­ing its sup­port in Bangladesh.

At this crit­i­cal junc­ture, In­dia can­not af­ford to jeop­ar­dize its re­la­tions with Bangladesh since it needs the lat­ter’s co­op­er­a­tion to con­trol in­sur­gency in its north­east­ern states and con­se­quently to de­velop tran­sit fa­cil­i­ties in As­sam, Tripura and Megha­laya states.

In light of the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal cli­mate, it is par­tic­u­larly dis­con­cert­ing that Bangladeshi Prime Min­is­ter Sheikh Hasina did not at­tend Naren­dra Modi’s swear­ing-in cer­e­mony.

A his­tor­i­cal over­view re­veals that re­la­tions between In­dia and Bangladesh have always been cor­dial. Dur­ing Bangladesh’s lib­er­a­tion move­ment, In­dia as­sisted East Pak­istan and was the first coun­try to rec­og­nize Bangladesh as an in­de­pen­dent state. In a sim­i­lar vein, Bangladesh has main­tained bi­lat­eral trade with In­dia which stood at USD5.3 bil­lion in 2013. In­ter­est­ingly, In­dia has a vested in­ter­est in main­tain­ing good re­la­tions with Bangladesh as it wants to weaken China’s in­flu­ence in the lo­cal busi­ness sec­tor.

Al­though it has main­tained good re­la­tions with Bangladesh, In­dia has been un­able to re­solve its dis­putes with the coun­try. Ac­cord­ing to Obaidul Quader, a se­nior cabi­net min­is­ter, a change of gov­ern­ment in New Delhi will not mit­i­gate In­dia’s re­la­tions with Bangladesh.

Sheikh Hasina be­lieves her gov­ern­ment has tried to re­solve the long-stand­ing dis­putes with In­dia in­volv­ing the Teesta River dis­pute and the dis­puted bound­aries. How­ever, the BJP has adopted a lax at­ti­tude to find­ing an effective so­lu­tion to th­ese is­sues.

Re­cently, Bangladesh has raised its con­cerns about both is­sues with In­dia’s new pre­mier. The main rea­son for ad­dress­ing the Teesta wa­ter and the land bound­ary is­sues shortly af­ter the new gov­ern­ment came to power was to gauge Modi’s re­ac­tion. If the BJP is averse to reach­ing a com­pro­mise,

Bangladesh’s predica­ment would re­main largely ig­nored. Sheikh Hasina has al­ready blamed Ma­mata Ban­er­jee, the Chief Min­is­ter of West Ben­gal, for the fail­ure of both In­dia and Bangladesh to sign the Teesta River wa­ter-sharing treaty. In or­der to avoid an on­go­ing blame game and an­other failed at­tempt at solv­ing the prob­lem, there is an ur­gent need for dis­cus­sion and de­bate.

The Teesta wa­ter-sharing pact and the land bound­ary dis­pute re­main pend­ing is­sues that re­quire im­me­di­ate at­ten­tion. The speaker who rep­re­sented Bangladesh at the swear­ing-in cer­e­mony of Naren­dra Modi’s cabi­net raised both is­sues with the new pre­mier at a bi­lat­eral meet­ing. How­ever, the dis­cus­sion re­mained, at best, weak and un­pro­duc­tive. The is­sue of the Ti­paimukh dam along the Barak River in Ma­nipur was not ex­plic­itly ad­dressed. More­over, the BJP’s sup­port for re­mov­ing il­le­gal mi­grants from Bangladesh was largely over­looked.

Apart from a se­ries of half-hearted prom­ises, Modi was un­able to pro­vide valu­able diplo­matic as­sur­ances. On the con­trary, he paid lip ser­vice to good diplo­macy and guar­an­teed that ev­ery pos­si­ble ef­fort would be made to re­solve the sit­u­a­tion.

De­spite the new gov­ern­ment’s diplo­matic stance, it is un­likely that Modi will be able to walk the talk. Be­fore the elec­toral vic­tory, there was con­sid­er­able op­po­si­tion within the BJP re­gard­ing the land bound­ary agree­ment. The pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment made a con­sis­tent at­tempt to de­velop a po­lit­i­cal con­sen­sus on the bound­ary dis­pute. This en­sured that the agree­ment come into ef­fect and was not al­to­gether dis­carded. Di­ver­gence of opin­ion within the BJP may hin­der In­dia’s diplo­matic re­la­tions with Bangladesh.

Amid the doom and gloom sce­nario, the Bangladesh gov­ern­ment has re­signed it­self to the fact that its ef­forts will bear no fruit. It has re­fused to set a date by which the Teesta River pact will come into force and is merely seek­ing to con­vince In­dia to ini­ti­ate progress. Once the dis­pute has been re­solved, Bangladesh will gain con­sid­er­able au­ton­omy over its wa­ter re­sources.

Fur­ther­more, the land bound­ary agree­ment, which has been pend­ing for five decades, needs to be given se­ri­ous at­ten­tion.

How­ever, it re­mains to be seen if any so­lu­tion will be reached. Fol­low­ing the sec­ond bud­get ses­sion in the Par­lia­ment, the BJP has op­posed sev­eral bills and im­peded the leg­isla­tive process. The Land Bound­ary Agree­ment 1974 between In­dia and Bangladesh is also among the bills.

Fur­ther de­lays in rat­i­fy­ing the land bound­ary agree­ment could pose count­less dis­ad­van­tages. Once the bill has been passed, it would give In­dia its long­est de­mar­cated land bound­ary and re­solve the is­sues of ad­verse pos­ses­sion in cer­tain ter­ri­to­ries. In­dia cur­rently has 111 en­claves in Bangladesh. On the other hand, Bangladesh has 51 en­claves on the In­dian front. The in­hab­i­tants of the en­claves live in mis­er­able con­di­tions of poverty. The new gov­ern­ment con­tin­ues to cast a blind eye to their hu­man rights. The BJP has falsely jus­ti­fied its op­po­si­tion to the land bound­ary agree­ment on the grounds that In­dia would lose sev­eral acres of land.

The re­fusal to pass the agree­ment could also weaken bi­lat­eral re­la­tions between Bangladesh and In­dia. When gen­eral elec­tions take place in Bangladesh, In­dia’s in­abil­ity to tackle th­ese con­cerns would fur­ther elim­i­nate any scope for progress. In fact, it would strengthen hos­til­i­ties against In­dia in Bangladesh. It is ob­vi­ous that fol­low­ing the with­drawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, In­dia can­not risk any fur­ther con­flicts.

In or­der to de­velop an effective means of re­solv­ing is­sues that have been con­ve­niently brushed un­der the car­pet, the BJP gov­ern­ment must adopt a more co­he­sive ap­proach. De­lay­ing de­ci­sions which should have been taken sev­eral decades ago is a sign of poor gover­nance and lack of plan­ning.

Bangladesh and In­dia should co­op­er­ate with each other and en­sure that the land bound­ary agree­ment is rat­i­fied. Sim­i­larly, the BJP must for­sake its po­lit­i­cal agenda and give pref­er­ence to na­tional in­ter­ests. Any new gov­ern­ment that par­a­lyzes the leg­isla­tive process at the very be­gin­ning of its term can­not be re­lied upon to fos­ter pos­i­tive change.

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