Tariq Karim has been Bangladesh’s envoy to India for the past five years, as a political appointee, and has steered the important agreement drafts of the Land Border Agreement and Teesta River water arrangement. Returning from Dhaka, where he had been a part of the bilateral negotiations between External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and the Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmood Ali and Prime Minister Hasina he spoke to The Hindu’s Diplomatic Editor Suhasini Haidar about the urgency of clearing the agreement in the next three months. Excerpts.
The MEA describes External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Dhaka as “productive and successful”. How would you describe it?
I speak for the Foreign Minister and the government when I say the visit was excellent, which served to reassure us that India was going to stand by its commitments, and that the assurances that India is in the process of getting consensus in the federal structure, we accepted that at face value. These are early days for the government, we have waited three years, we can wait another three or four months.
When you say three-four months, have you been given a commitment on the time?
I say three-four months because in my mind there is a timeline, because if you let it drag on for too long, the internal politics and dynamics in Bangladesh will make it more and more difficult to accept at face-value the reassurances from India. It’s neither in our interest nor in India’s in terms of the bold signals that the new PM has given out that regional cooperation will be the mainstay of how they want to go ahead. It will become more difficult for India. And getting the India-Bangladesh relationship right will be the key to opening a lot of locks in the region.
When the External Affairs Minister spoke of building consensus, what hope do you have that they will build that consensus on the Land Border Agreement that has to be cleared in parliament, especially given that it was the BJP that blocked it earlier this year?
I go back to the assurances we received before the LBA was decided on. I had spoken to senior BJP leaders at the time. And there was broad consensus between the BJP and the Congress that it should go through. It’s another matter that coalition politics took over that this kept being pushed to the backburner. The bill has now been tabled by the Congress party in the Rajya Sabha, where the Congress is still in a majority. I hope they will not go back on their word. Secondly, the present government has given a clear message, that when it comes to foreign policy, the government will decide what is in India’s larger interest. It’s for India to decide what that it vis-à-vis these issues. But in Bangladesh, the issues of the LBA and the Teesta agreement are now a litmus test of India’s willingness to have good relations with neighbours. If this can be done in India’s relations with Bangladesh, there is no reason why it can’t in other relations in the neighbourhood.
When it comes to the Teesta agreement, the big road block comes from West Bengal…
Even when we did the Ganga (Farrakah water treaty), we worked very closely with the then Chief Minister of West Bengal Mr. Jyoti Basu. And even here, we have strived to ensure that we have good relations with all CMs who border Bangladesh. When the PM went to Bangladesh, we sent invites to all of them , and all came except West Bengal CM (Mamata Bannerji). Its that state that we have the strongest historical ties with, and what we have to understand is that rivers will flow a certain way….god and geography ensured that. We have to make a paradigm shift in our thinking about segmenting rivers. Any river basin is a force of nature with a personality of its own. What we are talking about is managing the common resource of water that we have that we need to do for everything from agriculture to flood control. Every year thousands of acres are washed away when these rivers are in full spate. Our biggest challenge is to lift people out of poverty, but in Bangladesh every time we do that, the rivers push more people into poverty because of lost land. Being the lowest of the low riparians, we cannot manage this on our own, we have to do it together, we are all stakeholders.
Yet we have seen consistent opposition from Ms. Mamata Banerjee… does that worry you?
Yes, I continue to be worried, yet I hope that Mamatadi will see the larger picture. There is sufficient water in the Teesta. If we can work on Ganga and Brahmputra with three countries, why not a bilateral agreement on Teesta? If Sikkim has hydel projects, why not turn it into multipurpose — flood control, irrigation and power, so we can use the water all the year around. I believe the Kalyan Rudra (Commission on Teesta agreement set up by West Bengal government) report will also support the very basis of the Teesta agreement we drafted.
But Ms. Banerjee isn’t the only CM who is criticising Bangladesh. Assam CM Tarun Gogoi has marked concern over an increase in illegal immigration from Bangladesh…
Yes, that is something new. Now, we do not encourage economic migration. If you look at the figures, the GDP of the north eastern states bordering us is hovering over 4 per cent , ours is 6-7 per cent . Logic dictates that people don’t go from rich to poor areas. Migration has taken place in the past, and there are pockets and grey areas of enclaves that are under no ones control. Which is why we say implement the Land Border agreement so it will clear the fuzzy areas and operationalise our coordinated border mechanism already signed. How can they manage it if they haven’t got a clear border to protect?
There is also a migration of Hindu refugees fleeing the violence against them in Bangladesh. Did Ms. Swaraj bring this up?
This was not brought up in any of the official talks with the Minister or PM Hasina. Ms. Swaraj visited the Dhakeshwari temple, and met people there and I hope she was satisfied with the reassurances we gave her, that our government is there to look after all communities. This is an avowedly secular government that has a commitment to protect everyone not just the Muslim majority.
So did the government fail- given that there were targeted attacks on Hindus, 1500 homes burnt, 50 temples attacked…
Yes the government can fail. It is worrying and we are taking all measures we can, but there is always the danger of pockets of extremism trying to create mischief.
Finally, When will the PMs meet… to take forward the relationship and perhaps sign the agreements?
Our PM sent a letter to PM Modi, and he replied accepting the invitation and offered one to her to visit Delhi as well. Personally I believe we have gone beyond photo-op visits. But I would hope that we see them both meet for a substantive visit before the SAARC meets in November in Nepal, so we have a model for how the region can cooperate better.