In Bangladesh-India relations, there is a need to translate positive political will into reality in a way that will leave neither side feeling short-changed
Eight months after Manmohan Singh's much hyped Bangladesh tour in September 2011, Indian Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee's May 5-6 visit to Dhaka has raised a new hope. The senior politician has cleared some, if not all, the fog that keeps India-Bangladesh ties from growing to its full height.
Mr. Mukherjee's visit was to bring to a closure the year-long joint celebrations of the 150th birth anniversary of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, the shared icon. But it also turned into a political tour as the two sides reviewed the implementation of bilateral accords and commitments made in joint declarations at New Delhi and Dhaka in 2010 and 2011. This has given a new push to the journey that began with high hope after Sheikh Hasina's comeback, but stalled with the debacle of Teesta deal.
Mr. Mukherjee was the first Indian leader after many months to re-assure Bangladesh about several major pending issues: the Indian river-linking project would not affect Bangladesh as all the rivers originating in the Himalayas would be kept outside its purview; the controversial Tipaimukh hydraulic project is being examined by a sub-committee with a powerful mandate under the Joint River Commission (JRC) to look into all aspects including joint participation by Bangladesh and India; and before inking the Teesta water sharing deal, experts of both the countries will address the concerns of both the West Bengal government and Bangladesh.
On another important issue, the implementation of land boundary protocols which were signed to exchange 162 enclaves and adversely possessed lands, Mr. Mukherjee assured Bangladesh that a “consensus building process” is on to ratify the protocols in Indian Parliament, since the government does not have the required majority.
On border killings and reported incidents of torture by Indian border guards against illegal trespassers, the Indian Minister expressed his regrets and once again reiterated New Delhi's resolve to address the sensitive issue.
A mention-worthy development during Mr. Mukherjee's visit was New Delhi's friendly gesture of announcing $200 million as grant out of the $1billion credit line that it has given Bangladesh. Also, India has promised to decrease the rate of interest on the remaining $800m and relax conditions on procurement of machine parts, which had remained a contentious issue for a long time. For all these reasons, the visit is being seen as the re-start of a bilateral process that had virtually stalled over the last few months.
Mr. Mukherjee's verbal assurances were endorsed at once by New Delhi. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reiterated his government's commitments to implement all accords with Bangladesh when the visiting Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni called on him. He also reiterated India's commitment to resolve pending issues including the Tipaimukh, river interlinking and was categorical that India would not take any unilateral action that would have an adverse impact on the neighbour.
At a joint media conference with his Bangladesh counterpart, India's External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna, on May 7, categorically assured Dhaka that the Himalayan rivers would not be included in New Delhi's plan of river inter-linking. However, since the Teesta water sharing is continuously opposed by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, Mr. Krishna was perhaps just being practical in saying that the deal would have to wait until a consensus was reached.
Undoubtedly, popular concerns in Bangladesh were mounting over the pending issues. The transit and trans-shipment rights granted to India by the Hasina government and the Teesta fiasco are being used as tools by the government's political adversaries, underscoring the need to resolve these issues swiftly and judiciously.
It is good that the joint statement issued by the two Foreign Ministers covered Dhaka's concerns on the Tipaimukh project. The two countries also expressed satisfaction over the achievements in trade, power, water resources, connectivity, and India's recent lifting of the ban on cotton exports to Bangladesh. Ms Moni also had useful meetings with Pawan Kumar Bansal and P. Chidambaram. One of the youngest Cabinet colleagues of Prime Minister Hasina, the country's first woman Foreign Minister was satisfied enough to say: “We are very happy with the outcome … and I will return to Dhaka with confidence.”
On transit rights, a vital concern for India, Bangladesh has already agreed to provide the facility, but wants to do it “in a sustainable manner.” On power sector cooperation, India hopes that 500 MW power will flow from the country to power shortage-stricken Bangladesh during the summer of 2013. It is true that India's decision in 2011 to grant zero duty access to all goods from Bangladesh has opened new opportunities for expansion of bilateral trade, although trade imbalance continues to be a major issue.
There is visible progress in sectors that directly concern the people. After success in opening Border haats along Meghalaya border, the two countries recently surveyed infrastructure for trade and business to set up more such haats along 856 km Tripura border. According to Tripura's Industries Minister, Jiten Choudhury, if the existing border infrastructure is upgraded, the volume of trade and business between Bangladesh and Indian northeastern States would increase five to six times. It is worth mentioning that trade between Bangladesh and Tripura alone has increased from Rs.4 crore in 1996 to Rs.258 crore in the last financial year.
In another development, the two countries have agreed to conclude an extradition treaty at the earliest and vowed not to allow domestic or foreign militants and insurgents in each other's territories. The Sheikh Hasina government has already met some vital security concerns of India by taking a hard line against northeast insurgents, and the recent reiteration of the commitment is worth mentioning.
Connectivity has always been a priority. After Dhaka-Kolkata and Dhaka-Agartala direct bus services, the two countries have taken initiatives to commence bus service on Dhaka-Shillong-Guwahati sector, and agreed to expeditiously conclude a Motor Vehicles Agreement for regulation of passenger and cargo traffic. Besides, they agreed for early construction of Akhaura-Agartala railway link and complete the formalities for the use of Chittagong and Mongla seaports for movement of goods to and from India through water, rail and road.
Beginning 2010, the two neighbours entered a new phase of relations forging a solid political will. Translating that will into reality requires a pragmatic approach, so that neither side feels aggrieved or let down. Despite the marked improvement in relations, the Bangladesh media continue to highlight only the negatives, such as the border killings by Indian border guards even after repeated assurances from New Delhi. The Coordinated Border Management Plan (CBMP) must be implemented not only to contain cross-border crimes but also for maintenance of peace and harmony along the border.
Sheikh Hasina's compulsions on the political front are easily understandable. Her government has taken some bold steps vis-à-vis relations with India over issues including security, transit and access to Chittagong and Mongla ports. All these have irked and alarmed sizable political sections. This is why Ms Hasina went to New Delhi to seek “political will in addressing the pending issues”. She also stressed the need for “greater sensitivity from the Indian side” while responding to Bangladesh's concerns.
The Bangladesh leader is also right when she mentions that only a few people in Bangladesh understand the Centre-State relations or the dynamics of coalition politics in India.
It is important to keep the momentum on India-Bangladesh ties so that the political adversaries of the revival of these ties do not derive any benefits from the unexpected slowdown, and in a way that the people on both sides benefit.
It is just as well that at his meeting with Opposition leader Khaleda Zia, who looks at the fundamentalist Jamaat-E-islami and other Islamists as allies, Mr. Mukherjee reiterated India's hope for a “peaceful and democratic Bangladesh”, and its desire to maintain ties with all the political parties of Bangladesh, not with just a specific one.
India and Bangladesh have three deeply rooted bonds of which they can be proud: they have a shared history and culture of hundreds of years, they have the shared experience of 1971 when Bangladesh was born; and they both share a great cultural icon, the Nobel laureate poet and philosopher, Rabindranath Tagore, who preached humanity and unity.
After the conclusion of the year-long festivities marking the 150th birth anniversary of Tagore, both countries should look forward to jointly marking the 90th anniversary of another icon of secular values, the rebel Bengali poet, Kazi Nazrul Islam.
(The writer, based in Dhaka, is a journalist and author. E-mail : firstname.lastname@example.org)