Addressing unresolved bilateral issues would silence the Bangladeshi Opposition from questioning the value of improving ties with India.
Dhaka and New Delhi are set to host many important visits soon to review the deals and commitments they made during Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's trip to New Delhi in January 2010 and her Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh's much hyped visit to Dhaka in September 2011.
While Bangladesh Home Minister Sahara Khatun's February 23-24 visit to meet P. Chidambaram has already been decided, the widely expected Dhaka trip by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee to review bilateral ties is yet to be officially announced.
The Home Minister-level talks will take place at a time when Dhaka is peeved at the repeated incidents of brutal treatment of Bangladeshis by the Border Security Force, escalating tensions on the frontier. The border incidents, including the recent savage treatment of a young cattle trader by the BSF, shown on video, have not only shocked Bangladesh but also caught Indian as well as world attention, prompting New Delhi to take action against the personnel involved.
The Indian media and human rights organisations have reacted sharply to the behaviour of the border guards. The Hindu, in an editorial, urged New Delhi to tender an “unreserved apology” to Bangladesh for the “brutal conduct” (“Brutality on the border,” Jan. 24). According to an estimate released by New York-based Human Rights Watch, more than 900 Bangladeshis and 164 Indians were killed along the border by the BSF between 2000 and 2010. The situation improved after the two countries agreed last year to avoid using lethal weapons in dealing with illegal border activities, and Mr. Chidambaram ordered the BSF not to shoot except in self-defence. Yet, according to media reports, 16 Bangladeshis were shot dead, seven others tortured and three more killed in other methods between April and December 2011. Dhaka has expressed deep concern over the recurring incidents despite repeated assurances by New Delhi that the BSF will exercise maximum restraint.
Understandably, Ms Khatun's visit will allow a renewed discussion on such border incidents, which have all the potential to generate a negative impact on people-to-people relations. The two Home Ministers, as the agenda says, will discuss a wide range of issues that will include border security, smuggling of drugs, review of the implementation of border management agreement signed in July last during Mr. Chidambaram's visit to Dhaka.
The border guards of India have all the right to defend their frontier from illegal activities, detrimental to their nation's interest. But the law should be allowed to take its course. Opening fire straightway and indulging in brutal acts take their toll on people's trust. The widespread feeling is that the largest democracy and Bangladesh's big neighbour is doing little to curb such excesses despite repeated assurances.
Since considerable time has passed after great expectations were aroused in 2010 of a shared, forward-looking enhanced connectivity and trade, it is now time to assess the implementation of the accords signed and commitments made. Mr. Mukherjee's likely Dhaka visit this month will be the best opportunity for that. The Finance Minister is visiting on the invitation of his Bangladeshi counterpart, A.M.A. Muhith, extended when they met in January at Petrapole on the India-Bangladesh border. That both the sides have felt the need to review the decisions reached so far is praiseworthy.
Mr. Mukherjee will review the state of bilateral relations, especially the $1-billion line of credit India has committed itself to providing for infrastructural development. The loan under an August 2010 agreement remains virtually untapped. Bangladesh says it plans to abandon eight of the 21 projects planned under the Indian loan, due to “tough conditions.”
Those watching the recent positive trend in India-Bangladesh relations may have reasons to be frustrated at the slow pace of implementation of some of the vitals accords, which deserve quick implementation to place the ties on a solid footing.
The Teesta water sharing accord has remained unfulfilled till date, thanks to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, causing acute embarrassment to the Hasina government, while the land boundary protocol signed during Dr. Singh's visit to Dhaka — on exchanging 162 enclaves — has not progressed satisfactorily. New Delhi is facing trouble in clearing the impediments to the implementation of the treaty, which has to be ratified in Parliament. The Bharatiya Janata Party, opposed to the implementation of the 1974 border agreement, has expressed its strong views on the issue and reportedly decried the land swap deal, perhaps to suit its political interests. Many see the BJP's position as a roadblock to the emerging India-Bangladesh ties.
Political situation in Dhaka
On the other hand, the political situation in Bangladesh has not developed as smoothly as the ruling alliance, which won a thumping majority in Parliament, expected. As the Hasina government stepped into its fourth crucial year — elections are scheduled for late 2013 — civil society finds itself increasingly divided on certain issues, which include the scrapping of the caretaker government system through a constitutional amendment. Political tensions are also on the rise on the issue of a new Election Commission. The major complaints against the government are its failure to prevent the recurrent collapse of the share market, rein in inflation and price hike, control economic chaos, stop violence by ruling party cadres, and improve law and order, and the allegation by political rivals that it has failed to gain any advantage from India. The government has been accused of protecting “India's interests” only. However, the Khaleda Zia-led opposition's open stand against the trial of the perpetrators of the worst crimes against humanity during the 1971 War of Liberation has caused more harm than good to it.
Political perceptions may differ but independent observers believe that all major political points being made by the alliance of Islamist-friendly Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami against the Hasina government are, covertly or overtly, India-centric. The Opposition is against allowing India transit to connect its northeast, and opposed to taking a hard line against the region's insurgents. Even in the recent abortive coup — foiled, thanks to the army chain of command — India-centric issues, prompted by extremist religious views, dominated the mindset of the plotters.
With the Teesta deal yet to be inked, the land boundary protocol yet to cross a hurdle before implementation, the much-desired transit non-operational, and the Tipaimukh hydro project in Manipur triggering allegations of an impact on Bangladesh's environment and economy, political adversaries opposing the new found ties will, undoubtedly, have the added advantage of questioning the ultimate outcome of the relations the neighbours fondly embarked upon two years ago. There is no denying that the deals signed and the commitments made so far must reach their logical goals, and their fruits enjoyed by the people on both sides of the border.
In an era of globalisation marked by a phenomenal growth of science and technology, Bangladesh and India cannot lag behind — nursing and sustaining mistrust and hostilities. Let us hope the relations put in place by the two countries, after decades of acrimony, will emerge as an example for South Asia. Let them not fail us.
(The writer can be reached at email@example.com)