The Agartala doctrine

chairman of India-Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Matlub Ahmad (on extreme right) with Dipu Moni at Tripura Conclave. Photo credit: www.tripurainfoway.com

In recent years, states in India have increasingly asserted themselves in the conduct of national foreign policy. The emergence of the politics of coalitions and the rise of powerful regional parties in border states which share land or sea boundaries with neighbouring countries have made the conduct of Indian foreign policy a highly complex and dynamic process. Broadly speaking, the impact of regional overlords on foreign policy can be categorised into supportive or confrontational. Some chief ministers like the late Jyoti Basu went out of their way to secure deals like the Ganges river water sharing between India and Bangladesh. Basu rose above petty provincial considerations and saw the long term spin-offs that would accrue from the Ganges treaty. Any such deal, struck during the tenure of a secularist, pro-Indian regime in Dhaka reinforces the anti-fundamentalist tenor of Bangladesh politics which would not only benefit India but also all border states. Hasina’s fierce crackdown against all ethnic insurgents and Islamist radicals who were using Bangladesh soil to launch terror attacks on India has justified Basu’s faith in her that led to his initiative for the Ganges water sharing treaty in 1997. Basu was supported by North Bengal’s powerful Congress chieftain ABA Ghani Khan Chaudhury (the two shared a sweet personal rapport despite Ghani’s frequent threats to throw the Communists into the Bay of Bengal) in a rare display of political consensus achieved by a realisation of long term interests of the locality, province and the nation.

Sadly though, West Bengal under Mamata Banerji has proved to be a different kettle of fish. The Teesta river water sharing treaty that Manmohan Singh was ready to sign during his Dhaka visit in 2010 still hangs in uncertainty. Hasinsa who had staked so much to deliver on India’s security and connectivity concerns, is left high and dry facing a hostile constituency with rivals like Begum Khaleda Zia accusing her of failing to protect national interests vis-a-vis India. Worse, India is left looking a less-than-effective nation-state, unable to honour its sovereign commitments to an obliging neighbour. All because of Mamata’s strident uncompromising opposition to the Teesta and land boundary agreements, which is also opposed by Assamese regional parties. The BJP, initially opposed to both, appears to have mellowed , after realising the big picture. But even a decisive leader like Modi is not able to brush aside Mamata and the Assamese politicians to push the Teesta and land boundary deals.

He can however draw hope from unusual quarters. Tiny Tripura under Chief Minister Manik Sarkar has shown the way on how to leverage the national foreign policy thrust to improve relations with Bangladesh and other neighbours further East. It not only has excellent relations with Bangladesh but has been able to implement its ambitious 726MW gas-fired Palatana power project after Bangladesh allowed transshipment of its heavy equipment through Chittagong port and Asuganj land port. Emphasizing reciprocity, Manik Sarkar promptly promised 100MW for power=starved Bangladesh during Hasina’s Agartala visit in 2011. Now Delhi has followed up on that commitment. Hasina has gone one step further. She has personally taken the initiative to not only allow transghipment of 10000 MT of foodgrains for Tripura through the Chittagong-Asuganj route but also refused to charge Tripura for road repairs and maintenance.

Agartala figures in the narrative of the Bangladesh liberation struggle as no other Indian town or state. It is the Agartala Conspiracy case that propelled Mujibur Rahman to the cult figure status of Bangabandhu after the Pakistani military regime accused him of sedition and said he had travelled to Agartala to ask for Indian help to secede. Tripura sheltered 17-18 lakh refugees in 1971 when her own population was merely 15.56 lakhs — and it did so without a hiccup. The leading figures of the liberation war, including Major Ziaur Rahman first regrouped on Tripura’s soil after his group of Bengali soldiers, tired and battered, were received at Sabroom by BSF office P K Ghosh (F company, 92 battalion) and my late father-in-law Nirmal Majumder ( then in charge of Sabroom PS).  From Sachin Singh to Nripen Chakrabarty to Manik Sarkar, all Tripura chief minister have been unusually friendly to Bangladesh, except when its military and quasi-military regimes sponsored insurgents attacking targets in Tripura.

Now this position seems to be turning into a formal doctrine through the efforts of the organisers of the Tripura Conclave. The Conclave, held in Agartala on 9th July by Tripura Infoway, aims to regularise the culture of a policy dialogue by taking up a critical issue every year that is crucial for Tripura. This year, leveraging trans-national processes like BCIM and BIMSTEC and India’s Look East policy to Tripura’s advantage, was the theme of the Conclave. It brought together Bangladesh’s former foreign minister Dipu Moni, Sinologist Jabin Jacob and former Indian envoy to Myanmar Alok Sen, who spoke on countries they belong to or specialise in. The idea was to figure out a strategy on leveraging the opportunities provided by BCIM-BIMSTEC and India’s Look East. The deliberations has led to what may be called the ‘Agartala Doctrine’ — a policy guideline for states who try to influence national foreign policy and tury to work it to its own advantage.

The Agartala Doctrine will be an effective counter-point to the Mamata-Jayalalitha or the Assam line of confrontation vis-a-vis neighbours and Delhi. It will seek to focus on long-term perspectives rather than short -term considerations, often prompted by electoral necessities. It will also insist that Delhi should respect the interests of smaller states and not club Tripura’s interests with Assam or Bengal’s outlook on Bangladesh because they were widely different. Lastly, the Agartala doctrine will seek to deny states the right to deprive the whole nation the positive benefits of a friendly Bangladesh (or any other neighbour) just because a state or a ruling party or a leader like Mamata has a problem. The Agartala Doctrine will also stress the retention of the basic parameters of India’s Eastern policy that was redefined by Indira Gandhi’s bold intervention in the 1971 liberation war and ensure it is not undermined by short-sightedness that can only promptly hostile forces to spin mileage out of actions like the anti-Teesta tirade. It may stem essentially from the Left parties’ long policy of support to secular and progressive forces in Bangladesh. But it also draws on the emotions linked to 1971 and realisation of interests that one comes across the board in Tripura that the tiny state does not stand a chance under the Sun without a friendly Bangladesh around it. Smart geo-politics in no luxury for a small, remote state with limited resources like Tripura, it is a necessity. As they say in Agartala, if Bangladesh sneezes, we catch cold.

Source: Bd news24

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