Indo-Bangla ties and South Asian unity

Abu Hena

As the Felani murder revision trial resumed on Monday, November 17, at a special court in Cooch Bihar in India, a seminar on India – Bangladesh relations participated by former High Commissioners of the two countries concluded in Dhaka calling for a holistic approach in resolving outstanding issues and addressing the challenges. Adopting a nine- point declaration the retired envoys urged both governments to intensify cooperation on security related matters and ensure utilization of natural resources for mutual benefit, facilitating trade and commerce by simplification and harmonization of procedures.

This is not the first time the Indian envoys who once worked here found Bangladesh in such uncharted territories with India. Following 16 December 1971 when General Niazi of Pakistan signed the surrender document before General Arora of India ignoring Bangladesh, and Indira Gandhi signed the Simla Agreement with Bhutto releasing the Pakistani war prisoners without consulting Bangladesh, Bangladesh quietly caved in to a new unequal and disgraceful partnership with India which continues till toady. Bangladesh’s troubles stem from having been too docile, obliging and overfilled with excessive gratitude towards its big neighbor who entered the 1971 war only on 6 December when the Pakistan army was already a defeated force and needed a regular army to surrender to in order to avail the immunities under the Geneva Agreement.

Water, the real issue
Bangladesh’s real trouble dates back from the construction of the Farakka barrage when Bangladesh was desperate to press India to stop the construction of the barrage and block its operation. In an article captioned ‘Fear and Loathing’ published in The Hindustan Times on August 17, 2004 Prem Shankar Jha wrote about the Indian indifference and insensibility to Bangladesh’s concern in the following words: “Farakka has halved the water available to Bangladesh from the Ganges. But what is even worse, India took the decision to build the barrage without first consulting Bangladesh, and overrode every one of its objections”.
Expressing fear over India’s River -Linking Project he said, “This fear was confirmed last year when the Vajpayee government announced its ambitious river – linking project without even a token discussion with Bangladesh, despite the fact that it involved building a link canal from Brahmaputra to the Ganges and up to six dams and barrages on the tributaries of the former in Assam and NEFA. Reactions in Bangladesh show that if there is a single issue that could drive the two countries irrevocably apart, it is not trade, transit rights or access to markets. It is water.”
The Thirty Year Water Treaty signed during Sheikh Hasina’s first term of office has relegated Bangladesh to the status of a supplicant to India for its own flow of natural water. While signing the treaty Bangladesh behaved like a vassal who has given a bond to oblige his master. India also completed all arrangements to build a dam at the mouth of Surma – Kushiara of the river Borak, which by blocking natural flow of water to the Meghna river is set to subvert the economy and environment of another one- fourth of Bangladesh territory. The Teesta water sharing agreement has been stalled just for the intransigence of Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal, India’s one of thirty states.

Refreshing ex-envoys’ memory
Speaking about the implications of India’s decisions on Bangladesh’s economy, Prem Shankar Jha stated: “What is worse, it is not only India’s actions but its inaction that affects Bangladesh. In 1971 when Bangladesh was created, its economy suffered a second severe blow, for it lost its markets and sources of food grains and raw materials in erstwhile West Pakistan. India could have cushioned the shock if it had given Bangladesh immediate, free access to its markets…India’s failure to perceive and respond to Bangladesh’s needs cost that country almost two decades of lost growth.”
To refresh their memories the former Indian envoys may be reminded how following the Kargil debacle, India directed its aggressive energies against its  BSF dangerously on the brink of a frontier conflict. On 19 August following the pull-out from Kargil Indian BSF intruded into the Bangladesh territory in Bianibazar in Sylhet and abducted four members of the Bangladesh Rifles. On 22 August the BSF fired gunshots continuously for long fifty hours on Bangladesh villages in Belonia in the Feni district. Simultaneously, there were reports of heavy concentration of Indian troops all along the Bangladesh border. The unprovoked terror tactics of the BSF caused the flight of the terrified inhabitants of Muhurir Char leaving their homes. Incidents of unwarranted frontier crossings, reckless firing on innocent civilians, digging of bunkers and trenches inside Bangladesh territory occurred in many other districts.
Following the closure of eight Bangladesh army camps at Dudukchhari of Khagrachhari district in Chittagong Hill Tracts, the Indian BSF reportedly penetrated one kilometer inside Bangladesh and dug in two bunker camps. This happened after 50,000 Indian tribe members forced their way into the CHT region taking advantage of the December 1997 CHT Accord. Preceding these happenings the chief minister of Assam, Profulla Mohanta boastfully mentioned on 15 August, 1999 that the Assam and the West Bengal police entered deep inside Bangladesh in a hot pursuit in Rajshahi district to recover a packet of explosives and return the Tinbigha corridor.

Only one way won’t do
India has delayed signing the LBA on various pretexts. The Indian Envoys may remember that with casualties totaling 22 people including three BDR jawans the then Indian envoy was summoned to the Foreign Office second time in four days to express “shock at this unacceptable turn of events”. Such incidents were a few among many instances which are taking place every day and the people of Bangladesh are becoming increasingly sceptical and apprehensive about the Indian agenda.
Bangladesh is the destination of one – fifth of India’s exports and one – fifth of its expatriate income come from Bangladesh. All of these bring in cash without any set rules and regulations. On the contrary Bangladesh’s trade deficit with India has gone sky high. Yet India is unconcerned and the ever obliging AL government has remained ever ready to satisfy the neighboring giant’s all wishes. Its cabinet decision of 24 August, 1999 to grant “an overland passage” to India through Bangladesh territory came as a stunning blow. The thirty hour country-wide strike which followed the decision showed the strong disapproval for such free passage through Bangladesh. Three people were killed and hundreds injured when police and government supporters opened fire on millions of demonstrators all over the country demanding revocation of the government decision.
The Indian High Commission in Bangladesh quickly came to the rescue of the government describing the “overland passage” as “transshipment” and not “transit”. The Bangladesh commerce and industries minister tried to justify the ‘ transit’ showing an imaginary annual income of Tk 2000 crore. But the people of Bangladesh got still more concerned to hear the Indian High Commission defending the decision of the Bangladesh government which was taken in its typical arbitrary fashion. Moreover, ‘transshipment’ is a customs procedure which, in terms of its definition, does not apply to this case.

Mere bureaucratic exercise
The Joint-Communique of 2010, Joint Statement of 2011 and the Framework Agreement on Cooperation and Development signed in 2011 are a mere bureaucratic exercise rather than inter-state instruments duly passed by the respective parliaments and supported and endorsed by the people of both countries. Such cabinet decisions and bilateral agreements also run contrary to the SAPTA of 1993 and SAFTA of 1995 which are multilateral. No bilateral arrangement like transit or transshipment or unequal and interventionist treaties forced upon neighbors can be contemplated within either SAPTA or SAFTA and the wider concept of the SAARC. It’s time the South Asian countries work differently from grubby nation states.
The EU, its members claim, offers a model how 21st century diplomacy should be conducted. Each EU member has overland passage over all others because EU is a Customs Union with common external tariff. The EU has 100,000 pages of legislation. The SAARC can be developed as a similar multi-polar alliance in which relations between big and small countries are defined by binding rules. The union should be a political and economic alliance of governments and a judicial regulator, built on a bedrock of legislation.
South Asia should renounce the ‘hard power’ of military force and wield the ‘soft power’ of good neighborly relations. Its order, wealth and stability must attract each other and weave the big and small states alike into a web of legal agreements. South Asia’s strength is its unity – hence the need to come up with quick decisions to resume talks with each other and stop individual countries going off on their own. The former envoys who met recently in Dhaka will be better advised to work in the interests of creating and preserving the long – term unity of the region.
The writer was a Member of Bangladesh Parliament from 1996 to 2006, a retired civil servant who served as Bangladesh’s Permanent Representative to the World Customs Organization in Brussels and as a Minister in the Bangladesh Mission to BENELUX and the EU.]

Source: Weekly Holiday


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