A Teesta water-sharing deal can not be possible to sign without the consent of Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of India's West Bengal state, may only be a politically tenable argument.
But there is no constitutional obligation to await her nod.
Unfortunately, the Indian media have projected such a perception and pitifully such argument is being echoed by a section of the Bangladesh media too.
Indian expert on Bangladesh affairs Joyeeta Bhattacharjee in The Hindustan Times (10 December 2016) wrote that the consent of Mamata is essential, adding, “Even the Constitution places water under the state list.” Other media in India also carry such misconceptions.
Last Tuesday when the Awami League leader and former member of parliament Abdul Mannan was speaking on similar lines during a discussion on Channel 24, I differed. He was vehement that the water was on the state list. However, Indian premier Narendra Modi’s central government cannot avoid an international agreement on the river Teesta simply because of objections from Mamata’s state government. Yet on the TV talks shows in Bangladesh, they blindly and erroneously point to India’s constitutional obligations.
Using Mamata or her state government’s opposition as an excuse for not signing the Teesta agreement is unacceptable. It would be a breach of truth if we accept that India’s central government wants the treaty but cannot bypass the state government due to constitutional bindings. This simply weakens our government’s bargaining clout.
The fact is that water is on the state list, but that applies to India’s internal water sharing, harvesting and use. In no way has it relevance to signing and implementing treaties with a foreign country. The Indian constitution makes it clear in article 253 that Mamata’s assent is not required for the Teesta deal to be signed. Several constitutional experts have analysed and explained the constitutional clause to this end.
Whether the Bangladeshis involved in negotiating with India are aware of this, is another matter. They should bring the relevant documents of the Indian constitutional experts to the table when discussing with Modi’s officials.
Bangladesh’s water resources minister Anisul Islam Mahmud has said that two Indian prime ministers (Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi) openly committed to signing the Teesta agreement. This is an international commitment.
In the 1997 ‘S Jagannath versus India’ case, the Supreme Court said that article 51 of the constitution upholds the implementation of ‘international commitments’. There are other verdicts that echo this contention. So it is ridiculous to say that the Teesta treaty cannot be signed without any chief minister’s consent.
The Carnegie Centre of India last October published a research paper on ‘Putting the Periphery at the Centre: Indian States’ Role in Foreign Policy’. This was prepared by Happymon Jacob, associate professor international studies as Jawaharlal Nehru University. He indicated that in 2014 Narendra Modi introduced ‘state divisions’ in the foreign ministry, regarding the role of the states in foreign policy. These divisions have been opened up in Chennai, Guwahati, Hyderabad and Kolkata. This has been unprecedented in Indian history. According to Modi, “Team India will not mean only a team in Delhi under the leadership of the prime minister. The chief ministers and others will also be seen as equal partners in the team.”
Is Bangladesh paying the price for this ‘team’ of Modi’s?
Concerning the Teesta, Jacob says, this is an example of how an Indian state can stll diplomatic discussions between two sovereign countries. Jacob refers to how the late chief minister of Tamil Nadu Jaylalitha had opposed an agreement with Russia to establish a nuclear energy centre in Kudamkulam of the Tamil Nadu state. But with Manmohan Singh’s intervention, Jaylalitha made a U-turn and welcomed that Russians to her state.
There are two other instances where the central government paid the price diplomatically for indulging politics in foreign policy. In 2012 two Italian sailors were accused of killing two Indian fishermen off Kerala coast. Kerala was adamant to try them there in order to appease the irate public. This brought diplomatic ties between India and Italy to a standstill. New Delhi paid dearly for this because, in retaliation, the Italian government blocked India from entering the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). The matter lies in court at The Hague. Indian policymakers, of course, may think the weak(?) Bangladesh will not be able to take such action!
Again, the Tamil Nadu government and opposition stood united in their demand to support the minority Tamils in Sri Lanka. Manmohan Singh boycotted the Commonwealth summit in November 2013 in Colombo. This was obviously under pressure of the state government, even though he was aware India would suffer strategically from this decision. It pushed Sri Lanka more towards China.
So it is all hogwash that India’s central government’s hands are tied by the constitution, blocking the Teesta treaty. We should not swallow the excuse of Mamata or the state government’s contentions. Mamata Banerjee will look after her state’s interests.
But has she ever said she would not obey the constitution? It is Delhi that will have to bear the blame for delaying the Teesta treaty.
*Mizanur Rahman Khan is joint editor, Prothom Alo and can be reached at email@example.com. The article, originally published in Prothom Alo Bangla print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.