Prime minister Sheikh Hasina is going to India on a state visit on 7 April. Any visit of a Bangladesh prime minister to India is an important matter, but this particular visit is all the more important and sensitive too due to the possibility of a memorandum of understanding being signed regarding defence cooperation.
There were some clauses pertaining to defence cooperation in the 1972 25-year friendship treaty signed between Bangladesh and India. The treaty has often been criticised in Bangladesh. It was a 25-year treaty. Coming to power in 1996, the Awami League government had the opportunity to renew it, but it refrained from doing so. Why a stronger and formal defence cooperation deal is so necessary now, is a matter of speculation in both countries. Within Bangladesh, there is a significant amount of unease and apprehension over the issue.
The suspicions are not unfounded. After all, the defence understanding lacks in clarity. Possible features of the MoU appeared in a draft published in an English daily recently. But it remained uncertain as to whether this was final, whether all the points appeared there and whether this was the real deal. There also remains debate over whether the salient features appearing in this draft (purchase of military equipment from India, joint patrol, training and exchange of information) were in the interests of Bangladesh and in keeping with Bangladesh’s defence policy.
There are other reasons for unease over the defence MoU with India. The friendship and cooperation deals which India has signed with Nepal and Bhutan in the past, had clauses demeaning for the two countries. For instance, the 1950 agreement with Nepal stated that Nepal would not be able to purchase military equipment from a third country without permission of India. India would get priority in developing Nepal’s natural resources. The original agreement between Bhutan and India had similar clauses. Bhutan was under compulsion to be ‘guided’ by India in its foreign relations. Nepal recently proposed certain amendments in the agreement, but India has not responded. The agreement with Bhutan was renewed in 2007 with a little leeway for Bhutan regarding foreign relations and military hardware procurement, but the news published in this regard does not indicate any equal status for Bhutan.
These agreements indicate that India has had a controlling mindset when it came to its neighbouring countries. This is reflected in the writings of various Indian military and defence experts such as Subramaniam Swami and Bhabani Sengupta.
Bangladesh is a much more powerful country than Nepal or Bhutan. The history of its inception is far more heroic and honourable. However, India apparently does have the clout to make Bangladesh agree to a relatively adverse defence deal. India’s influence has increased in global politics. At the same time, with the crisis of a weak mandate, the Awami League lacks in bargaining power.
In recent times, the Indian media has indicated India’s displeasure over Bangladesh’s purchase of submarines from China. The Bangladesh government may now want to go all out to appease its irate neighbour. Indian policymakers are hardly likely to let this chance slip away. No wonder there are apprehensions within Bangladesh as to how beneficial this defence cooperation memorandum will actually be.
A report published in Prothom Alo on Friday indicates that the Bangladesh government is aware of the issues. That is why rather than succumbing to the pressure of signing a full-fledged pact, they are agreeing to an MoU. According to international laws, an MoU is much weaker than an agreement or treaty, with lesser compulsions to adhere to the clauses therein.
That does not mean that the MoU can be overlooked. It has matters which give rise to questions concerning how far Bangladesh’s interests are being upheld. It speaks of arms and ammunition being imported from India. India is basically an arms importer. It does not have an international standing as an arms exporter. Bangladesh’s armed forces are mainly equipped with relatively superior arms and equipment from China, so why should there be compulsion to purchase weaponry from India?
The MoU speaks of training, military observers and exchange of defence information. In the past, despite having agreements, India failed to share information on ‘innocuous’ matters such as river water, though Bangladesh readily provided all information as required. Will Bangladesh ever be in an advantageous position of information exchange?
Will the sovereignty of the two countries’ defence and foreign policies be taken into consideration in the institutionalising and regularising the exchange of training between the two countries? Given that India is vastly more powerful, will the MoU prove to be a threat to Bangladesh if relations deteriorate in the future?
The most important question is, why has such a defence MoU become so necessary to Bangladesh so many years since independence? Which country poses as a security threat to Bangladesh? If this MoU is basically for India’s assurance and interests, what is Bangladesh getting in return? Getting US$50 crore from India to purchase Indian arms is hardly in the interests of Bangladesh. So what is Bangladesh receiving in return?
There are innumerable areas of exchange in Bangladesh-India relations. Bangladesh’s landmass is almost entirely surrounded by India so India is involved in Bangladesh’s interests like no other country.
Despite all this, no balance has been established in relations between the two countries over the decades. In fact, in 2009 after Sheikh Hasina’s government came to power, many steps were taken in India’s interests, but India did not reciprocate.
Sheikh Hasina’s government boosted India’s security to a significant degree by sternly clamping down in India’s insurgent and extremists groups who had been allegedly given shelter in Bangladesh during the BNP rule.
Bangladesh gave India economic benefits by allowing it the use of its land and river ports. Indian firms and nationals are freely working and earning revenue in Bangladesh. A transit deal has been signed with India paying negligible tariff. The trade imbalance with India continues heavily to India’s advantage.
India, on the other hand, hangs the Teesta treaty in front of Bangladesh like a carrot for years on end. Even in Bangladesh there is a propensity to blame India’s West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee for the failure to sign this treaty. That is a lame excuse. According to the Indian constitution, India’s central government can go ahead and sign the treaty with Bangladesh, totally ignoring Mamata’s dissent. I feel that the BJP ambitiously eyes forming a government in West Bengal, and so it itself is reluctant to sign this deal. After all, the votes from West Bengal are more important to it than giving the people of Bangladesh a fair deal. That is why though the Bangladesh government has done so much for India, India refuses to sign the Teesta treaty year after year.
Also, even if the Teesta treaty is signed, why should we assent to an unfair trade agreement, an unfair transit deal or any unfair defence deal? After all, according to international rivers and environmental laws and the 1996 Ganges water sharing agreement, we have a right to the water of the Teesta and other international rivers.
Similarly, according to the UN charter, the right to our citizens’ security along the border must be guarantees. India has interest in transit, the use of river and sea ports, connectivity and defence deals, but these are not its rights. These can only be clauses of understanding.
Unfortunately, India has extracted all sorts of benefits from us in the name of friendship. But it has failed to provide Bangladesh with its due rights in many instances. So apprehensions about defence and other deals with such a country is only justified, not any blind anti-India stance.
Will not our prime minister, who carries the blood of Bangabandhu in her veins, be able to explain this to India in her forthcoming visit? Will she be able to venture on a balanced relationship with India? If she can, she will win the love and respect of many, many more people of Bangladesh.
* Asif Nazrul is a professor of law at Dhaka University. This article, originally published in Prothom Alo Bangla print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.