PM Hasina’s India Trip

Deal or no deal?

Ayesha Kabir | Update:

india bangladeshBangla word ‘chukti’ has many synonyms in English. There is ‘deal’, ‘pact’, ‘agreement’, ‘treaty’ and more. And each of these terms has a different significance when it comes to application, particularly in the context of foreign relations.

So India perhaps would be better off if the proposed defence deal with Bangladesh was in Bangla. ‘Chukti’ after all, would be an ambiguous term, to be twisted and turned at will. But no such luck. A deal is a deal. A pact is a pact. A treaty is a treaty. And an MOU is an MOU.

Meanwhile, concerned citizens in Bangladesh wait with a tinge of apprehension for the outcome of prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s upcoming India visit.

They are hoping, if not expecting, the Teesta water deal is signed during this visit. While this has not been rejected outright, there is all possibility that it will be stalled for the moment. This will certainly be disappointing, but the disappointment is overshadowed by trepidation. This trepidation has been sparked off by the Indian insistence on a defence deal between the two countries.

In whatever form the deal may take shape, it has far reaching significance. At a recent conference organised by Prothom Alo on ‘New dimension to Bangladesh-India relations: Problems and possibilities’, retired major general ANM Muniruzzaman, president of Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies, said, “Whether it is a pact or a memorandum of understanding, its implications will be the same.”

Bangladesh lies at crucial crossroads. When Hasina arrives in India on 7 April, she will be watched by her people with keen and concerned eyes. What deals will she sign?  What will the proposed defence deal contain? Will it be a binding pact of a loosely binding MOU? What will she bring back for Bangladesh?

On the Bangladesh side, the disquiet is palpable. The Indian side, however, is eager and enthusiastic to see the deal through.

While relations between Bangladesh and India are at an all time high in goodwill and camaraderie, there is pervading sense of mistrust that all the waters of the Ganges cannot wash away.

A large section of the people in the Bangladesh, even those with the highest regard for India, feels that relations between the two countries lack balance. They feel India gives Bangladesh a short shrift in all its deals and exchanges.

In trade, the imbalance is more than heavily tilted in India’s favour with the bigger neighbour making hardly any concessions to reciprocate Bangladesh’s goodwill.

Transit is another example where Bangladesh is proffering a provision that cuts costs in billions of rupees for India, while Bangladesh takes just nominal tariff for use of its territory, despite costs in infrastructure, security, logistics and more.

Indian TV channels have taken over our airwaves, but they refuse to telecast Bangladesh’s channels there, even in the Bangla-speaking state of West Bengal.

These are but a few examples, where it’s all take and no give. So it is only natural for the fears to multiply manifold when it comes to a sensitive issue like defence. The ‘Big Brother’ is often perceived to be the big neighbour bully.

India, however, sees itself more as a benevolent neighbour. Indian researcher and fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Joyeeta Bhattacharjee, in a recent article, wrote “Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina will be visiting India between 7th and 10th of April and a plethora of agreements are likely to be signed then. Among the various agreements, the two countries will be signing the defence cooperation agreement which has been getting the most attention. The defence cooperation will further deepen the ties between the two countries growing steadily in past few years.”

Given that relations are excellent between the two countries, the question arises that, why then is such a deal needed if there exists mutual trust and goodwill? Former foreign secretary Farooq Sobhan draws up a comparison with the 25-year friendship treaty with India signed in 1972.

In a recent interview with Prothom Alo, he said: “I want to recall a piece of history, in 1972, shortly after our liberation war was over, we signed a 25-year Friendship Treaty with India, that treaty expired in March 1997. I was then the foreign secretary, Sheikh Hasina was the prime minister. I think it was accepted by both India and Bangladesh that this treaty did not serve any useful purpose. We were friendly countries, we did not need a treaty to emphasise that and therefore neither India nor Bangladesh or their respective governments made any move to renew or extend that treaty. I think that was a very statesmen-like approach that took into consideration public opinion and public sentiments. On this occasion too, we need to be sensitive to public opinion, how do the people of Bangladesh see the relationship, is it, as it should be, one of equal partners? I think as a country which fought for its independence, there is a strong sense of patriotism and feeling in Bangladesh about maintaining our sovereignty and independence.”

Many among Bangladesh’s media as well as political and military analysts see this not only as an India strategy to get a stronger grip on the region, but also a move to counter China’s increasing overtures with Bangladesh.

In recent times Bangladesh’s ties with China have grown stronger and warmer. In an instance of astute diplomacy, Sheikh Hasina decided to overcome all reservations against China for its stance against Bangladesh’s independence in 1971.

She realised that the pro-India image shared by her party and herself did not go down well with all voters who were, in general, wary of India. And with elections not too far away, she could hardly afford this Indo-phile image. In countering this image, she recently went as far as to castigate the Indian intelligence establishment RAW, blaming it for backing her arch-rival BNP in past elections.

In continuation of her pragmatic politics, she decided to look East. And relations with China flourished. Chinese president Xi Jin Ping visited Bangladesh and the two countries signed deals with China totalling over US$24 billion. Trade-wise, China has captured the Bangladesh market, pushing Indian goods to the back shelf. And in the latest development, and a significant one too, Bangladesh purchased two submarines from China. The general feeling was that this purchase did not go down well with India.

China may be in the ranks of a global superpower now, but India contends to be the regional superpower and will hardly approve of its faithful ally going the China way. Will it give Bangladesh’s prime minister the leeway to consolidate ties with China?

Former foreign secretary of Bangladesh Farooq Sobhan, in his interview, stresses the importance of maintaining balanced relations in the region. He said, “Unless we promote constructive engagement with both China and India, we will inevitably become a source of competition and rivalry between the two. Each will compete with the other to see who can come closer to Bangladesh. We need to be careful to avoid putting ourselves in that position.”

Details of the proposed agreement remain shrouded in mystery. In Bangladesh the government machinery are projecting that this will not be a binding pact, but a loosely constructed memorandum of understanding (MOU). The public is not convinced.

On top of that, if the long-awaited Teesta deal is not signed, even an MOU will not go down well with the Bangladesh people. Vague promises of a Teesta treaty in an uncertain future will not do the trick.

However, India is well aware that not all governments in Bangladesh may be so willing to bend to its will. Says Joyeeta Bhattacharjee: “A formal mechanism becomes crucial because of the nature of the bilateral relations that fluctuate with the change of regime in Bangladesh. India and Bangladesh relations are dependent of the mindset of the political party in power in Bangladesh.”

The people in Bangladesh feel that in a democracy it is the people’s mandate that counts. The government must not be oblivious to the will of the people in a democratic order.

Security experts in Bangladesh have bluntly rejected the relevance of a defence deal with India. At the Prothom Alo seminar, ANM Muniruzzaman said: “It is not clear why there is a need for military cooperation or why India is so insistent about this proposal. The Indian media is speaking about joint manufacture. That means certain restrictions will be placed on our procurement. As it is, small states always have certain limitations. We must take this into consideration and keep national interests in mind when we take any steps.”

In the meantime the people await Hasina’s trip to India and its ultimate outcome.  What did we give and what did we get? It will be a time for reckoning.

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