News analysis

Bangladesh’s thirst unquenched

Kamal Ahmed | Update:

It’s been nearly six years between two summit meetings, one in September 2011 and the other in April 2017, but the headlines are almost identical -- the Teesta water sharing problem will shortly be resolved. The bottom line is, whatever little Bangladesh had hoped for from this visit, still remains in limbo.

The headlines of the Times of India on 7 September 2011 had read, “Manmohan Singh, Sheikh Hasina put Teesta behind, fix boundary”. Manmohan Singh could neither take the Teesta talks ahead, nor could he even get the parliament to approve the boundary agreement due to political opposition from Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The government in India changed in 2014 and BJP leader Narendra Modi came to power. If Congress had taken up retaliatory politics, then the exchange of enclaves leading to the demarcation of the boundary would also have been shelved. The agreement which Bangladesh had approved more than four decades beforehand was finally approved by the Indian parliament in 2015. Then prime minister Modi came to Dhaka. There had been high hope regarding Teesta waters, but that fell through.

Prime minister Sheikh Hasina is visiting India after seven years and once again the mercury of hope shot up. However, though 22 deals were signed including MOUs and agreements, the Teesta issue remained unresolved. Promises were renewed. NDTV headlines yesterday read, “India, Bangladesh will find early solution to Teesta, says PM Modi.”

A day beforehand, Bangladesh’s high commissioner in New Delhi, Syed Moazzem Ali had told NDTV that Bangladesh would at least want a specific timeframe regarding Teesta.

After talks with prime minister Sheikh Hasina, Indian prime minister Modi raised the issue of Teesta with the media, saying that the two countries did not share land boundaries only, but rivers too. These rivers kept the people and their livelihoods alive. He said that the focus was on the river Teesta. Addressing Sheikh Hasina, he said, I assure you and the people of Bangladesh about our commitment and efforts. I firmly believe that my government and your government, honourable Sheikh Hasina, will soon find a solution to sharing Teesta waters.

Indian experts had hinted that India would provide Bangladesh assistance for water management based on the Ganges basin and the construction of Ganges barrage. Sheikh Hasina told the media, we have discussed sharing of Teesta, Padma, Ganges barrage and the sharing of common rivers of the basin as well as overall water management. I sincerely hope that we will soon receive India’s assistance in resolving these problems.

The online news portal Wire, however,has said that Indian officials said at the meeting that as the state government of West Bengal is also involved in the Ganges barrage issue, this project too will face similar obstacles.

Indian diplomats and analysts all agree that it is the West Bengal government that poses as an obstruction to the Teesta agreement. They say this has further distanced Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress from BJP in pan-Indian politics. Mamata was politically distant from Congress too when Manmohan Singh was prime minister.

It is clear that India’s domestic political dynamics has left the thirst of Bangladesh’s people unquenched. Chief minister Mamata Banerjee has simply reiterated her stand, ‘first the state’s interest, then everything else.’ The only difference is that this time, under pressure, she added that ‘there’s no water in Teesta.’

No matter how much prime minister Modi may reassure us, it is difficult to believe that he will manage to persuade West Bengal about Teesta and sign the water-sharing deal. After having seen India’s complicated domestic political equations holding up the exchange of  enclaves for four long decades, it is hard to shrug off similar apprehensions regarding Teesta.

It is quite clear that relations between India and Bangladesh are at an all-time high. Trade is increasing as is cultural exchanges. India’s health, education and tourism sectors have been attracting large numbers of Bangladeshis. Transportation of Indian goods over Bangladesh’s territory has materialised. Above all, India has clearly expressed its satisfaction over the cooperation received from Bangladesh on the question of security. They have lauded Sheikh Hasina’s government for its assistance in suppressing their insurgent groups.

India’s aim now is to further consolidate this security cooperation. It will therefore not be surprising when India shows interest to set these security cooperation issues in an official framework. Indian analysts have recently termed militant activities as a cause of concern for stability in South Asia, though most of the terrorist incidents in India have been carried out by Pakistan-based groups or militants within India itself. There have occasionally been reports of militants from Bangladesh fleeing to India, but no official information has been released in this regard.

Defence cooperation between the two countries began from the time of the last caretaker government and this has included exchanging visits, training and joint exercises. Now a five-year MOU has been signed to formalize this. Initially there had been speculations of a 25-year defence pact. While Bangladesh had not made any official statements about this, the Indian media was agog with reports in this head.

After Bangladesh purchased two submarines from China, Indian analysts expressed the need to draw Bangladesh out of China’s orbit. Even though last year India was the highest importer of arms in the world, it offered Bangladesh credit to purchase military hardware from it, sparking off speculations once more. Indian analysts, however, say that the purpose of the credit proposal was for joint manufacture of military equipment.

Yesterday three MOUs for defence cooperation were signed. All focus is on how much information is released on the matter and also the reaction to the deals.

All in all, the 22 MOUs and agreements signed will bring about substantial positive changes to relations between the two countries. But the unquenched thirst brings no relief.

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