“Bangladesh worries us,” said top level sources in the government, less because of Bangladeshitself but more because of India’s inability to take big decisions.
Last week, traders in Akhaura, Tripura went on a strike, impacting bilateral border trade worth lakhs of rupees. They were protesting against the pathetic infrastructure of the integrated check-post at Akhaura, which has made trading a hellish activity. Six months ago, home minister P Chidambaram inaugurated the checkpost with a lot of fanfare, promising construction in 18 months.
The traders’ protest was obviously a reminder that the government had dropped the ball after promising much — they were only persuaded to resume activity after senior officials from the Tripura government reaffirmed their commitment to complete construction on time.
Manmohan Singh’s Bangladesh initiative had been the most important piece of neighbourhood diplomacy by the UPA government, but it seems to be slowing down. First, the exercise was largely in response to the first steps taken by Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina. Second, while Bangladesh has actually moved far in addressing India’s security concerns, the perception has gained ground that India is dragging its feet.
In fact, India and Bangladesh have actually had a very productive year. A land boundary has been demarcated, the vexed issue of enclaves and adverse possessions resolved, India has been generous with tariffs leading to greater trade and investments.
But India failed at the last minute to stitch together a Teesta rivers agreement with Bangladesh after promising to do so, because the UPA government could not get West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee to agree to the deal. Banerjee, famously capricious, dumpedManmohan Singh at the eleventh hour killing the PM’s transformative visit to Dhaka in September.
“Our inability to settle the Teesta issue is making small incidents flare up,” sources said. The Shaikh Hasina government had gambled big on the India relationship, but with India failing to come up to scratch, there is the inevitable bad blood that affects the bilateral relationship.
In another incident, which became bigger than it otherwise would have, three Bangladesh nationals were killed in firing by BSF forces in Govindpur in Malda District and Narayanganj in Coochbehar District of West Bengal on December 16 and 17, which raised hackles in Dhaka. Dhaka lodged a strong protest with India. New Delhi “regretted” the incident, though said the firing had been in self-defence.
In a statement, the MEA said, the policy of restraint by BSF personnel has “emboldened criminal elements” who have stepped up their attacks to facilitate their illegal activities and asked Bangladesh to take measures to restrict the movement of people along the border especially during night hours.
The MEA spokesperson said, “It is the view of the Indian government that illegal activities, which sometimes lead to regrettable loss of lives on both sides along the border, need to be addressed through joint collaborative efforts and mechanisms.”
Recounting the incident, MEA spokesperson said, a group of around 50-60 miscreants from the Bangladeshi side pelted stones at a BSF personnel and tried to drag him towards the Bangladesh side. “Sensing imminent danger to his life, his two colleagues fired four rounds in all resulting in the miscreants fleeing the scene leaving the BSF jawan behind,” the spokesperson said.
Incidents like these should be resolved at the local level, but residual discontent with India has contributed to small incidents acquiring a bigger dimension than necessary.
India is yet to appoint a high commissioner to Dhaka, a post that is one of the most important foreign postings for Indian diplomats. The last envoy, Rajeet Mitter retired a couple of months ago, and the post has been vacant since then.
Sources said a slew of candidates from Navtej Sarna, India’s ambassador in Israel to Pankaj Saran from the prime minister’s office are in the running for the job. But the government is yet to make up its mind on a crucial appointment.
The good thing is that India acknowledges the importance of Bangladesh and is willing to take small steps to keep the ties afloat, even as domestic politics has grounded substantive movement on issue that matter to Dhaka. Sheikh Hasina will be in Agartala on January 11 to receive a doctorate from Tripura University. But more important, she will be going down memory lane, because Agartala holds memories for their independence struggle, as well as some personal memories of her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. It’s a small gesture, but its important for states to develop an independent relationship with neighbours.
Bangladesh politics continues to pressure the Hasina government on the Tipaimukh dam prompting a recent urgent visit by hasina’s foreign policy advisers, Gowher Rizvi and Matiur Rehman, who met the PM to apprise him of the brewing crisis. It prompted Dipu Moni, Bangladesh foreign minister to defend their position this week. “We want a joint study on the project to find out if it has any adverse impact on Bangladesh,” Moni said.
There are any number of creative solutions to the Tipaimukh Dam issue, including making Bangladesh a beneficiary of it.
Bangladesh is a good news story for Indian foreign policy. But India’s window of opportunity is limited, and it needs careful political nurturing, which is not possible in the current environment of Indian politics.