Forty years of freedom is a good juncture to reflect upon the achievements and failures of Bangladesh-India relations. Rarely, if ever, has a nation emerged from such a legacy of discrimination and bloodshed as did Bangladesh on December 16, 1971 — whatever may be said by revisionist writers such as Sarmila Bose to mitigate the horrors of Pakistani repression. There are many, as participants or onlookers, who remember those heady days of victory with exhilaration, combined with grief for those who lost their lives in the struggle for independence.
Bangladesh and India have had an uneven relationship marked by upswings and downturns; openings and opportunities have been lost on both sides, and errors committed through negligence and ineptitude. There have been periods of mutual indifference and veiled hostility; often bureaucracy has not followed where the political class has bravely ventured. Frustration has frequently been the prevailing mood in both capitals. Almost always, bilateral relations have been dependent on the character of the political party in power in Dhaka or New Delhi; it has not been possible to separate the quality of ties from the complications and vagaries of party politics. In the process, the fundamentals of the cultural, linguistic, historical, ethnic, economic and geo-political imperatives for good relations between the two countries have too often been lost sight of and made hostage to populism and third-country involvement. A prominent academic once wrote: “India should forget history, and Bangladesh should forget geography.” He was castigated on both sides of the border for this aphorism, but there is much truth in his observation.
There has lately been a great deal of interaction between the two countries during the Tagore anniversary. Apart from that major exercise, there have been top-level political visits and the holding of learned seminars in both nations that have kept the relationship under a high degree of scrutiny. The ruby anniversary was the occasion for a conference in Calcutta, and the West Bengal chief minister, General J.F.R. Jacob and a previous army chief were invited to attend, as were sundry dignitaries from Bangladesh. These are worthy enterprises deserving attention, but they obscure the fact that all is not well between Bangladesh and India, and a lack of consensus on how to take the relationship forward is still prevalent in both countries.
With Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s overwhelming victory in the last general election in Bangladesh, and congenial counterpart in power in New Delhi, the stage was set for a major stride in building confidence, addressing each other’s national priorities and consolidating a cordial state of relations for the future. Indeed, many positive moves were made since that election and some of these are worth recording, since they show what can be accomplished if there is a degree of clear political direction, goodwill and effective implementation on both sides. Thanks to Wajed’s commitment in curbing terrorism and militancy, the situation within Bangladesh and in the Indian Northeast has greatly improved and cooperation of the two countries in this field has set very high standards. Trade has reached new levels owing to the liberalized import regime agreed to by New Delhi. Twenty-four hour access to the Bangladeshi enclaves across the Teen Bigha corridor has taken effect. A one-billion-dollar credit line extended by India to Bangladesh has enabled some projects to be earmarked to build infrastructure. One border haat has been opened and an integrated checkpost at Benapole/Petrapole will serve as examples for others to follow.
But the glass still remains half-full, and Wajed is not being helped by the fact that other expected Indian actions are still pending. The building of cyclone shelters in Bangladesh is yet to be completed; Bangladesh’s equity in power projects in India remains to be finalized; the wanton killing of Bangladeshis by the Indian border security force continues because fail-safe preventive measures have not been devised, and power supplied from the Indian grid will flow at the earliest in 2013. From Bangladesh’s side, Anup Chetia, the Assamese militant in Dhaka, is still to be extradited, and the Wajed government is hastening slowly on the arrangements for multi-modal connectivity that will benefit not only Bangladesh in terms of revenue, but provide vital access routes for land-locked Nepal, Bhutan and India’s Northeast as well.
Two big missing pieces of the jigsaw are still to be delivered by New Delhi for reasons that Dhaka may understandably find inexplicable. The first is the finalization of the land border agreement that has been close to completion for a number of years and was accelerated by a decision of the two prime ministers. It appears that, owing to ill intention or inefficiency, the strip maps for the West Bengal-Bangladesh sector are yet to be provided by the Indian authorities for the formality of joint signatures. The second is the question of a water-sharing agreement on the Teesta and Feni rivers that flow downstream from West Bengal to Bangladesh. Both capitals have stated that they will work towards putting the stalled accord in place, and the authorities in Dhaka have claimed that the Teesta agreement would be signed, as previously envisaged, and within the next few months. They did not indicate the basis for this optimism. From what is known, they may be assuming too much. For its part, New Delhi has not shown much energy in the matter; all too often, it regards the symbolism of state visits as sufficient, and follow-up action gets lost in the after-glow. The West Bengal chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, has set up a committee headed by Kalyan Rudra to examine the matter, and Rudra’s early comments are hardly encouraging. That there is a shortage of water in the dry season is obvious; the issue revolves around the upper riparian humanely accommodating the requirements of a friendly neighbour that has the misfortune to be the lower riparian. If India is not in a mood to accommodate Bangladesh generously, it must not expect bountiful terms from China.
Teesta is not the only common river causing problems. Manmohan Singh had promised that India would not take any steps that adversely affect Bangladesh in constructing the multi-purpose Tipaimukh Dam on the Barak/Meghna, which has ecological, human and economic implications that need careful study. But in October the news was revealed of a ‘promoters agreement’ between Manipur and two companies, the NHPC Limited and Sutlej Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited, to form a joint venture. This has raised a predictable political storm in Bangladesh. Even if the proposed joint venture is only a statement of intent with no certainty that the dam will be constructed, the episode reveals an amateurish lack of public relations and communications skills in New Delhi, which has also chosen to keep the post of Indian high commissioner vacant since the departure of the previous incumbent. Khaleda Zia, the leader of the opposition to Sheikh Hasina Wajed, with a feeble minority in parliament, is ever looking for a pretext to take her followers to the streets, and she has not failed to agitate against the Tipaimukh issue in her accustomed manner.
Wajed is now more than halfway through her term in office, and with the price rise and power blackouts, she does not need New Delhi to give additional ammunition to her political opponents. India has always taken the view, in slight modification of the Gujral Doctrine, that if India’s neighbours keep our basic national concerns in mind, it will be ready to go the extra mile in accommodating their basic interests as well. No impartial observer can deny that Dhaka has largely delivered and New Delhi has not. Positive measures and goodwill gestures can unfortunately be severely diminished or derailed by political manoeuvres from opposition parties in India and Bangladesh, or by coalition partners in India who have no direct stake in foreign relations. In any asymmetrical relationship, it is axiomatic that failures and delays in delivery by the bigger country will loom larger than its accomplishments, and provide grist for populist demands in the smaller country. India and Bangladesh are both suffering: from poor governance in the former, and misplaced priorities in the latter. Corruption is vitiating development. Both governments are feeling beleaguered and already circling the wagons defensively, although general elections are still years away in the future. The great expectations could still be realized, but look much less likely than they did a year ago. Even if a government’s term is for five years, every prime minister knows that he or she has a very narrow window of opportunity in which to make a game-changing break from the past. Whether that window has already slammed shut for New Delhi and Dhaka, only history will tell. Well-wishers of both countries will hope not.