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WAYS TO CREATE A BETTER NEIGHBOURHOOD

In the last few years, India has been witness to many tussles between the Centre and the states on foreign policy issues. Taking advantage of the compulsions of coalition politics, in which a government at the Centre would not be in a position to ignore pressures from the states, regional subahdars have often derailed positive foreign policy initiatives by the government in Delhi. Closer home, Mamata Banerjee’s tantrums forced Manmohan Singh to back down on signing the Teesta water-sharing treaty during his Dhaka visit in 2011. Not only did Banerjee pull the rug from under Singh’s feet by refusing to join his entourage as other chief ministers of states bordering Bangladesh had done, but she also threatened to withdraw from the United Progressive Alliance if the Teesta treaty was signed. The interests of North Bengal will suffer, she thundered at the last minute. She also put her foot down on the land boundary agreement signed between India and Bangladesh, and her members of parliament noisily opposed the introduction of the bill in the Rajya Sabha — and this after her former chief secretary, Samar Ghosh, had okayed the agreement draft in a letter to the former Indian foreign secretary, Ranjan Mathai. Many say that Singh’s refusal to oblige Banerjee with a special economic package for Bengal explained her torpedoing of these foreign policy initiatives that Singh took to “carry India-Bangladesh relations to new heights”.

Down south, the Tamil Nadu chief minister, Jayalalithaa Jayaram, was not far behind as she played to the gallery in her state to service her votebanks. Not only were Sri Lankan delegations forced to pack up and leave Tamil Nadu on scores of occasions but Jayalalithaa’s pressures forced Manmohan Singh to cancel his Colombo visit during the Commonwealth heads meet. Sri Lanka’s embassy has asked its citizens to stay away from Tamil Nadu if they visit India. The fusillades of the Uttar Pradesh strongman, Mulayam Singh Yadav, against China complicate our relations with Beijing.

Even as these regional chieftains have fumed and thundered, complicating India’s relations with neighbouring countries, tiny Tripura has charted an altogether different course. Unlike other northeastern states, the influx issue has never bedevilled relations between Tripura and Bangladesh and the state’s first chief minister, Sachindralal Singha, is said to have taken the first initiative to push Delhi to back the Bengali autonomy movement and finally the liberation struggle. The Pakistani allegation that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman secretly visited Agartala to plan how to elicit Indian support for a separatist struggle for the Bengalis is not entirely unfounded. Only that the Pakistanis were six years late in dragging Mujib to the dock. Tripura sheltered 18 lakh refugees from across the border in 1971, far more than its population of 15.56 lakhs (as per the 1971 census). Its relations with Bangladesh were affected only when the country was ruled by military or quasi-military rulers, whose intelligence czars aided and abetted rebel groups across the Northeast, including Tripura.

But while other states fumed and fretted over Bangladesh backing separatist insurgents, the Tripura police regrouped surrendered militants and even hired Bangladeshi contract killers to attack rebel bases and hideouts. Even the attacks on the military wing chief of the United Liberated Front of Asom, Paresh Barua, were engineered by the then Tripura police chief, G.M. Srivastava — and in that venture both hired goons from Bangladesh and surrendered militants were used. While the ‘unified command’ in Assam often became a turf war stage between the army and the police, an ‘informal unified command’ in Tripura initiated by Srivastava (and backed by the chief minister, Manik Sarkar) resulted in 21 attacks on rebel bases and hideouts in Bangladesh between 2001 and 2007. With the change of regime in Dhaka came Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s fierce crackdown on the northeastern rebels and the stage was set for a renewal of the unusual bonds between Tripura and Bangladesh, in which secular forces often see the tiny state as their natural refuge in moments of trouble. Wajed not only cracked down hard on the rebels, forcing scores of guerrillas of the All Tripura Tiger Force and National Liberation Front of Tripura to surrender, but also allowed Tripura carry its heavy equipment to implement the 726 megawatt Palatana gas-fired power project that was hanging fire because weak bridges on the Assam-Agartala road made it impossible to carry the heavy equipment.

Not only did the Tripura University confer a honorary DLit on Wajed, but Manik Sarkar organized a well attended public rally for her in Agartala (turnout: 80,000), during which he said his government would request the Centre to give 100 to 150 MW power from Palatana to power-starved Bangladesh once the plant was ready. That has now happened. Wajed on her part cleared Tripura’s request to bring in 10,000 megatonnes of Food Corporation of India-supplied foodgrain through the Chittagong-Asuganj route — and that may now go up to 35,000 MT a month with work for broad gauge conversion starting on the Lumding-Dharmanagar section of the northeastern frontier railway.

The organizers of the July 9 Tripura Conclave, a local policy dialogue platform that takes up one important issue for a state a year and invites top experts to interact with local policy-makers or those who influence policy, drew on Tripura’s Bangladesh policy from its first chief minister, Sachindralal Singha, to the current chief minister, Manik Sarkar, to formulate what it calls the “Agartala doctrine”.

The Conclave laid down a prescribed course for Indian states who want to influence national foreign policy, specially on issues that concern them directly. It recommended that (a) states must be allowed greater say in foreign policy matters, especially on neighbourhood issues and they must be consulted on all such issues; (b) but states should act as “responsible stake-holders, not as spoilers”; (c) they should refrain from harping on short-term domestic issues for cheap electoral gains and take a long-term view of its interests and those of the country as well; (d) states should actually take the initiative to improve relations with neighbours and carry the Centre along the path to the extent possible; (e) the focus should be on creating win-win situations for states, the Centre and the neighbouring country concerned; (f) the states should take a clear view of friends and foes in the neighbourhood and do everything possible to boost friends and undermine foes; (g) they should take a hard line on security interests but a soft line on humanitarian issues; (h) keep in mind ethnic considerations, specially interests of minorities, while taking any bilateral initiative with a neighbouring country (i) but should never undermine the broad parameters of national interest.

Manik Sarkar or his industry minister can reel off one advantage after another that they have brought for land-locked Tripura by being nice to Bangladesh. As the Tatas take the initiative to produce the Nano car in Bangladesh with the local auto tycoon, Abdul Matlub Ahmed, of the Nitol-Niloy group, Tripura has managed to bag its tyre manufacturing plant as it is India’s second biggest rubber producing state now. So as both Bangladesh and Tripura prepare to make hay with Nano, West Bengal under a chief minister who came to power by leading the movement against the Tata project can only rue missed opportunities. The message of the Agartala doctrine is straight and simple — be tough when it is needed but avoid the politics of needless confrontation with a neighbour, especially one like Bangladesh, which was created by huge Indian mass support and direct military intervention to ensure the security of our eastern and northeastern states. Opposition to Teesta or land boundary treaties which only boosts anti-Indian forces in Bangladesh is as bad for West Bengal and other border states as for India itself. The sooner this is understood, the better for all.