Hasina clings to Didimoni's water word

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is "hopeful" that Mamata Banerjee will give Bangladesh its due share from the Teesta, which originates from the Himalayas and flows through Sikkim and Bengal before crossing borders.

By Devadeep Purohit in Dhaka
  • Published 22.02.18

Dhaka: Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is "hopeful" that Mamata Banerjee will give Bangladesh its due share from the Teesta, which originates from the Himalayas and flows through Sikkim and Bengal before crossing borders.

"When I spoke to the chief minister, she never said 'no'. She has said, she would give.... We are hopeful," Hasina said during an informal interaction with Indian journalists at Gono Bhaban, the official residence of the Prime Minister.

As the countdown to the general election later this year has begun in Bangladesh, the cost-benefit analysis of what the country has achieved from its close ties with India under the Hasina regime has also started.

A deal on sharing the Teesta waters - pending since September 2011 because of Mamata's opposition - is the most important element in Dhaka's pay-off matrix.

" Ektu dukkho to achhe.... Didimoni pani dyan ni (Still a little sad.... Didimoni did not give water)," Hasina said in jest while referring to the gains both the countries have made from improved bilateral ties since she returned to power in 2009.

Mamata has maintained that there is not enough water in the river and she cannot harm the interests of farmers in north Bengal.

The Indian foreign ministry establishment is trying to work out a solution so that a positive development can be announced before the December polls in Bangladesh. The year-end elections will determine whether Hasina can get a third term as Prime Minister of a country that faces the danger of fundamentalism.

"PM-ship is a temporary role for me, nothing else. Since my father (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman) liberated the country, I think I have a responsibility towards the people," Hasina said on Tuesday evening, a few hours before she visited the Central Shahid Minar and paid tributes to the martyrs who had sacrificed their lives for recognition of Bangla as a state language 66 years ago on February 21.

In her battle against the Opposition alliance of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Jamaat-e-Islami, the emotive pull of the Bangla language - over which a nine-month war of independence was waged against Pakistan in 1971 - offers Hasina a potent weapon against the fundamentalist forces.

During a programme to commemorate the International Mother Language Day on Wednesday, she urged the people practise and use Bangla and uphold the country's culture and heritage.

But the India factor is hard to miss. "All these are fine, but she has to show that she has got enough from India before the elections so that the Opposition doesn't get a chance to accuse her of bowing to Indian interests. That becomes a key issue in elections here," said a former Bangladeshi diplomat.

According to him, Teesta becomes important against this background. Time is ticking away, he added, referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's pledge during his June 2015 visit that the water deal would be sealed during this regime of the Hasina government.

During her interaction on Tuesday, Hasina stressed that she was aware of the problems on the Indian side as Delhi alone could not implement a water-sharing agreement without taking Bengal into confidence.

"I think bilateral issues can be solved through discussions," she said, hinting that she was expecting a resolution.

Obaidul Qadder, the general secretary of the Awami League and the senior-most member of the cabinet, was more categorical. "I urge Mamata Banarejee to consider our situation and give us the due share of the Teesta waters as our farmers badly need it," Qadder said.

The desperation in his voice made it clear that water is going to be a key issue in the upcoming polls and Bangladesh was eagerly awaiting India's response.

The Hasina government is dependent on India on another issue likely to become important in the polls - the return of about 10 lakh Rohingya Muslims who crossed over to Bangladesh from Myanmar following persecution by the army in Rakhine province.

"We want India to exert pressure on Myanmar so that the Rohingya go back.... We want India's help so that the international community also exerts pressure on Mayanmar," Hasina said.

Asked whether India needs to worry because of Bangladesh's ties with China, Hasina said her interest was the development of her country and everyone was welcome. "India is our closest neighbour. India should not worry," she added.