Mainstream, VOL LV No 18, New Delhi, April 22, 2017
Checkmated by Teesta: Hasina Visit and the Trajectory of India-Bangladesh Ties
Monday 24 April 2017
by Purusottam Bhattacharya
The much hyped state visit of the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, concluded on April 10, 2017 with feelings of satisfaction on both sides barring the much anticipated missing accord on sharing of the waters of the river Teesta between the two countries. This was the first state visit of the Bangladesh Prime Minister to New Delhi since the NDA Government of Narendra Modi came to power in May 2014 and the second one since she assumed power in Dhaka in January 2009. Her last state visit took place in January 2010. Since then India-Bangladesh relations have undergone a remarkable transformation.
Gone are the days of the tension-filled, even charged, atmosphere in the ties between Dhaka and New Delhi that was the hallmark of the period 2001 to 2006 when Begum Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) was in power in Dhaka in alliance with the radical Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami and other hard-core religious partners. Hasina brought about a fundamental change in the scenario by addressing the principal Indian grievance that Bangladesh was acting as a sanctuary of the insurgent groups from the North-East of India by cracking down on them and even handing over several insurgents to the Indian authorities. Besides, she took several other measures which also transformed the ambience of India-Bangladesh relations over the past eight years to which New Delhi responded warmly. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also paid a visit to Dhaka in June 2015 when the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA), which had been pending since 1974, was signed.(Purusottam Bhattacharya: 2016: 273-285)
Therefore it would not be an over-statement to say that the atmosphere preceding the just concluded visit of Sheikh Hasina was surcharged with expectations of a further fillip to the already warm ties that exist—perhaps the closest India has at the moment with any of its immediate neighbours.
A quick assessment of the visit is that these expectations were largely fulfilled barring the elusive Teesta pact which has been pending for the past six years. The two countries signed no fewer than 22 agreements, the two principal core ones being related to defence cooperation and connectivity. India offered a $ 500 million line of credit to Bangladesh for defence purchases from this country. Besides the defence framework pact consisting of five agreements opens up different opportunities for coordination between Indian and Bangladesh forces, including joint exercises, coordinated patrols, naval exercises, even training institutes. Experts believe this will open a new chapter in a sector hiherto unex-plored with Bangladesh beginning to look at India as a dependable defence supplier. If the defence framework agreement works as intended, Dhaka will no longer have to look towards China only as a defence supplier. However, it may be apt to add here that the defence pact has already come under criticism from some quarters in Bangladesh.
Connectivity was also one of the main themes of the visit and this has been a major element in the dialogue between the two countries for the past several years. India announced a $ 4.5 billion line of credit which is expected to be utilised for the development of three ports in Bangladesh—Payra, Mongla and Chittagong— as well as railways and roads. The other key MOUs were on passenger and cruise services on the coastal and protocol route, cooperation on cyber security and the peaceful uses of outer space. The bilateral commitment on fighting terrorism was strongly reiterated in the joint statement which vowed “to combat terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, and stessed that there can be no justification whatsoever for any act of terror... the fight against terrorism should not only seek to disrupt and eliminate terrorists, terror organisations and networks, but should also identify, hold accountable and take strong measures against states and entities which encourage, support and finance terrorism, provide sanctuary to terrorists and terror groups, and falsely extol their virtues.” Needless to add, the message directed to Pakistan in particular and terror groups in South Asia and elsewhere in general is unmistakable. The visit, no doubt, strengthens India-Bangladesh coope-ration in fighting cross-border terrorism in the eastern parts of South Asia.
However, the much anticipated Teesta pact— which has been pending for several years—proved to be elusive. Being primarily an agrarian country, Bangladesh needs and wants free flow of river water for its sheer existence. Any restrictions on river water flows can result in large arid zones in that country. Though the issue of the sharing of the waters of the principal river, Ganga, was resolved in 1996 during Sheikh Hasina’s first government, doing so in the case of Teesta is proving to be contentious. The Teesta originates in Sikkim and flows through North Bengal before entering Bangladesh where it merges with the Brahmaputra. A treaty on the sharing of the waters of this river was drawn up prior to the visit of Dr Manmohan Singh, the then Prime Minister of India, to Dhaka where it was to be signed in September 2011. In the draft treaty India and Bangladesh were allocated 39 and 36 per cent of the water flow, respectively. However, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee refused to accept the draft treaty on the ground that the volume of water in the Teesta was not adequate to allow for sharing. The proposed treaty would have hurt the interests of farmers in North Bengal which is a sensitive issue for West Bengal. On the other hand, Bangladesh proposes to under-take irrigation projects on the assumption that adequate waters from Teesta would be available. (Purusottam Bhattacharya: 2016: 273-285)
When Narendra Modi visited Bangladesh in June 2015, Mamata Banerjee accompanied him and the LBA was signed with Banerjee’s consent. However, the Teesta water-sharing agreement was not a part of the agenda due to resistance from Banerjee and remained unresolved. Though Modi initiated a dialogue with Banerjee, nothing came out of it as any settlement in poll-bound West Bengal (held in April-May 2016), that appeared to hurt the interests of the State, was unacceptable to Banerjee. Bangladesh, on the other hand, viewed the Indian stand with Mamata calling the shots as yet another instance of Indian insensitivity towards the vital interests of Dhaka.
This is the backdrop to the just concluded visit of Sheikh Hasina so far as the Teesta issue is concerned. Expectations of some kind of an understanding was high specially due to the fact that Mamata Banerjee went to New Delhi during Hasina’s visit in response to an invitation from President Pranab Mukherjee though doubts still remained. However, in bilateral discussions with Sheikh Hasina, Banerjee reiterated her misgivings about the Teesta pact on the lines mentioned above. On the contrary she offered to share waters of other smaller rivers of North Bengal such as the Torsa with Bangladesh. Prime Minister Modi, on the other hand, declared emphatically that the Teesta pact will be signed during the tenure of the NDA Government in New Delhi and the Hasina Government in Dhaka. Banerjee sugarcoated the new offer with promises of supply of surplus power from West Bengal to Bangladesh. The offer from Banerjee took everyone by surprise. Diplomats and other experts from both sides responded that this was not a feasible proposition though the grounds for such non-feasibility still remain unclear. The basic refrain seems to be that the Teesta pact has been ready in a concrete form for a number of years and what remained to be negotiated was its final shape to the satisfaction of both sides. Banerjee’s new proposal threw a spanner in the works and appeared to change the para-digm altogether. The reactions from the Bangla-desh side, including from Sheikh Hasina herself, has been unfavourable. On the final day of her visit to New Delhi, Sheikh Hasina said at a civic reception, somewhat in jest: “Pani manga, bijli mila (Asked for water, got electricity).” The foreign policy establishment in New Delhi also seems somewhat non-plussed with the new offer and it remains to be seen how the logjam is finally broken.
In spite of these ups and downs the outcome of the visit of Sheikh Hasina is being viewed by observers as positive. One writer feels that the visit has resulted in a restructured strategic relationship between New Delhi and Dhaka. Though Mamata Banerjee visibly does not show it, her presence in New Delhi throughout Hasina’s visit—even her shift from an intran-sigent “no” to thinking of an alternative water-sharing pact and offering electricity to Bangla-desh—signal a significant move forward giving the Modi Government something to work on with her in the coming months.
As already mentioned, there are notable takeaways in the defence and economic agree-ments from this visit. However, the Teesta issue is extremely emotive in Bangladesh and the fact that Hasina was unable to return to Dhaka with an agreement on water-sharing will be surely exploited by her opponents, specially the BNP and its allies who are already vociferous about a ‘sellout’ to India. Sheikh Hasina faces general elections in December 2018. A concrete Teesta agreement before then remains a window which is fast closing. The issue is no longer confined between New Delhi and Dhaka but has definitely shifted within the ambit of New Delhi and Kolkata. There is no point in speculating here what the possible outline of a final settlement might look like. The issue could have been better handled within India.
It may be recalled that when the Ganga treaty was signed in 1996, the then Chief Minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, played a seminal role in its formulation. The Central and the State governments worked in tandem at that time. That the Ganga treaty has its critics within India, notably West Bengal, is another matter. However, the same degree of coordination between the Centre and West Bengal has been conspicuous by its absence in the Teesta case. Mamata Banerjee was presented with a fait accompli in September 2011 in the shape of a concrete pact which had been drawn up without taking the State Government into confidence (which included both the earlier Left Front Government as well as the then newly-installed Trinamul Government). Such bad handling of the Teesta issue can only be termed as unfortunate.
India’s relationship with Bangladesh is geopolitically truly strategic. This is an aspect which has been much discussed in scholarly literature and need not be recounted here. It is in the interest of both the countries that this strategic partnership flourishes in future and does not remain hostage to domestic political shenanigans. If that happens Sheikh Hasina’s visit will have served the cause of peace and security in South Asia.
Siddharta Dasgupta, “India-Bangladesh Ties: New Challenges for Distant Neighbours” in Rajkumar Kothari, ed., India’s Foreign Policy in the New Millennium, Academic Excellence, New Delhi, 2010.
Muchkund Dubey, “Indo-Bangladesh Relations- Failure of Leadership on the Indian Side” in Mainstream, September 17, 2011.
Anindyo Jyoti Majumdar, “Making sense of India-Bangladesh Relations” in India Quarterly, 70 (4), 2014.
C. Raja Mohan, Modi’s World: Expanding India’s Sphere of Influence, Harper Collins, New Delhi, 2015.
Purusottam Bhattacharya, “India and Bangladesh: Can the Assymmetry in Bilateral Relations be Overcome?” in Rajkumar Kothari, ed., India Becoming a Global Power in the Twenty-First Century: Rising Challenges and Newer Opportunities., Atlantic, New Delhi, 2016.
A retired Professor of International Relations, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, Dr Purusottam Bhattacharya is the erstwhile Director of Jadavpur University’s School of International Relations and Strategic Studies.