(Foreword: The Indian premier-Mr. Manmohan Singh recently visited Bangladesh and signed several ‘important’ agreements with the Bangladeshi government. While the media in India has been hailing it as historic visit which could improve the relations between the two countries, a few of them in Dhaka fail to agree with the one-sided agreement. A few activists friends who have been closely following the debates and the agreement reports the other side of the deal. Published here at their request….)

By Altaf Parvez, Shamsuddoha Shoaib and MM Ali

The 30-hour visit of the Indian Prime Minister Dr Man Mohan Singh in Bangladesh last week unveiled the incapability of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), besides exposing the inaptitude of country’s free media before the people.

There is no denying that the Indian PM arrived at the Dhaka Airport at 11:55 am (local time) on Tuesday (Sept 6) amidst media hype and high expectations. The visit was also crucial on grounds as Bangladesh was expected to facilitate passage through the country and allow the use of Chittagong and Mongla Ports for Indian business and trade, while agreement for water sharing Teesta was also expected to be reached between the two countries.

India’s refusal to sign the water treaty took the glamour of the visit out of it which has been hyped up in the country for quite sometime. What is surprising is that Bagnladesh’s genuine concern over Tipaimukh and the river linking programme undertaken by the Indians were not even raised by the Bangladesh opposition that survives on anti-Indian rhetoric in the vote bank politics of the country.

Image only illustrative

Another important aspect of the visit is the role of some media pundits in the country and a section in the government that tried to equate Bangladesh’s right to water with India’s desire of getting passage through it which however, cannot be claimed by India under any international law as its right.

The visit even after its failure seems to have consolidated and strengthened the position of unelected advisor-duo at the citadel of power. These two gentlemen since Hasina’s return to power had been negotiating with the Indians bypassing the MOFA or other relevant ministries and departments of the government. What is the magic of their strength is not really known by the public and the media in the country also do not seem to be interested in probing it.

The Indian PM’s visit to Bangladesh was marked by his country’s last moment refusal to sign a water treaty came not only as a surprise but also created an anti-climax to the situation to say the least. Bangladesh reacted and withdrew itself from allowing use of its land for Indian connectivity projects and also refused India to allow use of its sea ports facilities.

Bangladesh’s refusal to allow the connectivity projects probably needs to be analysed under the frame work agreement signed between the two countries during Man Mohan’s visit. The 65 point agreement that envisages use of Chittagong and Mongla ports in the country besides making provisions for use of its rail, road and water corridors. This is probably the biggest Indians gain from this visit as they successfully manoeuvred their connectivity scheme under a future agreement reflective of Bangladesh’s strategic importance to that country. Whether the ruling elites have the strength to utilize it for peoples benefit probably needs to be seen.

Agreements however were reached on the issue of land boundary demarcation, exchange of enclaves and adversely possessed land. However, these deals worked out on the basis of Mujib-Indira pact of 1974 could not specify as to when it will be materialized.

The dispute of maritime boundary initially considered for resolution during this visit was, however, excluded from the list of agenda even before the arrival of the Indian Prime Minister. This is another area that evidently reflects matters of Bangladesh’s interest to be on the lowest priority between the relationships of the two countries. The role of ruling elites, the civil society and media was the least encouraging for concern over the issue.

The topsy-turvy Bangladesh-India relationship took a dramatic turn following Sheikh Hasina’s thumping victory in December 2008 general elections. Following her return to power Hasina visited India in January 2010 and issued a joint communiqué with her Indian counterpart Dr. Man Mohan Singh outlining the basis of future relationship between the two countries.

A transport corridor on Bangladesh soil is now facilitating passage of Indian goods through the country on the basis of that joint communiqué since March last. Other policy shift include Bangladesh’s assistance to restore peace and normalcy in the troubled north eastern region engaged in a bloody independence movement since the British left the subcontinent in 1947.

Being very courageous and helpful towards India, the Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina went to the extent of signing three security related agreements with her nuclear neighbour to facilitate its effort to restore peace in the troubled north eastern regions.

The 50 point Hasina-Man Mohan joint communiqué of 2010 that outlined the basis of future relationship between the two countries marked a dramatic shift in Bangladesh’s India policy, which however, was never raised in the parliament before or after Hasina endorsed the new strategy. Mention of policy shift was not even visible even in her election manifesto, when the country went to polls in December 2008.

Whether the electorates were informed or parliamentarians were consulted or the cabinet was taken into confidence – the fact remains that a transport corridor on Bangladesh soil is now facilitating passage of Indian goods through the country on the basis of that joint communiqué since March last. When Indians later pushed through the corridor facility free of cost for movement of Over Dimensional Cargo to Palatana Power Project, many among the policy makers even campaigned in their favor.

In her long political career Sheikh Hasina like her father struggled for establishment of parliamentary democracy is well acknowledged. But when one takes into account the very recent developments and particularly the regional policy of Bangladesh one finds nothing being discussed in the parliament or in the standing committees or even in the cabinet.

Inefficiency and incapability of the MOFA earlier discussed only in the academic realm became a matter of public knowledge now, courtesy the visit of Indian Prime Minister Dr. Man Mohan Singh’s to Dhaka on September 6. This however, does not undermine some claims of deliberate attempts to turn the MOFA into a non-entity.

An observation of the chronology of events that led to Dr. Singh’s arrival in Dhaka may be of some help for the readers to understand how the events prior to his visit had sealed the fate of its outcome. A study of the MOFA activities and the role of the media during this period also deserve attention.

As the date of Indian Premier’s visit to the country approached nearer events unfolding in India gave some indication on the likely outcome of the visit. The media enthusiasm and the campaign centring Dr. Singh’s visit boomeranged and brought into question the professionalism and ethical standards of the people involved in the business.

Let us first take into consideration the date of Dr. Singh’s visit to Dhaka. One day ahead of his visit Argentine football star Messi came to Dhaka and the next day that is on September 6 Indian Prime Minister arrived in the country. Messi’s team Argentina cane to participate in a friendly international match against Nigeria at the Dhaka stadium the day Man Mohan came in Bangladesh.

Another significance of the date of his visit can be also linked with the Eid holiday after the end of Ramadan. Following three days Eid holiday, newspapers hit the newsstand on September 3, three days ahead of Indian Premier’s visit to Dhaka.

Expressing optimism and enthusiasm about the signing of Teesta treaty newspapers hit the market when it came out on the first day after the Eid holidays. Signing of an interim agreement for 15 years on Teesta between Bangladesh and India was reported to be taking place during Dr Singh’s visit, newspaper said the next day.

But on September 5, Paschim Banga Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced her unwillingness to visit Dhaka along with four other provincial chief ministers in the entourage of PM Man Mohan Singh. The foreign secretary of India also indicated that the Teesta agreement is not likely to be on the cards during this visit of Dr Singh.

The day Indian PM arrived in town the newspapers said, Bangladesh played down the uncertainty over the deal citing that no official communication was made by India. Was this authentic? Besides there have been many incidents in the past where the newspapers took bold position defying government dictates.

In her official briefing one day ahead of Man Mohan’s visit she confidently expressed her optimism about the signing of the deal in presence of the Indian PM. By then Mamata had already conveyed her inability to visit Dhaka and the Indian foreign secretary had also officially informed that the nothing could be done regarding the water issue without taking the states into confidence.

A section of government and the press that seem to maintain a very soft attitude towards India have been let down by the Indian establishment, which probably they were not mentally ready to accept. Instead of accepting the realities they probably went further ahead to concede to ‘do more’ demands of the Indians so that Dr. Singh’s visit in the public eye could be saved.

Could not it be a reason for enthusiastic media campaign against a provincial chief minister of the Indian Union? How a campaign against a provincial chief minister will protect interest of Bangladesh?

It may not be irrelevant to remind people of an old proverb at this stage that says ‘the press and the nation rise and fall together’. Taking into account the role of the free media in the country it probably will not be difficult for people to assess where the country is heading towards.

Detractors say efforts have been underway to turn the MOFA into a total non-entity. Reasoning their views with examples of MOFA activities they quote statements of important people to prove their points. Even if one brushes aside the political statements of important ministers how should one accept the role of the government for allowing technocrat advisors to run matters having long term geo-political implications on the country?

What is pertinent here is to understand whether Bangladesh is passing through a transitional stage where it had no choice but to concede to the dictates and retain individuals in important positions, without taking into account their activities.

Some even feel that the country has returned to a stage similar to that of 1971 war which allowed India to exploit the situation and impose a 25 year Bangladesh India Peace and Friendship treaty, not renewed when its tenure expired.

It may not be irrelevant to mention the observations of Humayun Rashid Chowdhury, the then mission chief of Bangladesh in India, who later became the foreign minister under HM Ershad and subsequently also took to the office of Speaker when Awami League under Sheikh Hasina returned to power after a lapse of 21 years.

Under the provisions of 25 year Bangladesh India Peace and Friendship agreement India did not want Bangladesh to maintain a robust ministry of foreign affairs, said Humayun Rashid Chowdhury, Bangladesh Mission Chief in New Delhi in 1971.

Bangladesh would have to maintain close liaison with the Indian government which would assist the new country in this respect of its foreign affairs, Chowdhury said adding
“I can tell you without any hesitation that Bangladesh was freed from occupying Pakistani forces on December 16, 1971; but she became a sovereign state only after Jan 10, 1972, the day Sheikh Mujib returned to Dhaka from Pakistani jail”, he added.