The bonhomie in clear display during Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s meeting last week with Indian Premier Narenda Modi gave reasons for Bangladesh to feel pleased. India is Bangladesh’s largest– and most powerful – neighbor. On many major issues, from national security to water-sharing to onions, Bangladesh remains dependent on this ‘big brother’. While both sides have gone out of their way to stress their sovereign equality, not many people would buy stocks based on this proclaimed principle.
Government leaders in both capitals have expressed their satisfaction at the outcome of the visit. The joint communique issued at the end of the visit stresses in no uncertain terms the desire for both countries to continue their current brotherly relations. However, if one parses the text with a finer comb, a few stained grains emerge that don’t escape careful observation.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks in relations between Dhaka and New Delhi – and potentially an explosive one – is the continuing trade deficits. Dhaka exports very little to India, somewhat in the range of 600- 650 million dollars worth of goods. India’s export to Bangladesh, on the other hand, crosses six billion dollars. Many inside Bangladesh have often raised alarm bells over the disparity which, one may argue, has reduced Bangladesh to a colonial outpost. As a remedy, Dhaka has called for greater trade liberalization, including lifting tariffs on Bangladeshi exports to India. Unmoved, India has instead imposed additional tariffs on finished garments from Bangladesh. Meanwhile, Bangladesh has seen a deluge of goods from India, giving little room for its nascent manufacturing industries to gain any meaningful foothold.
It is quite likely that the two leaders spent time discussing the trade issue but there is no reflection of this in the joint communique.
One area where the two leaders did spend time – and this is well reflected in the joint communique – is the issue of water-sharing. Beginning with the Farakka barrage that controls the downward flow of water from the Ganges, the issue of water-sharing has bedeviled the two countries since Bangladesh’s independence. Like a stubborn wart, it has continued to grow and spread.
Bangladesh, a lower riparian country, has almost 90 percent of its water flowing from India, thus making it the gatekeeper of Bangladesh’s water resources. Experience has taught Bangladesh that no amount of yelling or threats of internationalizing the issue could give it what it wants. Its approach in recent years has been one of patient negotiations. But the balance sheet does look very impressive. Yes, Bangladesh has managed to secure a treaty on Farakkaa, but long after the barrage was actually built. The Tipaimukh dam on the Barak river in Manipur is nearing completion and Bangladesh has had little luck with its interventions. The story is not much different with the Teesta River project either.
Bangladesh awaits far worse fate if India completes its multi-river-linking project that will create a web of dams, canals, and reservoirs to reroute a vast amount of water away from Bangladesh. This would, potentially, save much of India from drought but turn much of Bangladesh into an arid land. Not sure how much discussions took place on the river-linking initiative, but the communique confirms that the two leaders agreed on a framework for future consultations on seven rivers that flow between the two countries.
Obviously, the issue of concluding a treaty on Teesta came up for discussion and Mr Modi assured his Bangladeshi counterpart that he was working with ‘all stakeholders in India’ for a speedy conclusion of the water-sharing treaty. What remained unsaid is that the Chief Minister of West Bengal, the only stakeholder other than the government of India, continues to play politics souring relations between the two neighbors. Aware of the Chief Minister’s nagging refusal, Bangladesh has left few stones unturned to humor her including sending several hundred tons of Hilsa fish ahead of Durga Puja.
While an agreement on Teesta continues to elude Bangladesh, India was able to ink a treaty on withdrawing water from Feni River. India has for a while been pumping water from Feni River through underground pipes, causing serious depletion of water. Bangladeshi officials argued it was a humanitarian decision, as people on the other side of the border in Tripura seemed starved of freshwater. Rumors have it that this is another attempt to mollify the unwavering Mamatadi, though no one knows if this would buy Dhaka an inch of good will.
Another issue that came up for discussion is the headcount in Assam as part of India’s national citizen register. Under the just concluded census, nearly 1.9 million people have been listed as ‘illegal’ and ruling party leaders have threatened to expel them to Bangladesh. We understand Prime Minister Modi has assured Sheikh Hasina not to worry about it. At least, not now. The headcount was ordered by the superior court and the government was only complying, Modiji reasoned. Ironically, Amit Shah, President of the ruling BJP, has been telling loyal party followers in Assam and elsewhere that all of the 1.9 million ‘illegals’ would be pushed back into Bangladesh. When Bangladesh Prime Minister’s senior adviser on foreign affairs Gowher Rizvi was asked about this discrepancy in the position taken by Modi and his party chief, he seemed unperturbed. “There are things your Ministers tell the people of India, but we don’t go by what Ministers say. Prime Minister Modi spoke to us directly and did not remotely suggest any of what was said by Mr. Shah,” he told The Hindu.
However, Dr Rizvi in the same interview blurted out an important concession. He noted, once the headcount process was completed, Bangladesh will study cases of Bangladesh-origin migrants ‘individually’, and ‘take them back if the claims were verified’. His comments left some people squirming. Bangladesh is already saddled with nearly a million Rohingya refugees. The adviser seems to be signaling Dhaka’s readiness to accept additional refugees from India. Where do we put them, in Bhasan Char?
On the Rohingya issue, needless to say, Bangladesh once again found India unresponsive to its concern. PM Modi in his talks with Hasina made the ceremonial assurances about India’s interest to see the Rohingyas returned back to Myanmar. One could argue, this was just ‘bat ki bat,’ no more. Both inside the UN and outside, India has been unwilling to put meaningful pressures on Myanmar’s quasi-military rulers, nor have they shown any inclination to condemn Yangon for ‘textbook ethnic cleansing’ of the Rohingya Muslims. Of course, the underlying cause is unmistakable. India does not want to let China be the only player in Myanmar. Neither does it want to forgo lucrative commercial interest there.
Another area where the two sides spent time discussing is expanding cooperation on areas related to national security. An agreement has been reached on security and surveillance of Bangladesh’s coastal areas, as part of which India will install a modern radar system. One wonders, who is the target of this surveillance? Is a foreign adversary plotting to attack Bangladesh from the waters of Bay of Bengal? Since this is not a purchase order placed by Bangladesh, it is most likely that India will be in-charge of manning the surveillance system. Some observers think the obvious target of the security arrangements is China. If this is discernible to untrained observers like ourselves, it is safe to bet that China would get it, too. We have been talking for a while about Dhaka’s ‘China Card’ that would place some road bumps for India. This is not one of those road bumps for sure.
India and Bangladesh are friendly and brotherly neighbours, yet there is no reason to surmise that this relationship is based on sovereign equality. Honestly speaking, given how India outweighs Bangladesh in every category, such an equal relationship is not very logical. Yet a semblance of equality is possible if the ‘big brother’ itself realizes the need for greater equality. In the past 70 years, India has seen only one Prime Minister who understood the need to build relationships that was neither transactional, nor reciprocal. He was I K Gujral. Although his time – first as Foreign Minister, and later as Prime Minister – was brief, Mr Gujral won plaudits for arguing that India stands to gain more by befriending its neighbours without preconditions. His “Gujral doctrine” was based on the premise that as the larger and more powerful neighbor, India needs to have a ‘larger heart’ as well.
Agreed, Narenda Modi is a good friend of Bangladesh, but alas, he is no I K Gujral.
Hasan Ferdous is an author and journalist based in New York