The deliberations in Delhi have come to an end and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is back home after her four-day official visit. The visit was underscored by some very serious concerns on her government’s part regarding issues which challenge the fundamentals of Delhi-Dhaka ties. One will now need to sit back and reflect on the results of the summit. There is little question that the Bangladesh leader’s personal equation with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has always been strong and indeed has become increasingly pronounced since 2014, when her government was re-elected to office in Dhaka and Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party assumed power in Delhi. The two leaders have in the course of the last five years met on a number of occasions in Dhaka, Delhi, Kolkata and on the sidelines of global conferences outside the subcontinent.
Both leaders, being the experienced players they are in politics, have had a good understanding of the priorities which have consistently shaped the nature of their leadership at home. On the bilateral level, though, it has been quite a different story, as policy makers in the two countries cannot but acknowledge only too well. Given that sort of a reality, Sheikh Hasina’s prime emphasis on her Delhi visit was surely to seek greater Indian support in freeing Bangladesh of the burden it has had to bear of providing shelter to the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. To what extent she has been able to gain that support, apart from assurances from Delhi on a resolution of the issue, is a question which will be debated in the coming days. The public sentiment in Dhaka is that for all its professions of friendship and cooperation with Bangladesh the Indian leadership has been unable to comprehend the depth of Dhaka’s dilemma vis-à-vis the Rohingyas. The Indians will certainly need to do a lot more to convince Bangladesh that they have heard its call and will respond adequately to it.
For Sheikh Hasina, therefore, the pressure will always be there, despite the absence of any clear commitment from India on the issue, to extract from the Indian side a more concrete response to how Delhi means to apply increased pressure on the Myanmar regime to have the Rohingyas go back home with full guarantees of security. And then there is the issue of the sharing of the Teesta waters, a problem which shows little sign of being resolved any time soon. In Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi assured his Bangladesh counterpart that the issue will be resolved ‘soonest’. What precisely the term implies is open to question, but it is certainly a huge worry for Bangladesh, especially now that Dhaka has agreed to let India draw water from the Feni River for its citizens in Tripura state.
The deal on the Feni water withdrawal has already generated questions on whether the matter could not have been tied to the Teesta question. In other words, there could have been a quid pro quo here. Even so, Bangladesh’s people continue entertaining the hope that there will be a deal on the Teesta and that it will be to the mutual benefit of the two countries. The stalemate does not have to be there. It will now be up to the Modi government to convince West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to relent in her opposition to any chances of a deal. She surely has her own priorities on the Teesta issue, but she needs to sit down to a serious discussion of it. A delay in reaching a settlement can only lead to bitterness between Delhi and Dhaka.
Bangladesh’s people have not forgotten Modi’s assurance to Bangladesh, when his party came to power in 2014, about the Teesta issue getting resolved during the tenures of the governments in Delhi and Dhaka. In the five years that have elapsed since then, Ms. Banerjee’s refusal to agree with the union government on a Delhi-Dhaka deal on the Teesta has blocked any chances of a settlement of the problem. Meanwhile, the Modi and Hasina governments have been returned to office in new elections, which ought to be a reason for the two prime ministers to initiate a fresh approach to the issue. Hopefully, on Modi’s next visit to Dhaka --- he has an invitation from Sheikh Hasina --- a definitive deal on the Teesta will be arrived at.
History remains witness to the cooperation between Dhaka and Delhi and the fruitful outcome thrown up by such cooperation. In early 1972, Indira Gandhi and Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman concluded a 25-year treaty of friendship and cooperation between their two countries. In 1974, they reached a land boundary agreement, to which Indian lawmakers assented decades later when the BJP under Modi assumed power. Dhaka-Delhi cooperation assumed new dimensions in late 1996 when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and then Indian Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda reached an agreement on a sharing of the waters of the Ganges in 1996. Besides, in these past many years, agreements in a number of other areas, notably on tackling cross-border terrorism and promoting bilateral trade, have added substance to India-Bangladesh ties. And cultural cooperation, particularly between Bangladesh and the Indian states of West Bengal, Assam and Tripura, has been a major factor in buttressing relations between the two nations.
The Bangladesh leader’s visit to Delhi has without question led to a deepening of existing ties, as observed through the various memoranda of understanding (MoUs) signed by the two sides. But one issue which Bangladesh will remain worried about, for all the right reasons, is the recent citizenship exercise conducted through the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam. Dhaka cannot be receptive to any efforts by the Indian authorities to push back people from Assam on the ground that they are Bengalis who have illegally settled in India. Recent warnings from the ruling BJP of similar NRC methods being applied to Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal are ominous for Bangladesh, despite Modi’s reassurance that Dhaka has nothing to worry about here.
The latest summit in Delhi apart, there is a serious need for Bangladesh’s concerns to be addressed by the Indian government. The impression must not grow that Delhi is generally at the receiving end of Dhaka’s favours. Diplomacy is a matter of give-and-take. Our diplomats in Dhaka should focus on that principle before they embark on the next round of deliberations with Delhi or indeed with any other country.
Enayetullah Khan, Editor-in-Chief, UNB & Dhaka Courier