The Indian side would surely have taken due note of Bangladesh’s overriding concern that the livelihoods of millions of her people depend on the Teesta river and that the country should receive a proper share of the waters.
Given the reference recently to India as Dhaka’s “most important neighbour” by Gowher Rizvi (Foreign Affairs Advisor to Sheikh Hasina) on the one hand, and notwithstanding the Islamist opposition to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two-day visit to Bangladesh on the other, the Indian authorities have hailed it as an unqualified success. They believe it went much beyond the usual goodwill gestures and bonhomie and has added substantially to the “shonali adhyay” (golden period) of the bilateral ties.
The violence did not stop after the visit, with members of a hardline group attacking Hindu temples and a government-sponsored music academy. Activists of the Hefazat-e-Islam (which enforced a nationwide strike) took to damaging a train in the eastern district of Brahmanbaria. A number of protestors were killed in clashes with the police; the tensions raged on, as anger swelled over the deaths.
Narendra Modi described the interaction with Sheikh Hasina as “productive”, which, all things considered, did not amount to saying a great deal.
Be that as it may, the Indian side would surely have taken due note of Bangladesh’s overriding concern that the livelihoods of millions of her people depend on the Teesta river and that the country should receive a proper share of the waters. A forceful message was, apparently, conveyed to the Prime Minister by his Bangladesh counterpart during the talks. A Joint Statement issued at the end of the discussions recalled that “…a draft Agreement has already been agreed upon by both governments in January, 2011”.
PM Modi recognizes the urgency of preventing a fall in India’s graph in the neighbourhood. In a masterstroke in April 2017, he departed from protocol to receive Sheikh Hasina at the New Delhi airport; it was the first time an exception was made for the Head of Government of a neighbouring country that had been done earlier only for the then US President (Barack Obama) and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.
Four years on, Sheikh Hasina reciprocated the courtesy by personally receiving him at the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka.
The airport was formerly known as Dacca International Airport (and, later, as Zia International Airport) before being named after Shah Jalal, a highly respected Sufi saint of Bangladesh.
Sheikh Hasina’s India connect—in which an enduring regard for Indira Gandhi (dating back to the era of her late father and his assassination, along with family-members, on the Indian Independence Day in 1975) is an important element—has often been criticized in Bangladesh. The dissatisfaction could intensify without a deal on the sharing of Teesta waters.
Indira Gandhi was visibly shaken at the Bangabandhu’s tragic demise.
So far, Hasina has put up a brave face, observing that the relations between the two South Asian neighbours will undergo a “further transformation” when the Teesta Agreement comes through.
The matter ought to have been more astutely (and resolutely) addressed by the handpicked advisers (retired and serving) from the bureaucracy who are handling issues of national security, foreign policy and domestic affairs and are based in the South and North Blocks, the Niti Aayog and elsewhere. They have been around for quite some time in the innermost circles of decision-making.
A specific initiative could have been put in place to settle West Bengal’s doubts and “soften” the objections, soon after the NDA’s decisive election victory in 2014 or immediately following Mamata Banerjee’s win in 2016. Should Mamata retain the chief ministership in May 2021, a good chance to resolve the Teesta question may lie—no doubt, under the Centre’s watch and encouragement—with the coming together of the leaders in Dhaka and Kolkata who share the cultural, literary and linguistic affinities of the eastern and western regions of what was once a United Bengal.
That India-Bangladesh cordiality has largely stayed the course owes much to Sheikh Hasina being at the helm over a period of time. This has made a big difference. Her government’s performance on social and economic indicators is commendable.
It is foolhardy to imagine that historical factors and the like could, on their own, sustain the relationship indefinitely. Not very long ago, after the cancellation of visits of two Bangladesh dignitaries to India amid the controversy over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, one of them, the Foreign Minister, A.K. Abdul Momen, had struck a discordant note: “What they are saying in regard to torture on Hindus is unwarranted as well as untrue… There are very few countries in the world where communal harmony is as good as in Bangladesh… We are all equal…”
With China very much on the scene, the road ahead is challenging, even complicated, for India. The country is likely to need Bangladesh more than vice versa for its aspirations of an expanding global role to reach fulfilment, sooner rather than later.
Arun Bhatnagar was formerly in the IAS and served in senior positions.