Millennium Post

A staunch ally

PM Sheikh Hasina’s revitalising visit heralds well for the bond that the neighbours share – extending beyond mere diplomacy and strategic cooperation

A staunch ally

Bangladesh Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina ended her historic four-day India tour (October 3-October 6) with finesse and style to be etched in memories of both the countries for many years to come. As very aptly described by Bangladesh Foreign Secretary, Shahidul Haq, the Indo-Bangladesh ties are at their best at this juncture.

Keen Bangladesh watchers and even Hasina detractors were keeping a hawkish eye on the visit, hoping that there would be at least some breakthrough in Teesta water sharing as the matter has been hanging fire for several years awaiting a resolution. That was not to be. Indian side must have heaved a sigh of relief as the issue was perhaps not so vociferously raised by Bangladesh during the visit under reference. Contrary to this, Bangladesh agreed to allow India to withdraw 1.82 cusecs water from the Feni river for a drinking water supply project in Tripura. Such magnanimity on part of Bangladesh PM is unlikely to bode well with the anti-India forces in Bangladesh.

Some dailies have already carried negative coverage on the issue, criticising Bangladesh's decision in allowing withdrawal of water from Feni and drawing a blank on sharing of Teesta adversely affecting Bangladesh's interests. More opposition may ensue in Dhaka as the euphoria on the just-concluded visit starts evaporating. Lawyer and human rights activist, Sultana Kamal, in very disparaging remarks, accused India of exploiting Bangladesh's resources as was done by West Pakistan in pre-1971. Sultana was also critical of India-sponsored Rampal power project near Sunderbans 'threatening' ecological interests. More castigating remarks may be on the cards in the foreseeable future targeting Hasina.

Sheikh Hasina and Prime Minister Modi have, during their recent meetings, directed the officials to complete the six river agreement as well as a feasibility study for the Ganga-Padma barrage project as part of an upgraded version of the 1996 Ganga Water Sharing Treaty. Notably, both countries failed to conclude a framework agreement to optimise the use of waters from six rivers including the Manu, Muhuri, Khowai, Gumti, Dharla and Dudhkumar, which has been under discussion for a long time.

Another critical issue anticipated to be discussed during the visit which figured prominently in public domain was the Rohingya issue. PM Modi was requested by Hasina to use his good offices with the Myanmar government for repatriation of Rohingya refugees to the Rakhine state. It would seem this was just an exercise and merely a ritual to go through a motion of conveying to the Indian PM. Myanmar is in no mood to listen as already seen during the China visit of Hasina in July this year. She personally requested Chinese President Xi Jinping who had asked his Foreign Minister Wan Yi to travel to Myanmar and prevail upon the Myanmar leadership to take back the refugees, given the excellent bilateral relations between the two countries. It would, however, be naive to think that China would act or Myanmar would pay heed to any such move.

The predicament of Hasina and her government in handling nearly 11 million Rohingya refugees is understandable; many of whom are engaged in a string of unlawful activities including the commission of criminal offences. Some are even attempting to flee Bangladesh using fake travel documents.

She is also aware that making noise amongst the international community highlighting the Rohingya menace expressing security concerns will at least keep the issue alive, globally. India, on its part, has done well to the comfort level of Bangladesh by extending welfare-related help including provisions of tentage and other relief material to the Rohingyas. That was to give a humanitarian touch to the issue.

NRC issue was also thought to be a major topic needing deft handling. It did come up but Prime Minister Modi, describing it as part of a legal process, dealt it rather dextrously. It may be recalled that External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar, during his Dhaka visit this August, had told PM Hasina that NRC was an internal matter of India. Hasina, of course, raised her concern over the NRC related development.

It would seem in retrospect that on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meet in New York last month, Modi and Hasina had informally discussed these emerging issues namely, Rohingyas, NRC and Teesta, arriving at some kind of tacit agreement thus ensuring a smooth passage of talks in New Delhi incurring no irritants. Hasina must have gone back to Dhaka with some sort of assurance that the 'illegal migrants' from Bangladesh are unlikely to be pushed back to Bangladesh as Bangladesh is unlikely to take its nationals back irrespective of the NRC exercise.

Again, on a positive note, seven MoUs were signed between India and Bangladesh chiefly focussing on areas of cooperation like water resources, coastal surveillance, youth affairs, culture and education. Both the PMs, through a video link, launched a project to import LPG from Bangladesh for distribution in the Indian North East. On the terror front, the two leaders reiterated their strong commitment in eliminating terrorism in all its form and manifestations. However,

it is not known if terror-related vital specifics on renewed intelligence cooperation including sharing of real-time intelligence and effective counter-terror measures were discussed.

On the whole, Bangladesh PM's India visit went off very well with Hasina showing immense statesmanship, broader vision, rising well above petty issues, ignoring critics and adopting a bold and very positive approach in dealing with India. It appeared from her body language and demeanour that she was in total control of things, internally and externally. Her eye problem (she underwent some procedures in London recently) notwithstanding, she carried herself exceptionally well especially on her address at the India Economic Forum. Her sense of humour surfaced when she subtly took a dig on the ban on the export of onions by saying that she has forbidden her cook from use of onions in view of the shortage. She wished she had known in advance about the decision to ban onion exports. Possibly, wit and humour come to the fore only when one is completely at ease and things back home are well in check.

Hasina has to answer a lot to her opponents and to the lobbies always against Indo-Bangladesh friendship, on her perceived failure to firm up Teesta deal on water sharing and other not so significant issues. Given the fact that in the last nearly decade-long incessant rule, Hasina's political acumen has sharpened than before and her ability to handle critics at the national and international levels have increased manifold. In this light, it is expected that she would be able to overcome any India related criticism with confidence.

India also needs to play its cards well to see that Hasina's adversaries don't exploit her position by labelling her as a stooge of India. By far, she has proved her bona fides as a friend of India and possibly the staunchest ally. Despite pressure from fundamentalists and pressure from within, she didn't go on record commenting anything on the matter of Kashmir related happenings. Any political and diplomatic investment in Bangladesh by India is worth a move.

(The author is a retired IPS officer, a security analyst and former National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of Mauritius. The views expressed are strictly personal)

Shantanu Mukharji

Shantanu Mukharji

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