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CWA # 170, 9 October 2019

India and Bangladesh
Sheikh Hasina in New Delhi: Multiple Deals, No Takeaways

  Sourina Bej

Though the visit resulted in multiple agreements between India and Bangladesh, there was no breakthrough in the big-ticket items especially river water sharing

Though the visit resulted in multiple agreements between India and Bangladesh, there was no breakthrough in the big-ticket items especially river water sharing

Hasina in Delhi: Continuation of neighbourhood first

Multiple agreements on energy, coastal surveillance, port development, river water use and cultural and educational exchanges are the prime outcomes of the four day visit by the Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India from 3-6 October. The invitation to Hasina to be the chief guest at the India Economic Summit organised by World Economic Forum in New Delhi saw Prime Minister Narendra Modi continue with his neighbourhood first diplomatic outreach that started at his swearing-in ceremony with the BIMSTEC grouping.

The presence of Bangladesh as the chief guest representing the World Economic Forum itself bears testimony of the growing economy that Dhaka has emerged to be and by holding talks with Modi on 5 October, it also reiterated its position as one of the core BIMSTEC countries with crucial diplomatic issues on its agenda. But contrary to the demands by Bangladesh to discuss the Teesta water deal, National Register of Citizens and the Rohingya crisis, India went ahead to jointly announce multiple projects thereby shelving the key issues for the time.

Many Deals, No Takeaways  

Since the national elections in 2018, this visit is Sheikh Hasina’s first bilateral meeting with India. Apart from committing to upgrade port facilities, imports of LPG, use of river water ports of Mongla and Chottogram, implement India’s under-utilised Lines of Credit and agreements on education, culture and youth, the two countries emphasised to coordinate better in border management and counter-terror cooperation.

But two announcements - establishment of a coastal surveillance radar system and supplies of Feni river water to the border state of Tripura in India will raise larger questions post-Hasina visit.

It is New Delhi’s larger Indo Pacific strategy that dictated the inking of the MoU on coastal surveillance. With BIMSTEC as the institutional anchor for India’s pivot to the Indo Pacific, the Bay of Bengal coastal integration of technology has been strongly pursued by India in Mauritius, Maldives, Seychelles and Myanmar. Bangladesh as the key pillar of the BIMSTEC and the Bay of Bengal region, the further expansion of the connectivity network corridors by charting the standard operating procedure (SOP) on the use of Chottogram and Mongla ports for movement of goods is all set to boost Delhi's Indo-Pacific strategy. What has been termed as heavily biased towards India, the coastal surveillance system will pave way for Indo-Bangladesh White Shipping Agreement in the future. Criticised by most, these radar systems are seen as India’s means to contain sea bound terror threats and the presence of China in the Bay of Bengal region. 

Why Teesta was not discussed?

Within Bangladesh, the anti-India rhetoric has soared high on the issue of river water supply to the border villages of Tripura and the larger question that has remained unanswered is that by not discussing Teesta what was the political objective behind the river water deal over Feni between India and Bangladesh?

An early indication of a deal on India-Bangladesh transboundary river water sharing was made as early on 8 August when the Secretary in India’s water resources ministry visited Dhaka and his counterpart decided to prepare a framework on a water-sharing agreement. Even then the significance of Teesta water deal loomed large as the framework was being drawn up. By the time, Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen briefed the reporters in Dhaka in October prior to Hasina’s visit he spoke on a framework agreement on eight common rivers Manu, Muhuri, Khowai, Feni, Gumti, Dharla and Dudhkumar which also included Teesta.

Thus Teesta slowly became a corollary to the other 54 transboundary rivers between India and Bangladesh. At the end of the talks when Bangladesh agreed to share the water of Feni on humanitarian grounds to help reduce the drinking water demand of the Sabroom village in Tripura, Teesta has been unspoken and is likely to remain so. The reason being India’s relation with the federal state of West Bengal in recent time has been polarised and divisive in nature.

Teesta has remained a river of contention in the India-Bangladesh relation over how the West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has pulled out of the deal and since then the Centre has been unable to find a middle ground to accommodate the demands of the federal state. But the larger political objective of not speaking on the Teesta issue by the central government is due to the importance the national leadership has given to the 2020 civic polls in West Bengal.

The rhetoric set in Assam over the National Register of Citizens (NRC) has been shaping the grass-root party politics in rural Bengal thereby preparing the ground for the elections due next year. With a population of more than 91 million and almost one-third of its citizens being Muslims, minority appeasement through trade unionism has been the bedrock of electoral gains in West Bengal. As the Home Minister Amit Shah builds up the ante on implementing a version of NRC in West Bengal, political paranoia and individual suicides have been on the rise in the Indo-Bangladesh border districts especially in Jalpaiguri and Sunderban in West Bengal.

The Indian government has repeatedly assured Bangladesh of no harm in the question of deportation of those declared foreigners in the NRC in Assam. The State Minister for Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh, Shahriar Alam, was quoted saying that there is no reason for Bangladesh to panic about National Register of Citizens row. However, Bangladesh should adopt a wait and watch policy on NRC in India, especially in West Bengal. Even though the counting of citizen exercise was conducted in Assam, the linchpin for this exercise was a historic accord. With no such legal sanctity in place, the citizenship issue in Bengal has been politicised beyond repair.

Bangladesh shares the longest boundary with a long-standing river dispute, problems of porous border and conflict over deltaic coastal management with the state of West Bengal. Thus what happens within the political and social contours of Bengal will bear a larger impact on the India-Bangladesh relations.

Sourina Bej is a researcher with the Global Politics at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru. She can be contacted at sourinabej92@gmail.com

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