BANGLADESH, INDIA AND BANGABANDHU’S VISION
Syed Muhammad Hussain
The High Commission of Bangladesh in London celebrated the 94th birth anniversary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on March 17 this year. I made there a brief presentation on the life and achievements of the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. It was an astonishing journey of discovery for me as I researched into a considerable wealth of literature on him. It became apparent that his views on many an aspect of the challenges Bangladesh would be facing over time were almost prophetic.
In this write-up, I intend to touch upon some of the major issues regarding the sharing of waters of Indo-Bangladesh common, cross-boundary, and international rivers. I may run the risk of making a generalisation, but many do believe that India’s approach in these, and in very many other bilateral matters, is unilateral, self-serving, exploitative, immoral and unlawful and above all, most dishonourable. After over four long decades, Bangladesh continues to pay for its debatable debt as India’s demand for the pound of flesh continues unabated.
REFRESHING MEMORIES: Let us refresh our memories and take some lessons from the vision and decisions of Bangabandhu in relation to our giant neighbour. And these were the times when the flush of our gratitude to India was at its peak. It would have been so much more convenient, and I am certain the Indian pressure was at its maximum, for him to go to India during those fateful days in March, 1971. But following his sharp instinct, he remained with his own people to ensure their safety from a large-scale massacre by allowing the occupation forces to take him away, to an almost certain doom. When destiny crowned him as the leader of Free Bangladesh, he did not route his return through Delhi, but through London, for his triumphant home-coming to the sovereign, independent Bangladesh as the Father of the Nation. This was indeed a clear signal to the powers that be in India. They were our benefactors, but Bangabandhu realised, and as we continuously discover even now, India would always operate on a Chanakyan mode.
Our nation shall forever remember Bangabandhu’s great act of courage and farsightedness when he asked for the immediate withdrawal of the Indian armed forces from the sovereign territories of Bangladesh. An equally momentous, but perhaps less known, visionary act of his was the unequivocal demand for the withdrawal of the Indian civil administration officials to take control of the country at the field level. At that vulnerable time, the presence of a foreign army and civilian forces would have reduced our war-ravaged country to a status of a satellite/hinterland of India.
THE PROCESS CONTINUES: It is evident that the process is still continuing. Bangladesh is being compelled to serve the domestic interests of the Indian states on its borders. We seem to fall in the well-set trap of direct contact and negotiations with these provincial capitals rather than negotiating on the basis of sovereign equality with the Indian central government.
There is no doubt that Bangabandhu was keenly aware that the Farakka double-talk and betrayal would not be the only episode and that a series of perfidious acts would continue to threaten the economic and political security of Bangladesh. Bihar is protesting that Farakka has ruined them; Assam is threatening to take violent measures against us to prevent Paschimbanga-origin transit shipments of harmful materials. Tripura is taking all the advantages of cross-border unregulated trade through a large number of so-called ‘haats’. And Paschimbanga is crying hoarse on illegal Bengali-speaking people and protesting Delhi government’s attempts to accept our demand for equitable share of Teesta waters and the flows of the six other trans-border rivers, effectively vetoing union government’s decision. And then we have the broken assurances on LBA (Land Boundary Agreement) and the massive trade deficits and so on.
Only a few days back Tripura chief minister Mr. Manik Sarcar met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi. An electronic media (bdnews24.com /09/08/ 2014) report says: “Manik Sarcar demanded restoration of connectivity as was prevailing between India and East Pakistan ( later liberated …. ). For achieving rapid economic development in Tripura, facility of movement of people and goods through Bangladesh to Eastern India is a necessity. Prior to partition, Tripura was seamlessly connected to rest of India through Bangladesh by road, rail and waterways, which need to be restored and made operational.” His written memo also mentioned transit and trans-shipment facility, access to Chittagong port and Dhaka and Chittagong airports, telecom/optic fibre link through Bangladesh. He suggested to Mr. Modi that “India, if necessary, should help develop infrastructure in Bangladesh” to make these benefits flow into Tripura and the eastern states.
This and other such media coverage and perhaps the more analytical reports from our High Commission in New Delhi on this and related themes, would reveal a blueprint of Indian approach to India-Bangladesh relations. Our authorities may gain invaluable perspectives from such reports.
SUPER-POWER RIVALRIES: India’s strategy is to use Bangladesh as a buffer between New Delhi and the Seven Sisters which are seething with discontent and demanding autonomy. They also want to offset the increasing presence of China along the Myanmar border stretching to the Indian Ocean. With the possibility of an Asian Highway opening up China’s zone of direct influence to easy access to the Indian sub-continent, the United States, I have no doubt, will throw the gauntlet through the America-energised India on this far-eastern flank of the Indian Ocean. (My article on US, China and India – a study in South Asian dynamics for Bangladesh, February 10, 2012).
Interestingly, only a fortnight back the US, India and Japan staged war games in the Pacific. Known as the Malabar Exercise, the annual event was joined actively by Japan this year, indicating the sweep of the naval dominion they want to patrol and protect. I am sure the details of this power-flexing are being reported on by our missions in Delhi, Washington and Tokyo and of the Chinese response/strategy by our Missions in Beijing and Yangon. It is also significant that Bhutan has started direct talks with China on their border issues, with China promising a sizeable support to Bhutan’s development. India controls the external relations of Bhutan with only two diplomatic missions operating in Thimpu. Our embassy there must have been following closely such defiant acts by Bhutan, which has one of the three missions in Dhaka. The other two being in Delhi and the UN. India has a strong mission in Thimpu.
That China is giving India a serious challenge is also evident from the former’s massive water, power and irrigation projects on the upper parts of Brahmaputra river to serve the Tibetan region. India has already protested the impending adverse effects as the violation of the water rights of the lower co-riparian country, ironically underpinning the identical principles of same claims of Bangladesh. The Free Tibet movement in Nepal and in Dharmasala, India has been successfully contained over the years, enabling the Chinese to keep Tibet as their strategic command and launch-post against India. Dalai Lama, despite his global appeal, has been turned into a purely religious and spiritual symbol rather than a political force for the Tibetans, who apparently are basking in the growing prosperity under China’s special attention.
No wonder that India and the US are feeling the escalating tremors of Chinese diplomacy. One can easily predict that over the next decade, this South Asian region would become an active theatre of super-power rivalries. In this context, our part of the Bay of Bengal would be a strategic locale with Sonadia and other off-coast points becoming critically important for bases under the garb of deep-sea ports.
A BIRD’S EYE VIEW: Let’s have a bird’s eye view of the tortuous path of Indo-Bangladesh relations, with a cup-board full of skeletons of Indian promises and un-honoured assurances. Starting from Farakka’s devious commissioning as a stranglehold on Bangladesh’s life-line, to making the Joint Rivers Commission (JRC) a virtual prisoner of its own interests and convenience, to the construction Tipaimukh/Jaldoba high dam project, the invidious retreat from signing the promised Teesta accord, one could list so much more about a powerful, giant neighbour’s constant invasion of the space of a small state. As stated earlier, the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) has remained a political stunt right from our birth, and then we have a massive and burgeoning burden of trade deficit, the killings of our nationals with impunity along the borders with their ‘friendly’ barbed wire fences, and so on.
India’s negative and blighted image in almost all sectors of our bilateral relations justify a quote from one of India’s young and talented leaders Shashi Tharoor (his PaxIndica has an invaluable insight of India’s view of the world in the 21st century) as that applies so aptly on India’s policy on Bangladesh: ”If India’s founding fathers, like the passionate democrat Jawarlal Nehru, had not been cremated, they would be turning over in their graves.”
BELATED REALISATION: Getting back to the current Bangladesh scenario, we observe our belated realisation and grossly inadequate concern over the issue of water resources and Indian intent.
The Parliamentary Committee on Water Resources with the former Minister R.C. Sen as its chairman ”expressed concern over India’s funding its river-linking project” and ‘decided to seek the details of the project from India.’ It is an astonishing Rip Van Winkle repeat since the details have appeared in a series of reports, articles and commentaries on this massive scheme to divert/withdraw water flows in the upper reaches of the Eastern Himalayan rivers to a network of long canals to meet the increasing shortage and demand for water in the whole of the dry regions of India. Instead of our now-dead demand for augmentation of the Ganges river in the dry season, India is all but ready to channel the flows all to serve its own benefit.
Even the protestations of the environmental groups and of some of the eastern states, not to speak of Bangladesh’s jeopardy, which faces the final run of drying up rivers, were nullified by the Indian Supreme Court’s green signal two years back to implement the IRLP (Indian River Linking Project) which took 16 years for preparation. It is an incredible impression one shudders with that our huge mission in New Delhi and our ministries of Foreign Affairs and Water Resources, the latter with all the water experts in the various government and non-governmental agencies, have had no clue of this ticking time-bomb and our Parliamentary Committee has to ask for information only a few weeks back (bdnews24.com dated 16 JULY,2014 ). Here I will only refer to one of my articles, published way back in 2007, wherein I had specifically mentioned then Indian President AJP Abdul Kalam’s Republic Day address extolling the IRLP in shaping India’s future prosperity.
And it is a pity that in all these years we have been unable to design a coherent strategic position. Mr. Sen, whose defining ministerial presence was only to advise us to be thankful to India for whatever water they allow to trickle down our rivers – way more when we need less and way less when we need more in dry months as the lowest co-riparian basin country. He is now blaming political activities to have been responsible for slow dredging (of only a few miles of the thousands of miles we have!) and of building some 40 km of river embankments. These are not cost-effective apart from being so inadequate. Dredging of large rivers is a no-go option annd nowhere such enormously expensive method has been adopted as a regular measure. Dredging can make sense for a specific purpose and for a brief period.
REAL OPTIONS: And more significantly we really need to examine our real options vis-a-vis Indian schemes like IRLP, Teesta, Tipaimukh, et al. At this stage we may look at the issue of water resources of our region to have the perspective and knowledge to deal with India’s superior tactical approach with a well-designed data/analysis/negotiating base.
In a longish cover story ‘Troubled Waters’ , London’s well-regarded Financial Times ( July 19/20,2014 ) presents a closer look at the current dangerous trends in the Mekong River – ‘ a new front in the global battle over water and a potential threat to the region’s stability.’
It is interesting to note that ‘people have always fought over water. The word ‘rival’ comes from the Latin ‘rivalis’, or someone using the same stream as another.’ But such conflicts are of rising concern as the United Nations warns that demand for fresh water is on track to outstrip supply by as much as 40 per cent within 16 years. That means cooperation between countries sharing the same river is likely to become even more imperative.’ In this context, one should note that China, the giant in the Mekong river basin, has ”nearly 20 per cent of world’s people, but only about 6 per cent of its fresh water,” it simply wants to shift water where it is’nt. Hence its immense south-north diversion scheme to transfer huge volumes of water from wetter to drier regions.”
It is almost a mirror project that India is going ahead with its IRLP. FT analysis also quotes Indian Professor Brahma Chellany, highlighting on what he calls China’s ‘hydro-supremacy’ and saying that ”The countries in south-east Asia, they are all small countries. They’re too fearful to talk about China.”
Bangladesh and India’s other small states/neighbours, certainly feel the same way about India.
China’s massive water projects to help irrigate vast tracts in the Tibetan region are taking shape forcing India to protest the huge withdrawal of waters of the upper reaches of rivers, including the Brahmaputra, thereby reducing the historical flows into NEFA, Assam and other Indian areas. Ironically, India is positioned as the lower riparian country, as Bangladesh has been pleading with India in the same capacity to share and to regulate the trans-border, international rivers like the Ganges, Teesta and seven other common rivers, allowing adequate flows in the dry months and preventing the release of flood waters during the wet, monsoon season. A case of ‘what you do unto others…’ does not give us any satisfaction. But we do need to remind our giant neighbour what goes around, comes around too.
CHINA’S SYMPATHY FACTOR: In the above backdrop and on the basis of considerable and in-depth analyses over the past decades, we have a sizeable range of relevant materials for our authorities to work on. These, I am certain, are supplemented by our missions in all the concerned capitals, especially New Delhi and Beijing, with their on-the-spot intelligence and reporting on these themes. We need to harvest China’s sympathy factor in our water sharing conundrum with India – a diplomatic challenge that requires a comprehensive and immediate attention. We should employ an Ambassador-at-large for Water Resources with deep knowledge, acumen and finesse.
A comprehensive policy/strategy paper should be prepared with an executive summary of all the scenarios and all the possible options available to us for our highest authorities to approve informed line of action. Our concerned ministries and agencies should prepare for capable and skilled negotiations. Together with the right kind of knowledge, a certain amount of eloquent and committed participation would be essential to ensure that we get the best possible solution and the most effective agreements.
The writer, a retired Bangladesh Ambassador, is a socio-economic-environmental analyst.
AUGUST 21, 2015