The news of an exclusive meeting in parliament between the Prime Minister and Begum Raushan Ershad was covered in the media as one held at the request of the latter. It has raised some eyebrows in political circles, particularly within the Jatiya Party (JP) where the squabbles between her and her husband is an open secret. Nevertheless, the state that the JP is at present, except for its insiders, there is almost zero interest in what Raushan Ershad or her party does these days.
There was, however, something in what Raushan Ershad revealed to the media about her meeting with Sheikh Hasina that attracted the attention of many, including this writer. She mentioned two issues in the agenda of her meeting. One was a very innocuous one, regarding establishing an Education Board in Mymensingh. The other issue was not at all innocuous. She reminded the Prime Minister that the second major river of the country, namely the Brahmaputra is fast drying up.
That reminded many about a few fundamental fears about Bangladesh as a country. One of these fears is that ours is basically an agricultural country and that the water of the rivers is what is keeping Bangladesh alive. Of the 56 rivers in Bangladesh, 54 flow into the country from India. Therefore, as soon as the country became independent, sharing the water of these rivers, starting with the Ganges, has been a major issue in Bangladesh-India relations. Sadly, India's attitude in sharing the waters of these rivers has always been negative. In 1996, mainly due to the relentless efforts of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, India had agreed to share the water of the Ganges. That agreement has since become dormant due to India's unwillingness to abide by its provisions.
Upon coming to power in January 2009, Prime Minister Hasina had again shown the vision to move forward with the issue of water, this time with sharing of the waters of the other major rivers, starting with the Teesta. For that, she assured India of total support on its critical security needs, stating that she would not allow Bangladesh's soil to be used for insurgencies and terrorist attacks against India. To underline she was serious, she handed to India seven ULFA terrorists who were hiding in Bangladesh that gave the Indian security and intelligence the first real handle to tackle the decades-old ULFA insurgency in Assam.
Land transit given on a trial basis led to the construction of the 726 MW Palatana gas-based power project in Tripura that has opened the prospects of economic development of the state that was a dream come true because of Bangladesh's magnanimity. Bangladesh followed that up with the decision not just to grant India that trial run of land transit on a permanent basis but also offered to India use of two sea ports, Chittagong and Mongla, thus giving hopes to the seven landlocked and impoverished states of India the first genuine opportunity to find the way out of impoverishment.
India's vibrant civil society and political analysts have not, however, written or talked about these concessions from Bangladesh and what these mean to India. In fact, India over the last few years has achieved much more. In 1971, the conflict in Pakistan's the then eastern wing was heaven sent for New Delhi. India's nemesis, Pakistan, could thus be broken, creating the scope for New Delhi to keep free its eastern front of any physical threat. Since Bangladesh became independent, India has thus been able to leave the duty to guard its over 4000 km-long eastern front into the hands of its paramilitary Border Security Force (BSF).
Unfortunately for New Delhi, opposition to India became a major political issue in the politics of Bangladesh around the mid-seventies. In fact, the military and quasi-military governments between 1975 and 1991 used the growing frustration of the people over water sharing to bring into play the "India Card". India could not depend much on the party that came to power in 1991 and that party used the "India Card" to fight its main opposition in politics. By the time there was a change of government through election in 1996, the "India Card" was so deeply embedded that even the then ruling party itself was not sure whether it would be wise to be seen supporting New Delhi.
During the tenure of another elected government between 2001 and 2006, the "India Card" went off the rails. The party's overtures to militant Islamic forces like ISI and particularly 10 trucks of arms for ULFA militants forced New Delhi into a position where it had to interfere with no holds barred. Following elections in Bangladesh in 2008, Indian presence was visible. In the January 2014 elections, India left no one in doubt about its interests in the status quo in the political power matrix. It was not an option but a compulsion for it. And it did exactly that.
Meanwhile, New Delhi enjoyed operational leeway comfortably as far as protecting its "interests", giving the signal by its overt or covert policies that the existence of party/parties playing the "India Card" in the politics of Bangladesh would become history. Thus by the time Narendra Modi visited Dhaka in June 2015, he found and so did everyone watching that the party that was otherwise playing "India Card" became interested in upholding India's interests more than its main political rival/rivals. Thus on his Dhaka visit Narendra Modi found that India's successful politics and diplomacy with Bangladesh had made the "India Card" redundant to the country's largely bipartisan polity.
New Delhi, however, also found it unsavoury that at such a great time to gloat over its successful handling of government-to-government relations, on the people-to-people level, its acceptance in Bangladesh had hit its nadir. Its failure to deliver on Bangladesh's water sharing needs where the Teesta deal now stands out as a major counter to the vision of the government and the political risks it took to deliver to India its security and transit needs. That has been a major cause of the low level of Indian acceptance in Bangladesh. Added to such actions by India, other major issues have also made Bangladeshis critical about India. There is a widespread belief, on real or perceived grounds, that developments over India-Bangladesh bilateral relations have been running afoul of the goals and objectives for which Bangladesh had fought the glorious war of liberation in 1971.
India's gains with security, land transit and use of the Bangladeshi seaports, with mainstream political parties maintaining silence over these issues, would tend to become meaningless in the long run unless it reaches out to the people of Bangladesh and finds out why they feel the way they now feel about India. Begum Raushan Ershad has flagged New Delhi for one major reason, namely its refusal to give Bangladesh its water rights while neither of the two main political parties in Bangladesh talks anymore about the Teesta deal. India should also spare some time and revisit the reasons why it had helped Bangladesh's liberation war in 1971. The political parties may not remind it now because of its success in diplomacy and other areas in its bilateral relations with Bangladesh but the people of Bangladesh are doing so. India needs to see Bangladesh in the context of 1971. If it does that, it will find Bangladeshis eager to give India what it needs from Bangladesh.
New Delhi appears to have ignored the importance of reciprocity in relationships, particularly bilateral relations between the countries, for sustainability. It needs to give due importance to reciprocity in relationships, particularly bilateral relations with the neighbours, for sustainability. It should bring that in dealing with Bangladesh. Otherwise, it may be entering into unchartered waters that it may also find well-nigh impossible to handle.
Therefore, New Delhi should ask itself where now flows the water of the Teesta and why the Teesta Deal that India was promise-bound to deliver in 2011 is now not even talked about before harbouring serious thoughts of sustainable security and transit concessions from Bangladesh.
The writer is a retired career diplomat.