Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s four-day visit to New Delhi, which ended on Monday, is hailed in India as a great success with the two countries signing as many as 34 agreements including a defense pact. And Hasina has accepted Indian development assistance now totaling a whopping US$ 8 billion.
But inputs from Dhaka indicate that a secure bilateral relationship can be established only if India addresses Bangladesh’s felt needs vis-à-vis India. These relate to two ticklish issues: sharing of the waters of 54 river waters, specially the Teesta, and ensuring the independence, sovereignty and security of Bangladesh through a scrupulous adherence to non-interference both overt and subtle.
Back home in Bangladesh, people are not exactly overjoyed with Hasina’s visit. There is great regret that the basic issue of the sharing of river waters has not been addressed and there is an apprehension that the defense deal will constrict Bangladesh’s right to seek defense equipment from sources of its choice. Currently, China is the preferred supplier accounting for 80% of Bangladesh’s weapons purchases.
While the US$ 8 billion Line of Credit is welcome, especially with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi saying projects and the priorities using the credit will be determined by the government of Bangladesh, Indian financial assistance can never match China’s. Chinese President Xi Jinping has pledged US$ 24 billion to Sri Lanka, three times more than what India is offering.
While both Bangladeshis and Indians are gratified that Modi and Hasina share a tough line against Jehadi terrorism, which is wreaking havoc in Bangladesh, there is dismay in Bangladesh that the emotive issue of the frequent killing of Bangladeshi nationals by the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) was not taken up in the New Delhi parleys.
In the eyes of the Indians, the border crossers as suspected smugglers and terrorists, but Bangladeshis see them as being poor economic migrants, largely. At any rate, the use of fire arms by the BSF is thought to be unwarranted even if they are suspected smugglers.
The critical economic and political issue of river waters sharing was kept pending by India on the plea that it is “work in progress.”
The absence of a solution to the waters issue and the inking of the defense deal could have adverse political consequences for Hasina when parliamentary elections are held two years down the line. These issues will add to the woes, inevitably brought about by long incumbency.
The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) Secretary General, Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, has already said that Hasina has failed to address issues of importance to Bangladesh. Earlier, the BNP had said that Hasina’s trip to New Delhi would be of no value if she was not sure of swinging a favorable deal on Teesta.
However, the General Secretary of Hasina’s party Awami League, Obaidul Quader, has warned that India might altogether ignore Bangladesh’s requirements if Bangladeshis make inconsiderate and hostile remarks against it.
Ironically, the inability to conclude a deal on the river waters, particularly the waters of the river Teesta, was not due to any lack of understanding between Modi and Hasina, but was due to the obduracy of the West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee.
Mamata’s participation in the New Delhi parleys at the invitation of Modi and President Mukherjee, made no difference to her established stand that there is no water to be shared in the December-April dry season when water is needed most in Bangladesh (and India too).
In the talks between her trusted officials and the Indian Prime Minister’s Office, the latter proposed that the Central government will fund the building of reservoirs to store excess water during the monsoon. These waters could be shared with Bangladesh during the dry season. But this was not acceptable to Mamata who harped on the theme that Teesta does not have enough water in the dry season and that Northern Bengal is highly dependent on the river for both drinking water and irrigation.
In turn, she suggested to Hasina that Bangladesh cease to depend on Teesta and use the waters of other cross border rivers like Torsa, Dharala, Jaldhaka, Dhansiri and Mansiri. She proposed a joint survey of the availability of waters in these five rivers.It is not clea as to what Hasina thinks about this proposal.
But Bangladesh is more dependent on Teesta than West Bengal. While 21 million Bangladeshis depend on the Teesta flood plain, the comparative figure for West Bengal is only 8 million. Bangladesh and India share 54 rivers out of which 43 are unilaterally dammed by India, depriving Bangladesh of a due share of their waters.
This is why, despite the concentration on Teesta, Bangladesh has been asking for a comprehensive water sharing treaty encompassing all the rivers.
But India has been dragging its feet because water is a devolved provincial subject and a politically sensitive one at that. All that Modi can do is to reason out and coax Mamata to be more accommodative. He is at that, and Hasina understands. .
The second controversial issue bedeviling Indo-Bangla relations is the defense pact signed on Saturday and mooted by India after Bangladesh bought two submarines from China in 2016.
The then Defense Minister, Manohar Parrikar, had rushed to Dhaka to persuade Hasina to come to India for weapons and not go to China. He also proposed a 25 year Defense Pact encompassing a wide range of joint defense activities. Bangladesh has been dependent on China for its defense equipment to the extent of 80% but the purchase of the submarines was the last straw on the camel’s back.
Hasina understands India’s sensitivity in regard to China’s intrusions into its “sphere of influence”. But Bangladeshi nationalists are adamant on this issue. The fact that India was offering a US$ 500 million credit line to buy weapons from it is seen as a ruse to palm off sub-standard weapons.
Commentators also oasked how India can sell weapons when it is itself importing weapons, so much as so, that in 2016, it was the single largest buyer of weapons in the world with a bill of US$ 24 billion. China, in contrast, exports more weapons that either France or Germany, accounting for 6% of the world’s arms sales. India is nowhere in the arms export market.
Indian Defense Industry
However, India does have plans to boost its defense production and export potential under Modi’s “Make in India” project.
In January this year, the then Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar, said that India exported US$ 300 million worth of defense equipment and hoped it would take a quantum jump to be US$ 2 billion by 2019.
India is expected to spend US$ 620 billion on the defense sector by 2022. To attract foreign investment in its defense sector, the government has allowed foreign partners to take 49% stake in defense industries. Military contracts up for grabs are now worth US$ 130 billion.
Between January 2001 and February 2016, the Indian Commerce Ministry had granted 333 industrial licenses to private firms for defense-related manufacturing.
(The featured image above shows Bangladesh and Indian Prime Ministers Sheikh Hasina and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee)