Dhaka outcome bridge over troubled waters
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has just concluded a visit to Dhaka. Sadly, exchange of visits between the Indian PM and his counterparts in South Asia are not as frequent as they should be. Perhaps the weight of expectations precludes this.
The previous bilateral visit by an Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka was in 1999 when Atal Behari Vajpayee went over to inaugurate the Dhaka-Kolkata bus service. Deve Gowda had visited in January 1997 in the wake of the historic Ganga Waters Agreement the previous month. Morarji Desai visited in March 1979 to underline his commitment to good neighbourly relations.
But not since the visit of Indira Gandhi has there been a sojourn to Dhaka by an Indian Prime Minister with such an impressive menu on the consolidation and expansion of bilateral relations as Dr Singh’s earlier this week.
It is therefore all the more unfortunate that the last-minute hitch in an agreement on sharing the Teesta’s waters (and the withdrawal of the West Bengal chief minister from the Prime Minister’s team) should have inevitably engaged the primary attention of the media.
Understandable in terms of “news worthiness”, it detracted attention from the agreements signed and the new paradigm of bilateral relations spelt out in the remarkable Framework Agreement on Cooperation for Development with its 12 points encompassing
a wide range of activities. The agreement is an affirmation of mutually shared vision that is unusual, possibly unsurpassed, in the history of bilateral relations in the subcontinent.
The 65-clause joint statement details the steps taken by the countries in the fulfilment of their commitments and those proposed, and the appreciation of each for the steps taken by the other.
The visit has laid to rest some of the festering legacy of the past. The protocol on the land boundary has dealt with the question of demarcation, enclaves and adverse possession — legacies of Cyril Radcliffe’s “broad brush” of 1947. At long last the question of access across Teen Bigha to Dahagram and Angarpotha has been meaningfully addressed.
India has acceded to Bangladesh’s request for freer access to garments. The joint statement lists a series of steps to be taken by both countries to intensify cooperation in areas ranging from cultural activities to technology. Bangladesh has taken steps in the recent past to allay Indian security concerns, particularly relating to north-eastern insurgents, and the two sides “reaffirmed their unequivocal and uncompromising position against terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, including insurgency.
They reiterated the assurance that their respective territories would not be allowed for any activity inimical to the other and by any quarter.”
The clauses of the Framework Agreement on Cooperation for Development contain the seeds of possibilities which, if nurtured honestly and with commitment, may transform the relationship between the two countries. It is also noteworthy that while the clauses relate essentially to bilateral actions by India and Bangladesh, there is also repeated affirmation of commitment to sub-regional and regional cooperation.
It concludes the first phase in creating a new paradigm of bilateral relations that commenced with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit in January, 2010 and the joint statement issued after the visit.
But the more important — and more taxing — next phase would require both countries to nurture the ideas until they bear fruit.
In this the greater responsibility devolves on India as the larger partner. With a multitude of agencies involved, Delhi would do well to institute a central monitoring mechanism.
The sharing of waters of common rivers is understandably of prime concern to Bangladesh. Besides the genuine needs of the people it has also acquired political overtones, which makes it all the more important for the government of the day to tread cautiously. In this context, the last-minute removal of sharing of the Teesta waters from the menu of the visit was deeply unfortunate.
The Prime Minister has wisely refrained from “disputation” in the matter with the chief minister of West Bengal. What is required now is urgent consultation to ensure that an acceptable formula for sharing of the Teesta waters is rapidly found.
Delhi must appreciate that given the primacy of waters in the thinking of Bangladesh, this issue cannot be kept pending for long without jeopardising the very positive climate built up over the past couple of years. Unfortunately again, the shelving of Teesta led unavoidably to the absence of anticipated progress on the question of transit.
India has for long been charged with an obsession with Pakistan which has detracted from sufficient engagement with its other neighbours.
The various documents emerging from the Prime Minister’s visit demonstrate the range of possibilities that exists in meaningful engagement with nations willing to engage with India. A question raised both in India and Bangladesh is whether the present climate would outlast the tenure of the present governments.
The Prime Minister has been at pains to meet with leaders of the Opposition in Dhaka to underline India’s commitment to Bangladesh as a whole, and the democratic process. But, ultimately, the test will lie in delivering
the fruits of engagement to the people at large.
Both governments today, thus, have the responsibility to give substance to the vision they have outlined with a remarkable generosity of spirit.
Deb Mukharji is a former high commissioner to Dhaka and observer of the Bangladesh scene