Mending ties with Bangla

Sheikh Hasina’s visit to Delhi marks the opening of a new chapter in cooperative relations between two close South Asian neighbours. Long separated by an avoidable degree of mistrust, these mutually hurtful stances, partly a product of internal political compulsions, have given way to a new spirit of accommodation. This has largely been brought about by the posture of the current administration in Dhaka after the Awami League’s massive electoral victory just a year ago.

Prime evidence of this are the steps being taken to restore the secular, democratic character of the original Bangladesh constitution. The distortions woven into the country’s post-liberation history are being sought to be removed by taking action against those responsible and bringing to trial those charged with war crimes.
The earlier visit of the Bangladesh foreign minister to India a couple of months ago set the stage for a broad understanding on a number of long outstanding issues. Some of these were firmed up, most recently on water resources cooperation, and have now been signed by the two prime ministers. A Teesta sharing agreement is to be expedited on the basis of accepted river discharge readings and India has given assurances of no harm to its neighbour from the proposed Tipaimukh dam, which, on the contrary, would confer substantial benefits on Bangladesh in terms of flood moderation, upgraded navigation and fisheries, and lean season salinity control.

Climate change concerns in fact demand greater cross border and indeed basin-wide cooperation in the management of disasters from aberrant and extreme events.
India is to supply 250 MW of power to Bangladesh with technical studies to points and alignments of proposed interconnections. This could signal the beginning of an eastern SAARC energy exchange, including hydrocarbons and coal. India is also to give Bangladesh transit rights for land and power connectivity with Bhutan and Nepal through its own territory thus paving the way for a new transit regime between the two countries without demanding reciprocity as a prior condition.
This is wise and harks back to the once-criticised and mistakenly abandoned so-called Gujral doctrine. Once India takes the lead, Bangladesh is bound to follow and permit transit, including passage to Chittagong port, all of which would earn it valuable transit and service charges.

A flyover or underpass is also to be constructed by India across Tin Bigha to give Bangladesh 24x7 access to these enclaves in fulfilment of an agreement signed as far back as 1958. The final demarcation of the remaining 6.5 km of land boundary and exchange of other enclaves in adverse position of either side also needs to be speedily completed so that this petty irritant is removed and the underlying human problem is resolved.

India has submitted its claim on the maritime boundary to the concerned UN agency and Bangladesh is to do so this year. But irrespective of international law, there is every reason for India to offer Bangladesh a compromise settlement which will mean a lot to the latter in terms of an accretion of its limited EEZ without much loss to India, with the condition that fishing rights and any undersea mineral discoveries in this area will be jointly exploited.

Bangladesh has at long last barred its territory as a sanctuary for Northeast insurgent groups and has delivered Arbinda Rajkhowa, the ULFA chief, and some of his aides to India. An extradition agreement has now followed. The influx of migrants into India from across the border has not been specifically mentioned. But the answer to this is not border fencing but larger market opportunities for Bangladesh in India and more Indian investments in that country so as to stimulate employment and income generation that will diminish the reasons for out-migration. In this context, the substantial grant in aid made by India to Bangladesh could set the process in motion.

On the western front, India continues to face the fallout of Pakistan’s fragile and confused political situation. The overturning by the supreme court of the national reconciliation ordinance has exposed Zardari and some central ministers to pressure with the prospect of criminal prosecution causing them to fight back. Just weeks ago, a government lawyer told the supreme court that the army and the CIA posed a threat to the country’s democracy.

Addressing the PoK assembly and council in Muzaffarabad more recently, Zardari harked back to Kashmir’s right to self determination and its being Pakistan’s ‘jugular vein’, reiterating Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s flamboyant rhetoric of waging a 1,000 year war in this cause, though this time by means of peaceful struggle rather than war.
However, jihadi infiltration and encounters across the LoC have increased and the militants killed include Pakistani nationals whose intercepted communications revealed that they were receiving instructions and encouragement from Pakistani handlers during these engagements. Obviously there are elements spoiling to sabotage the internal peace process in J&K and block further withdrawals of Indian troop in J&K as is under way. Neither process should be stopped.

In the light of all of this, Pakistan appears to be protesting too much about the Indian Army chief, Gen Deepak Kapoor’s remarks at a seminar of India’s need to prepare to fight a two-front war on the west and north even under a nuclear hangover. This is not belligerence but a defensive statement in the context of much hidden and open belligerence, double talk and military cooperation by Pakistan and China.

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