Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s state visit to India from September 5-8 raised many eyebrows in Bangladesh over matters of protocol which were warranted, although more eyebrows should have been raised on the merits as the visit ended without, in the New Age assessment, “any concrete outcome on outstanding issues”. The 35-paragraph joint statement was proof of New Age’s correct assessment.
Teesta’s water-sharing deal has been postponed again with the promise ‘to be delivered soon’. The waters of the Kushiyara, a spillway of the cross-border Barak River that flows from Assam to Greater Sylhet, were shared. This agreement went almost unnoticed, even among the inhabitants of greater Sylhet.
The Teesta Agreement was withdrawn at the proverbial eleventh hour before Sheikh Hasina and Manmohon Singh signed it during the latter’s state visit to Bangladesh in September 2011. The agreement was meant to be the reciprocal gesture of the India for ground transit and massively significant security concessions. which Sheikh Hasina unilaterally granted to India upon taking office in January 2009 for a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations.
Bangladesh also expected the Teesta Agreement to be the model for sharing the waters of other major transboundary rivers on which its very existence existed for the long term. This is why Sheikh Hasina tried his luck with Bangladesh’s only negotiating lever with India, namely land transit and security, for its critical water needs. Bangladesh also expected the concessions to encourage India to be positive on other bilateral issues such as fair bilateral trade and a total halt to inhumane killings along the Bangladesh-India border. .
Sheikh Hasina flagged the Teesta deal before embarking on his recent state visit. Mamata Banerjee, India’s West Bengal chief minister who has been blamed by Delhi for delaying the deal since 2011, wanted to meet Sheikh Hasina in New Delhi which was unarranged. Mamata Banerjee has publicly criticized the BJP government for not being invited to New Delhi. New Delhi’s failure was no coincidence but a message that Bangladesh should wait indefinitely for the Teesta deal.
India granted overland transit to Bangladesh to trade with Bhutan and Nepal during Sheikh Hasina’s visit after leaving the latter on hold for many years. The ruling once again made it clear to Bangladesh that its demands on India would still be tied to an indefinite time limit while India’s demands would be different. Some Indian demands had been granted by the current Awami League regime even before they were made categorically, for example, crucial land transit and security. The regime also granted India the use of Chattogram and Mangla ports as soon as the infrastructure for India’s use of them was ready.
A Bangladeshi schoolboy was killed at the Dinajpur border during Sheikh Hasina’s visit. Yet once again New Delhi has reiterated its commitment to “zero tolerance”, raising questions in Bangladesh why New Delhi is not instead committing to a policy of zero killings by the Border Security Force at the border between Bangladesh and India. The issue has caused immense damage to India’s image in Bangladesh and should be resolved without further delay by India for the betterment of bilateral relations between Bangladesh and India.
The outcome of Sheikh Hasina’s state visit suggested that Bangladesh-India relations have hit a major stumbling block. Protocol arrangements or their absence hinted at this roadblock. Protocol provisions are followed or ignored as appropriate; they are not constitutional provisions. An Indian Prime Minister does not receive, according to the usual protocol agreements, a visiting Prime Minister at the airport. New Delhi nevertheless ignored the protocol and Manmohan Singh received Sheikh Hasina at the airport in 2010 and Narendra Modi received her in 2017.
Sheikh Hasina put aside the dangers of Covid 19 and received Narendra Modi at the airport during his state visit to Bangladesh in 2021, thus creating yet another reason for Narendra Modi to receive her at the airport this time. So there was an important reason why he didn’t and the protocol was used to point out that important reason. New Delhi also denied Sheikh Hasina the fanfare and pageantry she gave him during the 2010 and 2017 state visits. There was a reason for that too. The media delegation that accompanied Sheikh Hasina reported extremely critically on their treatment. It was also for a reason.
The reason for these visible lapses in protocol for Sheikh Hasina and lack of warmth towards his delegation, some of which have been flagged on social media in Bangladesh, is rooted in the history of Bangladesh’s liberation war. The Awami League should know better because that is the history they have created. This story is that India fought with the freedom fighters of Bangladesh to make Bangladesh an independent and sovereign nation that would be sensitive and supportive against forces that threaten India’s foreign policy priorities and, more importantly, its safety.
Bangladesh has visibly turned too much towards China, which India sees as its main enemy in the region as part of its foreign policy and security priorities. Bangladesh’s tilt towards China has come at a time when the latter is militarily, economically and strategically capable of challenging even the United States. Given India’s strategic partnership with the United States vis-à-vis China, New Delhi should, however, also assume responsibility for Bangladesh’s shift. The Awami League first headed to China, after Congress lost to the Bharatiya Janata Party in May 2014. Sheikh Hasina visited China in June 2014, fearing that the Bharatiya Janata Party did not support the controversial 2014 elections in Bangladesh. She promised China several strategic projects worth billions of dollars for its support for the legitimacy of the 2014 elections.
Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Dhaka immediately after Sheikh Hasina returned from his visit to China. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Dhaka the following year. The two of them managed to bring Bangladesh back to India. Bangladesh shelved plans Sheikh Hasina handed over to China during his 2014 visit on India’s pledge to back the Awami League in the 2018 elections, as Congress backed it in the elections of 2014.
New Delhi, however, reneged on the promise that forced the Awami League to retreat to China. This time, however, Bangladesh allowed China to invest heavily in projects that India opposed for strategic reasons. Indian High Commissioner Riva Ganguly waited unsuccessfully for months in 2020 to meet with Sheikh Hasina to register India’s objection to one such strategic project – the worthy Sylhet airport terminal. of $250 million. Sheikh Hasina has said in the media more than once afterwards that Delhi knows what it has given India.
With the end of the US War on Terror and the Trump era in 2021, India has encouraged the US-EU-UN coalition to keep the Awami League in power at all costs to keep soft forces at bay on the Islamic politics. The priorities in Bangladesh for these powers at present, India having not yet shown its preference, are democracy, human rights and free and fair elections. The AL government is under serious pressure from these powers to ensure a free and fair election scheduled by the end of 2023 for a sustainable democracy.
Sheikh Hasina embarked on her state visit under such pressure and Bangladesh’s relationship with India slipping into uncertainty. However, his foreign minister, who was removed from his delegation, had previously called on India, which he himself had made public in August, to keep Sheikh Hasina in power by all means. He has since been included in Sheikh Hasina’s delegation to the UK and UN which suggested that the AL government also hoped India would help keep him in power stressing his fear that without outside help, his chances of staying in power were slim.
The visit, however, did not suggest that New Delhi was in the mood to oblige the Awami League. Alone, without the US-UN-EU, India would also be unable to repeat 2014 or 2018 in Bangladesh. Nor would New Delhi be inclined to try to help the Awami League with China as deeply entrenched in Bangladesh as it is now. And the AL government is not in a position to demand or guarantee that China withdraws from Bangladesh.
Bangladesh-India relations are at a crossroads with many mistakes on both sides which emerged from Sheikh Hasina’s state visit to India. Relationships need a serious reset to move forward for mutual benefits. That would have to wait until Bangladesh’s next general election. New Delhi is likely to join the US-EU-UN coalition which appears to support an interim administration in Bangladesh to prepare the country for its next general elections unless people take to the streets for their right to elect the next one government.
Postscript: India imposed a 20% export duty on rice, a major import from Bangladesh, on the day Sheikh Hasina left India, casting a shadow over deteriorating relations between Bangladesh and India that his visit revealed.
Mr. Serajul Islam is a former career ambassador.