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Aftermath of Salman Khurshid’s Visit to Bangladesh: A Role for West Bengal Too

Gautam Sen is a retired IDAS officer who has served in senior positions at the Centre and in a north-east State Government.
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  • February 20, 2013

    Salman Khurshid, India’s External Affairs Minister, has just concluded a successful visit to Bangladesh where he participated in the second India-Bangladesh Joint Commission meeting, which, as expected, has culminated in a set of agreements within the ambit of the Framework Agreement on Cooperation for Development concluded during the September 2011 Bangladesh visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The backdrop of Salman Khurshid’s visit is very significant, with Bangladesh in the throws of an upsurge and mass mobilisation of young people demonstrating against the Bangladeshi communalist collaborators of the erstwhile Pakistani regime in an attempt to suppress the Bangladesh freedom movement.

    This latest movement, which started in early February 2012, has snowballed within a short time to the current upsurge centred in Shahbag Avenue in Dacca. The demand of the demonstrators is capital punishment for the communalist collaborators (of the Jamaat–e-Islami Party and members of its student wing the Islamic Chhatra Shibir like Kamaruzaman, Golam Azam and their compatriots derogatorily called the Razakars) accused of atrocities and gross violations of human rights against the Bangladeshi people during their freedom struggle. The people have been agitating for awarding the death sentence to the prime accused like Kader Molla, Assistant Secretary General of the Jamaat, and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, a hard-line cleric sentenced to life imprisonment and death respectively (Maulana Azad is absconding and has been sentenced in absentia), by the war crimes court (Bangladesh had set up the court under a parliamentary enactment of the International Crimes Trial Act 1973, which de facto came into existence on March 25, 2010) which conducted the trials. The spontaneous upsurge appears to have taken the anti-secularist and status-quoist political forces in Bangladesh by surprise. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which has had the Jamaat Party as its political ally and hopes to come back to power in the near future, seems to have been caught off guard by the recent turn of events only a few months before national elections.

    In the conditions prevailing now in Bangladesh, India has to play a very cautious role. While New Delhi should continue its high level of engagement with the Awami League government, encompassing cooperation in different spheres including the building up of bilateral linkages in the realms of infrastructure, water-sharing and its composite management, mutually accepted norms of border guarding and security matters, etc., there is a need to promote deep political links and dialogue involving the mainstream and regional political parties of India (particularly those which have influence in the east and north-east) on one hand and Bangladeshi political parties like the Awami League, BNP and the Jatiya Party of General Ershad on the other. This tier of links will help maintain a favourable orientation towards India in the political milieu of Bangladesh. In this regard, the Agreement to set up a Bangladesh-India Foundation to promote multifaceted exchanges is a step in the right direction and will help in the neutralising of anti-India sentiments which periodically bedevil bilateral relations.

    Sources in Bangladesh indicate that the Sheikh Hasina government is keen to arrive at some in-principle agreement on Teesta water sharing with India by August-September 2012 before the Bangladesh national elections. This may be feasible, provided Mamata Banerjee and her government is handled very sensitively at a discreet political level, which Salman Khurshid may be capable of given the personal rapport he enjoys with her. The intricacies and technical details could be resolved in due course to the mutual satisfaction of Indian states like Sikkim and West Bengal (the major stake holders in India) and Bangladesh. The agreement on Farakka was broadly achieved in this manner, though the sagacious role of Jyoti Basu facilitated that understanding. An agreement on Teesta would give a major political boost to the secularist forces and the Awami League in Bangladesh in the run-up to elections and help consolidate the anti-communal forces in the Bangladesh political milieu.

    The involvement of West Bengal in India’s policy of active engagement with Bangladesh is a sine qua non for broad-based substantive India-Bangladesh relations. Apart from Teesta, there are other areas such as control of arsenic poisoning and working on related remediation measures where India-Bangladesh relations could be developed substantially thus meaningfully impacting upon the lives of the distressed people of both countries. Nearly 90 million people in 59 districts of Bangladesh and 9 million people in six districts of West Bengal are affected by this scourge. West Bengal will have a natural stake and would be in a position to contribute to the success of such a cooperative effort. Furthermore, bilateral relations will necessarily have to have a cultural underpinning and West Bengal, naturally by virtue of a shared common language and culture with Bangladesh, will have an important role to play in this regard. Bangladesh’s cultural environment, which has become Islamised over the past few decades, can be tempered and moderated against the religious extreme elements in that country only by deepening the socio-cultural ties between West Bengal and Bangladesh. On the economic front also, there is adequate scope for trade across the West Bengal-Bangladesh border, particularly adjoining the north Bengal districts, on the pattern of border haats operating along the Assam-Meghalaya-Bangladesh and Tripura-Bangladesh border portions. West Bengal’s cooperation in operationalizing the 400kv high voltage DC 125 km long Bheramara–Baharampur power transmission line (to wheel out 250 megawatts of power to Bangladesh and enable that country to draw that power from India’s electricity grid pool) cannot be overlooked.

    Therefore, in the present situation, India should grasp the opportunities which are discernible in the political horizon in Bangladesh and deepen relations through engagement at the track two tier involving India’s political parties as well as by involving West Bengal as a major partner.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.