(Exclusive): The Mughals and the British realized it would never be easy to manage Bengalis – much as the Afghans. Fiercely independent, argumentative, proud of their own language and culture, and combative if not warlike, the Bengalis challenged the might of the British empire with bombs and Mauser pistols, reposing their faith in triggering another Sepoy Mutiny (from Rashbehari Bose to Subhas Bose) rather than waste years in Gandhian mass movements to win independence from the British. They produced the first suicide attackers (if not suicide bombers) of the sub-continent – Pritilata Waddedar of Chittagong and Benoy-Badal-Dinesh trio who attacked Writers Building., the seat of colonial power in Calcutta.
Bangladesh carries forward that Bengali legacy. The nation was created through an ‘ocean of blood’ with strong Indian and Soviet support in the face of one of the most brutal military crackdown in recent times. The Awami Leagu, which led the freedom struggle against Pakistan, recalls with gratitude the ultimate sacrifice made by thousands of Indian soldiers for the liberation of Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina’s government has bestowed “the Liberation War Medal” on the many Indian friends who played vital role in backing the 1971 Liberation War. And since she came to power a second time in Jan 2009, Hasina has done all she can to address India’s security and connectivity concerns.
The rebels from Northeast India who had made Bangladesh their safe base of operations had all been pushed out – rather nabbed and handed over to India – in a crackdown more comprehensive than the one undertaken against these groups by Bhutan in Dec 2003. Her government has accepted two of India’s major demands – allowing transit of goods to Northeast from Indian mainland using Bangladesh territory and use of Chittagong and Mongla port for the same purpose. A recent study commissioned by the German foundation Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (RLS) has driven home the centrality of Bangladesh to the success of India’s “ACT EAST” policy through Northeast.
But what must be a cause of considerable worry for Hasina is India’s failure to sign the Teesta river water sharing agreement and the one for constructing the Ganges Barrage on the Padma river at Pangsha near Rajbari. Bangladesh is still predominantly a country of peasents. Agriculture is the main source of their income and for them water is a huge issue. Since these peasents constitute a majority of the electorate, Hasina can only overlook their concerns over water (rather lack of it) at her own peril.
It is not that India is not willing to oblige. Manmohan Singh had carried to Dhaka the draft of the Teesta agreement and Narendra Modi has also finalized it, top sources say. But they have been held back from signing it and sealing the deal because of fierce opposition from West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. Now that relations between Modi and Banerjee (and their parties) are at an all-time low, it seems unlikely that Banerjee will oblige the Indian prime minister by agreeing to the Teesta or the Ganges barrage deals. She has already said the interest of her state has to be taken into account before these deals are signed – and she argues that has not been the case so far. Banerjee has mellowed somewhat to overtures from Hasina’s intermediaries in recent weeks but her relations with Modi does not make it easy for Delhi to sign the deals with Dhaka.
That is what Modi might have wanted to do when Hasina finally visits India in April – he is aware that the Bangladesh Prime Minister has to go back to Dhaka from Delhi with ‘something big to show to her people’. But that is unlikely. There are efforts to get Banerjee to agree to the deal on principle, so that India and Bangladesh can include the intent to conclude a deal soon on these waters issues in their joint declaration at the end of the visit. Whether Banerjee plays ball is a milliondollar question.
The trouble is she is as Bengali as any other. Persuasion and concessions might work to mellow her down, but threats and arm-twisting may not work for a politician who believes a few days in jail may be a worthwhile break from the corridors of power. Hasina is aware of the problem. She knows the 1996 Ganges water treaty would not have happened without the initiative taken by the late Jyoti Basu. So Dhaka will perhaps make one last effort to get Banerjee to agree to the water deals. The trouble is whether Delhi will make such an effort. If the BJP wins most of the states that went to polls this summer, Modi must rise above partisan considerations and make a real sincere effort to touch base with Mamata Banerjee to push through the water deals and compensate West Bengal financially. If the BJP does not do as well as they think they will in these polls, all the more reason for Modi to patch up with Mamata to work out a deal on Teesta and Ganges Barrage.
Relations with as friendly a neighbor as Bangladesh cannot be held hostage to the rigmarole of India’s complex domestic politics. When Manmohan carried the Teesta draft to Dhaka, he was giving a sovereign commitment on behalf of India. That has to be honoured by Modi and Mamata, regardless of their political affiliations. Or else, no neighbor will henceforth take India seriously.
Twice so far – once in December and once in February – has Hasina’s Delhi visit been postponed. The two foreign office may cite prior commitments (like Indian state polls), but the real cause was Hasina’s reservations to go to Delhi and come back with nothing tangible on the waters. Now that she has finally agreed on the April visit after Indian foreign secretary Jaishankar’s visit, it is incumbent on both Modi and Mamata to bury their differences and work out atleast a declaration of intent to push ahead with the deal on the waters issue. That will give Hasina something to show to her people.
Back home, the ball is largely playing out Hasina’s way. The clean chit given to her ministers and bureaucrats by the Canadian court has come as a shot in her arm. Now that the court has rubbished the World Bank allegations, it is the global lender and not Hasina’s government which is in a spot. And Hasina’s pitch for doing the Padma bridge with Bangladesh’s own resources – and now her attack on the World Bank for delaying the project by raising unfounded allegations – might boost her nationalist credentials and help project her as a strong development-driven leader.
With GDP growth lurking close to 7 percent, a trade surplus at the end of the last fiscal and a foreign exchange reserve in excess of $ 30 billion, with many big infrastructure projects nearing completion or past the half way mark, Hasina might well feel confident to advance the date of parliament elections even by a year. Her government has put Bangladesh well on course to become a middleincome country by the time the nation celebrates its 50 years of independence. And her firm handling of Islamist terror after a late wakeup (following the Guilshan cafe attack) has also earned praise even from US counter-terrorism officials. The failure to get the water deals from India is the only big spoiler in this script. If India wants a friendly regime in Dhaka, it should stop asking for more and realize it is payback time for Delhi.
Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC Correspondent and author