|Volume 5 Issue 10| October 2011|
Manmohan visit An assessment
ASHFAQUR RAHMAN analyses whether it was more than just a goodwill visit.
Now that the first dust has settled, it may be appropriate to run an assessment of the visit of the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Dhaka, this September.
At the outset, this was the first visit by an Indian Prime Minister in the last twelve years. It was more than a goodwill visit. It was a substantive trip where the Prime Ministers of both India and Bangladesh took stock of developments in their bilateral relations. They also took this opportunity to settle some outstanding issues that were bedeviling relations for many years.
The visit was planned since Prime Minister Hasina had called on Prime Minister Manmohan in New Delhi in January 2010. Through a 50 point Joint Communiqué they had taken some historical decisions which had impacted bilateral relations. It is in this Communiqué that an invitation was extended to the Prime Minister of India to visit Dhaka at his convenience not only to deal with issues but also to jointly craft a vision about bilateral relations for the future.
The Indian Prime Minister's visit therefore raised expectations of the people in Bangladesh. There were considerable media hype fuelled by statements by Government ministers and Prime Ministers advisors. The point made was that this visit would be more significant than the one made by Prime Minister Hasina to Delhi and with more than stunning results.
After the 2010 visit, Bangladesh had taken decisive steps to curtail the activities of militant organizations who were fomenting insurgencies in the North Eastern states of India. Not only did Bangladesh curb their activities inside the country but she apprehended them and handed them over to Indian authorities. Steps were also taken to see that the Bangladeshi soil was not used by such outfits to operate against India in the future.
Thus in one stroke, Bangladesh took the seminal step to remove all distrust that had clouded relations in the past between the two countries.
Added to this, was the willingness of Bangladesh to accord connectivity between the state of Pachimbanga in India with the north eastern Indian states through Bangladesh. This was a long run desire of the Indian authorities as it would allow quick and cheap transportation of goods and people between the two regions. The present way of going round Bangladesh was expensive and hiked prices of goods and services travelling to the north east.
Bangladesh therefore at one go gave India its two cherished wishes. First it ensured security to the people of the north eastern states of India by bringing to an end the militant's safe haven in Bangladesh. Second, it agreed in principle to giving connectivity to her states in the north east through Bangladesh. For this India also extended US$ 1 billion in loans to Bangladesh to build appropriate physical infrastructure for enabling this connectivity.
For obvious reasons, the people of Bangladesh were told that during Manmohan's visit, India would reciprocate further in kind and give Bangladesh a fair share of the waters of the Teesta river in northern Bengal. This would enable the people of that area in Bangladesh to overcome the seasonal ' famine' (manga) that overwhelms them during the lean flow of that river.
Another issue over which Bangladesh expected an immediate resolution was the unwarranted killing of innocent Bangladeshis along the border with India by their border forces. India would also complete the demarcation of the remaining 6.5 km border that were always points of contention.
She would also exchange enclaves with Bangladesh and take steps to restore adverse land possessions held in each others territories. These were laid down in the 1974 Indira- Mujib Agreement. India would also give lease in perpetuity the Teen bigha corridor allowing access of people to the Bangladesh enclave of Dahagram-Angarpota inside India.
Besides these, Bangladesh also wanted India to reduce significantly the negative list which prevented Bangladesh to sell a range of products in the huge Indian market. It sought duty free access of its products there.
Another important thing that Bangladesh wanted from India was transit through her territory to reach land-locked Nepal and Bhutan. This transit would allow these two countries to use Bangladeshi ports of Chittagong and Chalna for their international trade . This in turn would give Bangladesh some additional revenues.
New areas of cooperation with India were also sought. These include education, information technology, disaster management, protection of the Sunderbans, etc.
These expectations were given a boost when Bangladesh saw that the visit was preceded by several developments which engendered an atmosphere of trust and confidence between the two countries. It seemed that India was paving the way to a new course in the development of bilateral relations.
The first was a change in attitude towards Bangladesh. India was paying much more attention to her and its concerns. It was a definite departure from the usual benign neglect which India had shown in the past towards the country.
It was noticed that the initiative for energizing the bilateral relationship was coming from the highest political office in both the countries. Both the Governments had set up their focal points in developing this relationship at each other's Prime Ministers office.
What was significant was that there were a series of very high level visits from India before the important visit of the Indian Prime minister. First came their Foreign Secretary, Nirupama Rao, followed by their Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee. Their Commerce Minister Ananda Sharma came visiting, with their External Affairs Minister S.M.Krishna and their Home Minister P. Chidambaram following soon after.
Their National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon also came to check the arrangements made for the visit. Their Vice President Mr. Ansari came in between. Finally the icing in the cake was the visit by the influential Sonia Gandhi, the President of the ruling Congress party.
SK ENAMUL HAQUE
So no one, who was anyone in India was left out in this parade. It demonstrated to the people of Bangladesh that at last Bangladesh was getting the attention it deserved and the end result of Prime Minister Manmohan visit would be historic.
The international community was also endorsing the visit by welcoming these positive developments.
With expectations from the visit so high, it was natural for everyone in Bangladesh to start counting the eggs.
In spite of Bangladesh's own sad experience that India in the past had not kept its promise on what it pledged, the skeptics were made to stay away from the policy wonks.
It was felt that Bangladesh could with India chalk out future collaborative programs.
To begin with, the two countries could craft a joint approach in security matters.
India could consider flexibility on the demarcation of the maritime boundary between the two countries.
Bangladesh can expect to get full duty and quota free access to the Indian market. Also non tariff barriers could be eliminated. Water resources, energy resources and even human resources could be shared based on studies.
There would be liberalization of the visa regime in order to establish deeper people to people relations.
Such high hopes as is wont, crashed when reality took hold.
At the last minute, India withdrew from signing the Teesta agreement. For Bangladesh this was an important issue that needed to be resolved. It had originally bestowed substance to the visit.
The chief minister of Pachimbanga Mamata Banerjee through whose territory the Teesta flows, refused to join her Prime Minister and accompany him to Dhaka with the Chief Ministers of four other Indian states adjoining Bangladesh. She complained that the final draft agreement on Teesta which envisaged giving Bangladesh 48% of the waters of that river measured at a point called Gajaldoba, was not the understanding she had received from her central government at Delhi. She could not be a party to this arrangement. According to her she had agreed on giving 25% of the waters to Bangladesh.
Prime Minister Manmohan was informed of her decision when he had already arrived in Dhaka. So the Prime Minister in his wisdom thought it required further consultation with her before it was signed. So he decided to postpone the signing of the Teesta accord.
In an immediate reaction Bangladesh announced that the transit arrangement which was earlier agreed upon, to give India access to the two Bangladeshi ports would be inked at a later date, once the physical infrastructure are built for the Indian vehicles to operate. Thus the visit seemed to have begun on a wrong note. There was considerable disappointment on both sides. However a visit of such dimensions cannot be assessed based solely on the postponement of two important accords. There are many more aspects that must be taken into consideration.
An expert analyst had enumerated four elements which we must take into consideration while analyzing such visit and see how they come up against each.
These elements are the symbolism, ceremonies, substance and the message it gives to the people of the two countries.
The visit was rich in symbolism. First the Prime Minister of India was visiting after twelve years. It was definitely a positive development.
The second symbolism was that the Indian Prime Minister was being accompanied by chief ministers of four neighboring Indian states. This showed enough interest in Bangladesh.
The Indian Prime Minister showed respect to our national martyrs by visiting the National Mausoleum in Savar. He also visited the museum and the house of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
The Indian leader showed respect to the cultural icons of Bangladesh, both Rabindranath Tagore and the national poet of Bangladesh Kazi Nazrul Islam.
By allowing 24 hour access to Dahagram-Angarpota through the Teen Bigha corridor, the Indian Prime Minister showed though late ( that is after 37 years) India implemented the Indira-Mujib Agreement.
The Indian Prime Minister showed adequate courtesies by calling on our Honble President and meeting our Leader of the Opposition and other political leaders.
On the substantive side, he signed a Framework Agreement on future cooperation. It was dubbed a vision document. It highlighted possible collaboration in the future on security, trade, water sharing, environmental protection and disaster management.
This Agreement introduced some new elements in bilateral relations. Thus the concept of joint financing of projects for development within the sub region was proposed. Also the very important idea of joint management of cross border rivers were suggested.
The signing of the Land Border Protocols for demarcating the undemarcated portion of our international border with India, the exchange of enclaves, the restoration of adverse possession of land as well as giving 24 hours access to the people of Dahagram and Angerpota to their enclave within India were landmark understanding reached and inked. This would usher in a peaceful and prosperous border with India.
Another important gain for Bangladesh was the declaration of the Indian Prime Minister to allow duty free access of 61 items into the Indian market. Of this 45 are textile and garment line items. This would give a boost to the sale of Bangladeshi garments which are of high quality into this huge market. Bangladesh apparels would at last be competitive with the Indian products of the same category.
The 65 point Joint Statement issued at the end of the visit encapsulated the central message given by the two leaders. It showed their willingness to share a common destiny and to take their bilateral relation to the next higher plane.
The postponement of the signing of the Teesta Accord was a body blow to the confidence generated in the two countries before the visit. India was also at a loss when Bangladesh quickly responded to the non-signing of the accord by declaring that it would delay the giving of permission to India to use Chittagong and Chalna ports.
But the fact that it was not the central government of India but the state government of Paschimbanga that held up the Agreement was apparent to all. But the fact that India could not manage her state and was not able to convince her to agree to have India sign this international accord was indeed a let down. It showed that India would need more time before it could become a regional power.
Considering the high points of the visit and some solid gains for Bangladesh and India, it may not be out of context to suggest that the Prime Minister's visit will be remembered for not what was expected to be attained but what the two countries long to attain.
The writer is a former Ambassador and Chairman of the Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.
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