Frontline Volume 18 - Issue 17, Aug. 18 - 31, 2001
India's National Magazine
from the publishers of THE HINDU


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BOOKS

Of Indo-Bangladesh distrust

A. G. NOORANI

Bangladesh, India and Pakistan: International Relations and Regional Tensions in South Asia by Kathryn Jacques; Macmillan; pages 239.

THE riots in Kathmandu earlier this year over remarks that the actor Hrithik Roshan had not actually made, reflected a simmering hostility towards India among a wide section of the public which was exploited for reasons of domestic politics. Once the episode was over, few people cared to probe the latent cause. So, it is with the bloody skirmishes on the Indo-Bangladesh border last April. Only 6.5 km of the over 4,000-km boundary remain to be demarcated. But if Nepal is sore over India's refusal to replace the obsolete 1950 treaty with one respectful of its sovereignty, the issue of Kalapani and the persisting differences over the Mahakali Treaty of 1996, Bangladesh, which allowed the 1972 Treaty with India to lapse, has its own grievances.

The dispute over the sharing of the waters of the Ganga was settled after protracted wrangling by a Treaty signed on December 12, 1996; thanks only to the decisive intervention of Jyoti Basu, then Chief Minister of West Bengal. Even so, it is less favourable to Bangladesh than the Agreement of 1977 which, unlike the Treaty, contained a binding minimum guarantee clause in favour of Bangladesh. He publicly complained (on January 1, 1997): "We saw from the figures that some people are talking things which are not correct." He was given incorrect statistics by New Delhi.

Kathryn Jacques of the School of Classics, History and Religion at the University of New England in Australia has written a scholarly and objective work which, while understandably centred on relations between Bangladesh and India, also reckons with Pakistan's involvement and the overarching regional factor. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was an initiative by Bangladesh. It has languished thanks to India's apathy and to the India-Pakistan feud. As in Nepal, the domestic factor is very relevant. In each country there is a pro-India constituency which India's high and mighty approach never fails to let down. In each, there is also an anti-India constituency which exploits this.

The author notes: "Being indebted to India soon became regarded in Bangladesh as the equivalent of being subordinated by India's will, especially once the debt quickly acquired a more literal, financial tenor... Financial loans and a vastly unequal trading relationship have made Bangladesh a major debtor to India."

Here we come up with a marked and persistent trait in Indian diplomacy towards the neighbours. For nearly four decades, India contested China's claim which Zhou Enlai tersely formulated in New Delhi in April 1960: "There exist disputes with regard to the boundary between the two sides." India still denies that there is such a thing as a "Kashmir dispute" with Pakistan, Nehru's earlier repeated use of the word notwithstanding. So it was with Bangladesh - there was no "dispute" over the sharing of the Ganga waters. Bangladesh had plenty of water. Its problem was flood control.

In 1975 India completed the Farakka Barrage, across the Ganga, at a point only 17 km upstream from the boundary with Bangladesh, in order to divert sufficient water into the Bhagirathi-Hughli river, and prevent the siltation which impaired the navigability of the Calcutta port at the river mouth. As a lower riparian State, Bangladesh was vitally concerned and the issue was raised even during Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's pro-India government. His assassination in August that year during a coup made matters worse. His successor Ziaur Rahman received short shrift from India.

The author describes in careful detail how Indira Gandhi pursued a highly personalised policy based on extraneous considerations and how the Janata Party government, headed by Morarji Desai, followed a different course. Here is one passage: "The most prominent India-Bangladesh border issues, the Tin Bigha Corridor, Muhuri Char and New Moore/ South Talpatty/ Purbasha island have all tended to reinforce the traditional antagonisms, rivalries and fears existing in South Asia, the disputes being manipulated and protracted for political advantage by both Mrs. Gandhi and Ziaur Rahman. A marked contrast can be observed between the relatively minor tension associated with the issues while the Janata Party held power, and the bitterness which developed around them after the Janata collapse. Although little substantial progress was achieved in resolving the problems of border demarcation, the way in which the Desai government diplomatically addressed the issues differed particularly from the tactics used by the succeeding Indian government under Mrs. Gandhi. By simply acknowledging that the problems, along with Bangladeshi concerns about Indian territorial designs, actually existed, and furthermore, required discussion and accommodation, the Janata regime was establishing a foundation for the possible, mutually satisfactory resolution of the border issues. In spirit at least, Desai's discussions with Zia in Dhaka in April 1979 were an attempt to do so."

The Tin Bigha Corridor is no larger than a football field. The Nehru-Noon accord of September 3, 1958 provided for a straightforward exchange of enclaves between India and East Pakistan. A formal agreement was signed thereafter on September 10, 1958. Besides the exchange, Berubari was to be split horizontally and equally. But the notification in respect of Berubari was never issued by India. Under the 1974 accord between Indira Gandhi and Mujibur Rehman, India agreed only to lease in perpetuity to Bangladesh an area of approximately 178 metres by 85 metres near Tin Bigha to connect Bangladesh with its enclave Dahagram. Agreement on the terms of the lease was reached in 1982. Only in 1992 could it be implemented.

The same holds good for the two newly formed tiny deltaic islands which India calls New Moore and Bangladesh calls South Talpatty. They were discovered by a U.S. satellite in 1974 and became an issue in the maritime boundary talks in 1979. Bangladesh claims that in May 1979 Prime Minister Morarji Desai agreed with the Deputy Prime Minister of Bangladesh, who had called on him, to hold a joint survey. However, on April 9, 1980 Indira Gandhi claimed that the islets belonged to India.

They lie at the mouth of the Hariabhanga River which separates the two countries. They are mudflats with no human or animal life. In 1974 India and Bangladesh signed an agreement on the demarcation of the land boundary between the two countries. A maritime boundary agreement is yet to be concluded. It will define Bangla-desh's Exclusive Eco-nomic Zone (EEZ), sandwiched as the country is between India and Myanmar.

There is, surely, room enough for an imaginative initiative by India on the New Moore issue. India's case on the Kachhativu islands was fairly strong. Indira Gandhi, nonetheless, decided wisely for political reasons to cede them to Sri Lanka under the boundary agreement of June 27, 1974.

The author writes: "Just as the Tin Bigha Corridor issue did not become particularly divisive until after the collapse of the Janata government, neither did the other prominent territorial disputes between the two states: the rightful ownership of Muhurir Char and New Moore Island. In November-December 1979, both states clashed over which of the two should administer approximately twenty hectares of emergent charland in the Muhuri River."

Is it, indeed, difficult for India to be statesmanlike over such minor territorial issues? "Disputes over the sharing of water and over ownership of small parcels of territory, such as the Tin Bigha Corridor, Muhuri Char and New Moore Island, were symptomatic of the essentially poor relationship between India and Bangladesh and fostered further ill-will between the two states. Both states added fuel to their mutual disputes, both overreacting with aggression and suspicion. Of the two states, India was in a far better position to compromise. Bangladesh did not represent a military threat and had much more to lose than India. The disputes should have been quickly resolvable through diplomatic channels. Instead, the conduct of the issues was characterised by belligerence and insensitivity on India's part, and oversensitivity and suspicion on Bangladesh's part. The Indian government, particularly under Indira Gandhi, had great difficulty in differentiating between disputes with Bangladesh and those with rivals, Pakistan and China. A Bangladesh government which was not obviously pro-Indian, as it was under Mujibur Rahman, was automatically dubbed by India, Cold War-style, as being pro-Pakistan."

Disastrously, Indira Gandhi split the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and a group of her favourites decried the Janata Party policy as being "soft". These card-carrying hardliners did not a little to continue the course she had set. Its remnants persist. Cosmetics like the so called "Gujral Doctrine" are deceptive. We need to undertake a calm appraisal of India's policies towards Bangladesh in the past, come to grips with the issues that continue to fester, and chart an entirely new course which would establish enduring friendship with that neighbour based on genuine trust.


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