If I were Prime Minister of Bangladesh what I would have said to my counterpart in India

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Dear Mr. Singh, thanks for the opportunity you have provided to discuss the bilateral relationship between our two neighboring countries. As you know, this relationship between our two countries is shaped not only by geography, history, culture and economics but also by geopolitics. We, in Bangladesh, are mindful of India’s timely assistance during our nine-month long liberation war that witnessed genocide of our people and exodus of millions of refugees into India. We also remember the sacrifice of many Indian soldiers that gave their lives so that we could be free and independent. On behalf of 160 million Bangladeshis, let me take this opportunity to express my deep gratitude to the Indian government and its people for all that they did, endured and sacrificed so that Bangladesh would become a reality in the global arena. Thank you.

Today, Bangladesh is a proud member of the UN, OIC, Commonwealth of Nations, SAARC and BIMSTEC; it is the seventh most populous country in the world with a vibrant economy that is listed amongst the Next-11 countries.

Having said that, Mr. Singh, as you are aware, the friendly relationship between our two countries did face some bumps in the last 38 years, especially, after the murder of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975. Our two countries share waters from 54 common rivers and share common land and maritime boundaries. Just to put into perspective, we share 4096 km of land boundary. Even after the signing of the Mujib-Indira Pact of 1974, there remain 51 enclaves of Bangladesh, measuring 7,083.72 acres, which are land-locked inside India whose residents live in abysmal conditions, with a lack of water, roads, electricity, schools and medicines. That situation is simply unacceptable in the 21st century and needs immediate redress. Six kilometers and a half of border along the Comilla-Tripura area still remain undemarcated.[1] This must change.

In the past, Bangladesh government has frequently protested BSF incursions inside Bangladesh, and shootings which resulted in deaths of many unarmed Bangladeshi citizens. As of last month, the death count alone in our side since 1990 stands at 1090. There is hardly a week when Bangladeshis living along the border are not victims of BSF shootings, thus souring relationship between our two peoples. Such an aggressive and utterly irresponsible practice on the part of BSF must come to a halt. Our tradition dictates that we value life and cannot therefore accept practices that are grossly criminal and inhuman.

Let me now move to the crucial water share issue. It is like a life and death issue for us. Bangladesh is a lower riparian country and is, therefore, vulnerable to any unilateral action on her common rivers by India. While we understand the increasing energy demands within India, we simply cannot welcome any initiative that devastates our people. Already our people have suffered enormously from the adverse effects of dams and barrages that were constructed on many common rivers. Whereas during the lean seasons, the water flow in the Teesta River used to be 4,000 cusec at the minimum before the Gajoldoba barrage was constructed some 70 km upstream from Dalia point in Nilphamari in 1985, we now get less than a thousand cusec. We are not getting our agreed upon due share of water flow.

To meet energy needs, in the last few years India has also constructed several dams across the Teesta. Such measures have resulted in loss of navigation during the dry season and flooding during the wet season, let alone causing loss of livelihood of millions of our people that depend on water. Instead of poverty alleviation, these structures are forcing poverty onto our people.

As to the Farakka Barrage, it has been described, and if I may add, rightly so, as the Death Trap for Bangladesh. A walk along the coast of the Padma and Teesta Rivers inside Bangladesh is sufficient to prove the claim. It will surely pain any conscientious human being, seeing the irreversible damages done on our side. Mr. Singh, please, ensure that we get due share of water from all those common rivers during the dry season. Dear Prime Minister, we cannot consent to any new death trap for Bangladesh. Please, stop the construction of the Tipaimukh Dam. Please, also stop the Fulertal Barrage.

Let me now move on to the bilateral trade issue. As per 2007-08 statistics, Bangladesh imported $ 3.7 billion worth of goods from India while we exported $35 million! (Informal trade is estimated to be at least double these numbers! The smuggling of contraband items from India goes unnoticed!) As is quite evident, there is a huge trade imbalance between our two countries, which needs to be corrected as soon as possible. One of the prudent ways to resolving this trade deficit would be for your government to lift the Tariff, para-Tariff & non-Tariff barriers, which are currently imposed on goods imported from Bangladesh. We would also welcome direct trading facilities with India’s seven eastern states. The import of Bangladeshi goods to those eastern states can also have a positive impact in not only closing the trade deficit with India but also reaping multi-faceted benefits to India in an area that is vulnerable to outside influence.

Let me now move to the security issues. We understand India’s priorities to contain insurgency in her north-east corner, close to the Bangladesh border. As our recent extradition of the ULFA leaders to the Indian government has demonstrated, we are very serious about ensuring that our soil is not used for terrorist and anti-state activities against our neighbor. Suffice it to say that we expect similar reciprocities from India. For years, India has had sponsored and assisted subversive elements in the hilly districts of Bangladesh to destabilize our state. There are some 40 Santi Bahini camps inside India.

There are even Bangasena terrorist camps operating inside the state of West Bengal today whose objective remains the disintegration of Bangladesh and the creation a Hindu state called Bangabhumi, curving out 1/3 of Bangladesh in our south-western part.[2] Such hostile activities ought to stop immediately.

We are genuinely interested in the Asian Highway that allows regional states to be connected with each other. We understand Indian government’s rationale for the request for transit routes that connect its north-eastern states with West Bengal via Bangladesh. For instance, the direct transit route from Kolkata in the state of West Bengal to Agartala in the state of Tripura via Bangladesh would reduce the distance from 1880 km to merely 740 km. While we are willing to consider such a request for transit routes via Bangladesh we believe that for greater good of our entire region, a more comprehensive scheme is needed that allows connecting Bangladesh to India, China, Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan through transit routes inside India. Because of regional security concerns, I must, however, emphasize here that such transit routes ought to be used purely for tourism, trade and commercial use. Suffice it to say that we also expect connectivity to all our enclaves inside India. In accordance with the Mujib-Indira Treaty of 1974, and following the due process (Supreme Court order and constitutional amendment), the Government of Bangladesh promptly handed over the Berubari enclave to India. Sadly, India has neither ratified the treaty nor met its obligations, including the transfer of the Tin Bigha corridor. [3] The enclaves of Dohogram and Angorputa near the border have to have 24/7/365 corridor facility. Denying such transit rights to people living inside the enclaves is simply criminal, inhuman and unacceptable.

According to the 1974 Mujib-Indira Treaty, midstream of border-rivers defines the boundaries of our two countries. However, subsequent dykes and embankments that have been constructed by India have had some adverse effects. These have led not only to severe soil erosion on our side but also changed the course of those rivers. The erosion on the Bangladesh side gives way to new chars (or islands) on the other side which Indian villagers illegally occupy in no time with the help of the BSF. [4] Bangladesh is losing thousands of acres of land to India in this process, and this must stop. Let me remind you here that the 1974 Treaty between our two friendly states stipulated that the line of separation between Bangladesh and India is defined along fixed lines and not shifting lines, which happens as a result of shift in the movement of common rivers along the border. I call upon your government to ensure that the common border along those rivers remain physically where it was back in 1974 when the treaty was signed between our two governments.

Dear Mr. Singh, the maritime boundary demarcation in the Bay of Bengal remains a major contentious issue, especially in the light of offshore oil and gas explorations. Bangladesh Government is genuinely concerned about claims made by India and Myanmar that appear to us to be exaggerated, unscientific, irrational, ill-intentioned and illegal, and aim at sea- or zone-locking Bangladesh. As evidenced from direction of our rivers to the Bay of Bengal, we strongly believe that natural prolongation of continental shelf is from north to south and not east to west. [5] My government has recently registered its objection with the UN to India’s and Myanmar’s claims over certain areas in the Bay of Bengal.

It is disheartening to see that the status of the Talpatty Island, formed by silts brought by southward flowing river Hariabhanga in south-western Bangladesh into the Bay of Bengal, still remains disputed between our two friendly nations. We wonder why! Is India’s might becoming the right to her exaggerated, unscientific claims and illegal possessions? Should not such disputes be resolved mutually and justly between the two friendly countries?

Dear Mr. Prime Minister, many in Bangladesh consider India as a hegemonic power that does not care about legitimate rights of its smaller neighbors. That perception has to change for greater good of our entire region. My government is committed to improving relationship with India. We believe that friendship is based on reciprocity of goodwill, cooperation and trust. Bangladesh’s smaller size should not let any state demean her geo-strategic pivotal status. We believe that contentious matters need to be resolved justly and equitably as soon as possible, failing which we only plant the seeds of distrust. We have the Gujral Doctrine in front of us to guide us resolve our outstanding problems amicably and fairly.

Dear Mr. Singh, let me reassure you that our Bangladesh Government considers yours as a friendly government. We strongly believe that the bumps I mentioned in our roads of friendship can definitely be fixed and we can usher in a new era of regional cooperation, prosperity and friendship. What we need is political will that is forward looking. With that, I believe that we are capable of weeding out mistrust, thereby allowing our peoples on both sides of the border to live peacefully and prosperously. As we move into this New Year, let’s give that present to our peoples. Thank you.[6]

Notes:

[1]. http://tinyurl.com/y9cggpb

[2]. http://tinyurl.com/yc6zgs9; http://tinyurl.com/ycvfwxv

[3]. http://tinyurl.com/yah8ymv

[4]. Ibid.

[5]. http://tinyurl.com/yesuglc

[6]. The author is indebted to Dr. M. Aminul Karim for fruitful discussion on this subject, and the access to his working paper entitled: Bangladesh-India Relations: Some Recent Trends, ISAS Working Paper No. 96, Nov. 12, 2009, NSU, Singapore.

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