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Bending backwards to please Bangladesh - The Asian Age

Sankar Ghosh ()
17 December 1996

Title : Bending backwards to please Bangladesh
Author : Sankar Ghosh
Publication : The Asian Age
Date : December 17, 1996

With the details of the Ganga waters treaty still unknown, any balance sheet
at this moment is bound to be tentative. Assuming that the bulk of what has,
appeared about the treaty signed by the Prime Ministers of Bangladesh and
India are correct. it would seem that the visiting Prime Minister got all she
wanted out of this treaty. The most significant feature of the treaty appears
to be its long period of validity, The treaty is for 30 years, by which time
neither the signatories nor their adviser on either side of the border are
likely to be around, in active politics at least.

Jyoti Basu said on record that he preferred a short term agreement. Before
leaving for Dhaka, he had mentioned specifically a period of two or three
years, on the expiry of which the arrangement could be reviewed. Sheikh
Hasina Wajed, on the other hand, had been insisting all along that the treaty
should be for a longer period. There was no agreement between the two on this
point, for even on his return to Calcutta, Mr Basu maintained that he
favoured a short term agreement. The Bangladesh Prime Minister has got from
Mr H.D. Deve Gowda in New Delhi what she could not get from Basu in Dhaka.

Basu's insistence on, a short term agreement carried implicitly an assurance
that supply of Ganga water to the Padma during the lean period would be
increased, and if at the end of the specified period it was found that the
navigability of the Calcutta port had not been affected, a long-term treaty
would then be enacted. The Bangladesh Prime Minister could not agree to this
reasonable proposal for she had a pledge to redeem. She had promised to get
more water from India in the event of her coming back to power, and if she
could not fulfil that promise within a reasonable period her political foes
would have mounted an agitation, making it difficult for her to continue in

The assassins of Sheikh Hasina's father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in whose name
the liberation war of Bangladesh was fought, had preceded their villainous
act by a sustained campaign against India for trying to put new fetters on
Bangladesh and against Mujibur Rahman for being an accomplice in this heinous
game. The generals and their political creation, the basic democrats, were
arrayed against Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. and they made common cause with the
fundamentalists to subvert the secular regime set tip by the Sheikh. A few
days after Mujibur's assassination, four of his most trusted lieutenants who
held important positions in the fugitive government with headquarters in
Calcutta, were arrested and bayoneted to death in their prison cells. The
new regime excelled in butchering the Pakistani rulers who had been accused
of genocide in Bangladesh.

The long years that Hasina could not return to her country after her father's
assassination, she spent in New Delhi. The whole family of the Sheikh was
painted as pro-India by the new regime in Bangladesh. The suspicion against
Hasina was heightened by her forced sojourn in this country. She had to
contend with this state-sponsored animus when she returned to Bangladesh to
vindicate her father's policy and to re-establish the new state on the four
pillars of secularism, socialism, democracy and nationalism. Those who
remember her sojourning in New Delhi or in the immediate years her returning
to Bangladesh to salvage the country's national politics from the depth in
which it had fallen, must have noticed that political compulsions of her
country had made her surrender at least on one count. She had accepted
Bangladesh as an Islamic republic, sacrificing her father's ideal of a
secular republic. She now wears a black veil covering her forehead, an
apology no doubt for the veil Iranian and Afghan women are being forced to
wear, but a veil nonetheless. When she first put this on, it was thought to
be a temporary compromise in view of the coming elections, but it is clear
now that the veil has become a permanent part of her regular outfit.

This change between her first election in Bangladesh in which she was
defeated by the anti-Mujib forces, spearheaded by a party of military
establishment, and the second in which she vanquished the former victor shows
how politics in Bangladesh has changed radically in the post-Mujib years.
The secular ideal of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is dead for ever, and even his
daughter is unable to revive it. Sheikh Hasina has given up.

Even a soft Islamic country of Bangladesh cannot go well with a secular
country like India. Originally conceived as secular, Bangladesh has been
converted into an Islamic country to underscore its separateness from India.
The Islamic character has become a permanent barrier between the two
countries always hindering closeness. Religion split Bengal into two, 50
years ago, and it is religion again which is being used by scheming
politicians to keep the two as far apart as. possible. The partition
remains, the attempt now is to prevent the two countries from clasping hands
across the dividing line, drawn by Sir Cyril Radcliffe.

In one of the functions in New Delhi, in which the Bangladesh Prime Minister
was present, someone referred to the liberation of Bangladesh 25 years ago
and the role of India in the liberation war. Unknowingly, he harmed Sheikh
Hasina for in the rewritten history of Bangladesh, no Indian role has been
acknowledged in the country's liberation.

In the new history of Bangladesh, the assassinated leader is being denied his
rightful place and a nondescript Army captain who read out Sheikh Mujib's
declaration of Independence over Chittagong Radio is being projected as the
real liberator of the country. He climbed his way up to the country's top
post ultimately proving by his death the good old adage that those who live
by the sword die by the sword.

To acquire legitimacy for his regime he founded a political party, a civilian
party by name but run by the military establishment. He headed this party of
his own, named Bangladesh National Party, and was succeeded by his widow,
Begum Khaleda Zia. She was defeated in the first democratic election of
Bangladesh, by Sheikh Hasina on whom had fallen the mantle of presidentship
of her father's party, Awami League. Begum Zia won the election on the
strength of her one point campaign against Sheikh Hasina that she was her
father's daughter and was, like Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, more pro-India than

Sheikh Hasina had to live down the pro-India image to win this year's
election. She had to ally herself with forces inimical to all that she and
her party stood for and even mix her poll campaign with snide comments about
Indian intentions. If she has to remain in power in, Bangladesh she will have
to maintain her anti-India image. If the 30 year accord committing India to
diversion of a larger share of Ganga waters to the Padma had not been
reached, Sheikh Hasina's government in Bangladesh would have been overwhelmed
at once by a country wide stir, accusing India of conspiring to turn sonar
Bangla into an and desert. The accord has earned her a brief respite. Sheikh
Hasina may not dare to take credit for her pro-Indian stance.

It will indeed be surprising if some political party or other in Bangladesh,
say, the BNP, does not pick several holes in the agreement to contend that it
is not going to help Bangladesh in any way, that it is part of a conspiracy
hatched in New Delhi to extract substantial benefits from Bangladesh in
exchange for imaginary concessions over Ganga waters.

Waters from Farakka have become a regular feature of Bangladesh politics
almost since the birth of the country, and those political parties of
Bangladesh who have thrived so long on a hate-India campaign based on Ganga
waters will not surrender such a live and time tested issue just because an
agreement has been signed in New Delhi.

It seems now that Jyoti Basu's much boosted visit to Bangladesh was part of
an elaborate cover up, to create an impression that the interests of the
ports of Calcutta and Haldia are being safeguarded in the water sharing
agreement being discussed between the two countries. The points that Jyoti
Basu made in his discussions in Dhaka have all been ignored. His insistence
on a short term accord has been thrown overboard. A 30-year agreement was
perhaps beyond the dreams of even Bangladesh. There would not have been such
a long term agreement if Jyoti Basu had been taken seriously by the centre.
True, a provision for review every five years has been included in the
agreement but the Hooghly may silt up during the period if the flow of water
in the dry season remains below the bare minimum for five consecutive years.
When Jyoti Basu suggested two or three years and refused to yield to
Bangladesh's plea for an agreement for a longer period, he was obviously
stressing that an agreement for a longer period would damage the West Bengal
ports irreparably.

The decision to conclude a 30-year agreement yielding virtually to almost all
demands of Bangladesh is obviously a political decision taken by the Prime
Minister and external affairs minister I.K. Gujral. They may be both sharing
a sense of achievement, overlooking the harm they have done to West Bengal.
Unlike Mr H.D. Deve Gowda, Mr Gujral is no new hand in national and
international politics. He should have remembered the fate of the Indus
waters accord. Nehru had not only accepted the terms of the agreement worked
out by the then president of the World Bank, Eugene Black, but also agreed to
pay Rs 800 million to Pakistan, not a small amount in 1960, for new
construction work to be undertaken by Pakistan. Neither the agreement signed
in the presence of the world bank president, nor the tidy amount paid by
India bought for this country a days normal relation with Pakistan. Under the
30-year agreement also India will pay Bangladesh one billion rupees for new
construction work. Of course Bangladesh is not Pakistan, but the difference
may be one of degrees only.

The accord has been reached on the basis of old data. If on the basis of the
old data India can now agree to raise Bangladesh's share of Ganga water
substantially, then the- figures must have been manipulated by India in the
past. The flow at Farakka must have been much higher than what was given out
by this country. That is why it has suddenly become possible after so many
years to release more water for Bangladesh without endangering the ports of
Calcutta and Haidia.

Jyoti Basu does not believe this myth. There can he no other reason for his
distancing himself from the Delhi round of talks. He recognises the
political need of strengthening the position of Sheikh Hasina but he cannot
do it at the cost of West Bengal. Neither Deve Gowda nor Gujral have any
stake in West Bengal. They may ignore the state's need in the pursuit of
illusory political gains. Not Jyoti Basu. But being in the United Front, he
cannot condemn the agreement outright. He has therefore dissociated himself
from the agreement in the only way he could.

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