The recent trip of prime minister Sheikh Hasina to India has generated much discussion and debate in political and diplomatic circles. Former Indian high commissioner to Bangladesh Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty, in an interview with Prothom Alo, talks about different aspects and the significance of the visit.
What are your observations about the recent India visit of Bangladesh’s prime minister Sheikh Hasina? There have been negative commentaries in the media of both countries.
I feel that this trip of Bangladesh’s prime minister Sheikh Hasina is part of a continuous process. India’s prime minister Narendra Modi came to Bangladesh in 2020 to join the centennial of Bangabandhu’s birth. This is a return visit. Leaders of Bangladesh and India have been exchanging visits over the past 50 years. So a balance sheet shouldn’t be drawn up for each and every visit. The media make a lot of comments. Everyone has the freedom to express themselves. I do not think these comments are very important. Bangladesh’s prime minister has visited Delhi after a long time. Talks were held on the improvement of ties between the two countries. A joint statement was published. That itself is a progress. It isn’t right to expect everything in one trip.
Bangladesh’s main demand was for the sharing of Teesta water and for border killings to come to a halt. There doesn’t seem to be any development in these areas.
If just one issue remains unresolved, that doesn’t mean the visit was a success or a failure. Those with one-sided views make such remarks. In bilateral relations, both sides have expectations. It takes a long time for all to be fulfilled. These things advance one by one. You must keep in mind that the issue of water is sensitive for both countries. The joint statement has placed emphasis on bringing the border killings down to zero. Both sides need to bring the criminals' rings along the border under control to prevent smuggling, drug trade, fake currency trade, human trafficking and such crimes. These criminal rings are the root of the problem.
Bangladesh's domestic politics were quite heated over the matter of bilateral relations. Now India's domestic politics are heating up too. Why is this so?
This is a part of India's politics too. This is happening due to the conflict between BJP and Trinamool Congress. I would say that the Teesta water deal has been trapped in this conflict. But even without the Teesta water being resolved, efforts must be made about sharing the waters of the other rivers. I feel that the central government of Manmohan Singh government in 2011 failed to handle the Teesta issue properly. The West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee claimed that the centre hadn't discussed the matter of this deal with them at all. West Bengal should have been taken on board. West Bengal feels that the formula given in the water sharing deal will go against the interests of the people of the state. In 1996 the Ganges treat was signed taking the chief minister at the time Jyoti Basu on board. The problem cropped up because of the distance between the centre and the state.
There have been good developments in the power sector. Bangladesh will receive 1600 MW of electricity through a special transmission line from Jharkand. This is supposed to start on 16 December next year. Bangladesh has already been receiving 1200 MW of electricity from India. Once the Rampal plant starts up, another 1320 MW will be added to the national grid. Diplomacy today means economic growth.
Before going to Delhi, prime minister Sheikh Hasina wrote to West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee expressing interest in meeting her as part of past continuity. But they didn't meet this time. Mamata claims that they couldn't meet because of the centre. What do you think?
There is politics in this too. Who told her not to go to Delhi? No one prevented her.
Prime minister Sheikh Hasina visited India at a time when politics in both countries is geared up for the elections. Do you think this visit has a special significance in this regard? The two top leaders must have discussed political issues.
Such speculations are being widely made. I see no link between the elections and the prime minister's visit. We will vote in India's elections and the people of Bangladesh will vote in Bangladesh's elections. But, yes, the governments of both countries can have aspirations to work with those in the neighbouring country who will take bilateral relations ahead, will take connectivity and economic development forward. Annual trade between Bangladesh and India has reached 18 billion dollars now. This will increase further with the development of communications. These matters must have featured in the two prime ministers' discussions.
There is a general perception that in bilateral relations, India gets what it wants almost immediately. But Bangladesh's demands are not met that easily, sometime never at all.
That is a misconception. We too can come up with a list of what India wanted, but did not get. However, we do not do so. Nothing is achieved by such negative narratives. Bilateral relations are to be taken ahead with a progressive and pragmatic mindset.
India has proposed that a road be constructed over Bangladesh from West Bengal to Meghalaya. That's a new proposal.
I do not see the scope of a separately delineated road from West Bengal to Meghalaya. There already exists road, rail and river communications between the two countries. Goods are being taken from Chittagong Port to northeast India. Bangladesh's territory is being used. Bangladesh's goods are going to Nepal and Bhutan over Indian territory. This connectivity is in the interests of both the countries. A survey will be carried out and the route that benefits both the countries the most will be used.
Bangladesh in 2016 proposed to join the tri-nation road of India, Myanmar and Thailand. Why has that not come about?
This did not go ahead because of Myanmar's internal problems. And if Bangladesh is to link up with this tri-nation road, it will have to establish road and rail links between Akhaura and India. Work on that is on.
After the prime minister returned from the Delhi visit, there was news that India increased duty on rice export. Doesn't that give out a wrong message?
The increase of duty on rice has nothing to do with the prime minister's visit. There is a global crisis in rice due to the Ukraine war. Many countries are buying rice from India, not just Bangladesh. India has increased export duty in order to keep maintain its domestic stock. This will decrease rice export somewhat. But I think that there can be a bilateral agreement between Bangladesh and India so that Bangladesh does not have to pay that extra duty.
Bangladesh has been bearing the burden of one million Rohingyas for over four years now. India has good ties with Myanmar, so why doesn't it make an effort towards the repatriation of the Rohingyas?
Myanmar's relations with China are also very good. India has a problem. It has insurgent groups in Myanmar from where they carry out militant operations. Myanmar's cooperation is required to resist them. Then again, China wants to enter the Bay of Bengal through Myanmar. They are using Pakistan's Gwadar port too. That is why India can't put too much pressure on Myanmar. But India wants Myanmar to take back the Rohingyas. It has proposed the construction of homes and financial assistance too. We must keep in mind that there is a military junta in power in Myanmar and they are least bothered about international pressure or public opinion.
Thank you too