India is our closest and important neighbour, with whom we have many unsettled issues relating to our interests. Whenever there is high-level trip to India, the questions inevitably arises as to what we got and what we did not. Speculations abound on the street corners, in the newspapers and the electronic media. Our prime minister is back from a four-day trip to India, and there is the invariable flurry of questions.
During such visits, the prime ministers do not sit and haggle over the issues. That job is done beforehand by the officials with their prior approval. The prime ministers simply carry out the formal gestures to approve of the issues already agreed upon. Some official ceremonies are arranged to highlight the significance of the visit. For example, during Mr Modi’s visit to Bangladesh, he inaugurated the bus service between the two countries.
The negotiations at an official and ministerial level are a long process. If there are important issues, drafts are drawn up and exchanged, envoys make trips, news reports crop up and there are all sorts of debates and discussions. So even before the trip, there is an idea about what is in the offing, though the details may remain under covers.
However, there was hardly any such visible activity before the prime minister’s trip to India this time. Actually, there were hardly any expectations either. It was only the foreign minister’s statements before the trip that injected a degree of interest about the event.
The India Economic Summit in Delhi was a focal point of the trip. Other than attending this summit, the prime minister also joined the Country Strategy Dialogue on Bangladesh. She called upon investors from India and other present there to invest in Bangladesh. The bilateral part of the trip took part on 5 October.
It was known that a few MOUs would be signed, though how many would be signed was anybody’s guess. Speculations ranged from 8 to 18, but finally 7 agreements and MOUs were signed. The people were also eager to know how far India would help in resolving the Rohingya crisis and also about the Assam citizen’s registry.
Three agreements among the seven caught public attention. One, LPG to be exported from Bangladesh to northeast India. Two, standard operating procedure for the use of Chattogram and Mongla ports. Three, withdrawal of water from the river Feni for Subroom in Tripura.
A large part of LPG used in Bangladesh is imported. Business persons import the LPG and market it. I see nothing really wrong if they make some money by exporting some of the imported LPG to India’s northeast.
The decision had already been taken to allow India the use of Chattogram and Mongla ports. The standard operating procedure was needed to determine how this opportunity would be used.
The amount of water to be withdrawn from the river Feni is not huge in volume and will meet the drinking water requirements of the people of the border-lying town Subroom.
To the apparent eye, none of these three are very significant issues. But the problem lies elsewhere. It is Indian interests that lie at the core of all three of these agreements. The public notes that progress has been made only where Indian interests are concerned. There has been no advancement in issues pertaining to Bangladesh’s interests.
It is the withdrawal of water from the river Feni that has struck a sore spot. The Teesta river issue has long been shelved and before this trip the foreign minister has said that an agreement would be signed pertaining to some of the smaller rivers. There was no sign of that, so the Feni river agreement simply served to open a festering wound. It is surprising that such an agreement had to be signed at this time.
India has once against assured that it would extend its assistance to resolve the Rohingya issue. The matter was raised recently at the UN human rights council and 37 countries extended their support. China, as expected, voted against the motion and India withheld its vote. So it is simply back to square one. It is obvious that there is nothing to expect from India regarding the Rohingya issue.
When asked by our newsmen about the Assam nation citizenship register, our prime minister said she was not worried about the issue as the Indian prime minister had himself reassured her about the matter.
It is only natural to have confidence in words of the Indian prime minister. Previously the Indian foreign minister too had said that Bangladesh had nothing to worry about as this was an internal matter of India. We have been hearing that narrative from the outset. But no matter was the prime minister Modi or the foreign minister Jaishankar may say, the people of Bangladesh are far from being reassured.
Modi and his predecessor had both given strong assurances about the river Teesta, but it has come to nothing. As for Assam’s citizenship register, Indian leaders from top to bottom have been saying that these ‘illegal migrants’ had come from Bangladesh and would be sent back to Bangladesh. The language they use when making such statements is undoubtedly objectionable.
Yesterday I had to repeatedly face this question – so what was the point of this visit? I had a simple answer – I do not know.
*Touhid Hossain is a former foreign secretary.