India-Bangladesh agreements provoke questions

Md Touhid Hossain | Update:

Prothom Alo IllustrationSeven memorandums of understanding and agreements were signed during the recent Indian trip of Bangladesh’s prime minister. Three of these agreements gave rise to discussion and debate within the country.

Among the agreements, there was much ire over the withdrawal of water from the river Feni to provide this to Sabroom in India’s Tripura state. The volume of water was not massive and we have goodwill for the people of Tripura. But it seemed discordant that water be provided so readily from the river Feni when India has repeatedly broken its commitment on sharing water of the river Teesta.

The people of Bangladesh are also unhappy with India’s failure to change its stance concerning the Rohingya issue. Also, despite prime minister Modi’s assurances, his party leaders have been unleashing a continuous diatribe against Bangladeshis over Assam’s national register of citizens (NRC).

Amidst the hullabaloo over Teesta, Feni, ports and Assam’s citizens’ register, one of the agreements has been overshadowed. This is about India setting up a surveillance radar system along Bangladesh’s coast. According to the website norendramodi.com, the seventh memorandum of understanding was ‘MOU on Providing Coastal Surveillance System’. This was signed by the Bangladesh home secretary and the Indian high commissioner on behalf of their respective countries. No details of the matter have been made public and this has provoked curiousity.

The use of the word ‘providing’ in the title of the MOU is interesting. This could imply selling or providing free of cost as a gift.

An article by Dipankar Roy on this issue appeared on 8 October in the Indian Economic Times. He said that this MOU will give India the scope to set up a coastal surveillance system in Bangladesh which will strengthen Delhi’s strategic position in the Indo-Pacific region.

If that is so, then whether it is a sale or a gift, is not the point.

Our defence analysts have not made much noise about the matter. The daily Manabzamin published a report on 7 October based on Indian media reports in this regard. It said that India was setting up these radars to increase Bangladesh’s maritime surveillance and to keep watch on the shared coast of India and Bangladesh. The Indian media, according to Manabzamin, felt that this system was also being set up due to the presence of Chinese warships and submarines in the region.

Speaking to Manabzamin, retired brigadier general M Sakhawat Hossain wondered about China’s reaction to this agreement, given its current good relations with Bangladesh. And former army chief, retired lieutenant general Harun Ar Rashid said that only after the details of the MOU were published could it be said how Bangladesh would benefit from the agreement.

With the conditions of the MOU remaining in the dark, certain questions naturally crop up in the mind:

1. To the apparent eye, such radars are military installations. Our home secretary signed the agreement on our behalf, while India’s high commissioner signed for Delhi. It thus remains unclear which Indian institution is involved in the matter. The question remains, who will own these installations, India or Bangladesh?

2. Bangladesh has no military bloc or alliance with India, so how can there be Indian military installations on Bangladesh’s territory?

3. If the ownership is of Bangladesh, then who will control the software being used and the information that will be collected?

4. If China’s presence in the Bay of Bengal is under surveillance and if India receives this information in real time, will this not be considered a programme hostile to China? What will then happen to efforts to maintain a balance between India and China in our foreign policy?

If these questions are answered openly, it will bring an end to suspicious speculations. There can be security-related agreements between two friendly nations for mutual interests. Exchanging information is also not anything unusual. But Bangladesh must have complete control of information generated from Bangladesh. We can surely share it with our friendly neighbour in the interests of their security.

It is not secret that Bangladesh and India have deep ties of friendship. Both sides say that these relations are at an all-time high. When Bangladesh procured two submarines from China no long ago, India did not hide its displeasure. Bangladesh’s military strength is not a threat to India at all. Bangladesh ranks 45th in the Global Fire Power Index, even below Myanmar, which ranks at 37.

A slight increase in a friendly neighbour’s military strength should give a country a sense of relief actually. The US, for example, has asked its European allies to increase their military budget. Closer home, India has provided Myanmar with a Russian-made Kilo-class submarine.

Hypothetically speaking, if a war broke out between Bangladesh and Myanmar, we naturally wouldn’t want Myanmar to be able to track the movements of our naval vessels. That is why it is imperative that Bangladesh have full control over the surveillance radars along the coast and the information these will generate. Security experts will be able to throw more light on these issues.

* Md Touhid Hossain is a former foreign secretary of Bangladesh. This piece appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.

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