Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina returned home on 8 September after a four-day visit to India. Other than the official bilateral meeting with the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi on 6 September, the two leaders also had separate exclusive discussions. After the meeting, seven MOUs were signed in the presence of the two prime ministers. Sheikh Hasina paid a goodwill call on the Indian president Droupadi Murmu. Bangladesh's prime minister was accorded a formal reception along with a guard of honour on 7 September in front of the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Two minor 'incidents' created quite a stir at the outset of the visit. Foreign minister AK Abdul Momen was dropped from the prime minister's entourage at the last minute. After his visit to India last month, he made certain tactless remarks upon his return, embarrassing the governments of both Bangladesh and India. It is the common belief that this is the reason that he was dropped from the visit. However, the official version is that he did not join the Delhi trip as he was unwell.
When prime minister Sheikh Hasina reached Delhi, she was greeted at the airport by a state minister of the Indian government. The last time she went, prime minister Narendra Modi himself received her at the airport. He did not do so this time, giving rise to a number of speculations. According to the Indian protocol, it is normally a minister or a state minister who carries out this task. The official welcome is accorded the next day by means of a guard of honour in front of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. It was an extra bit of cordiality displayed last time when Modi himself turned up at the airport. That does not mean this will happen every time.
The day after the 6 September bilateral meeting, a 33-clause joint statement was issued. It is not possible to analyse all these in detail in a limited space. Several of these were routine and several were mere formalities. For instances, satisfaction was expressed at the prevailing relations and the high level visits between the two countries, cultural ties, people to people contact and hope for successful discussions on various issues, etc. Outside of this, certain important issues were raised regarding bilateral relations. Tucked behind the clever use of diplomatic language, there were clear guidelines to take some of the issues forward, while some apparently had no immediate solution.
The two prime ministers expressed satisfaction at the seven MOUs being signed between the two countries. The MOU regarding the sharing of the River Kushiyara's waters caught everyone's attention. Bangladesh will be able to withdraw 153 cusecs of water from this river under an irrigation project. The project couldn't take off as India hadn't given its approval and so this is certainly a positive step. At the same time, the clause related to Teesta is extremely important. As always, the Bangladesh prime minister urged for the implementation of the Teesta treaty, according to the draft treaty of 2011. In 2017 Narendra Modi said this would have to be done by discussing with all concerned stakeholders. In 2019 he said he had discussed the matter with the stakeholders. This time he did not have any response to Sheikh Hasina's proposal. This has simply served to confirm the general perception that the Teesta issue has been placed in cold storage.
The two prime ministers also expressed their satisfaction at the 38th meeting of the Joint Rivers Commission being held after a long gap. There are directives to share data and information regarding the common rivers. Bangladesh water experts are weary after sharing all such information and data over the past 30 years and many of them have even gone into retirement. They want to see some tangible developments on ground. A joint technical committee has been formed to look into Bangladesh's use of the water received under the Ganges Treaty. The activities and proceedings of the committee must be monitored carefully. The results of this will certainly have an impact when the Ganges Treaty comes up for renewal after five years.
India has reiterated its stance on the Rohingya issue. India has expressed its commitment to support Bangladesh and Myanmar regarding the safe, sustainable and speedy return of the forcefully displaced Rohingyas to their homeland. It is not understandable how the support of those who forcefully displaced them, that is, Myanmar, can be a help in resolving this problem. The reality is that India will not exert pressure on Myanmar to take back the Rohingyas.
The joint statement has placed significant importance of developing rail and road communications, though basically on a bilateral basis. There is no actual guideline to develop quadrilateral communications. Clause 20 regarding transit to Nepal and Bhutan is rather confusing. It is said that India has been granting Bangladesh 'free transit' to export its goods to Nepal and Bhutan. If that is so, why didn't Bangladesh know about it all this time? I have not received a clear answer to this from anyone. Perhaps the foreign ministry can clarify this. An interested businessperson can send a consignment to Nepal on a test basis to see just how smooth this 'free transit' is in reality.
Clause 15 of the joint statement places importance on connecting the power grids of the two countries in order to enhance sub-regional cooperation in power distribution. The two sides agreed to connect the grids of Katihar in Bihar and Parbatipur in Bangladesh for this purpose. Noticeably, this is between India and Bangladesh. Bhutan and Nepal are not in the picture. In context of Bangladesh's request for import of power from Nepal and Bhutan, India said that it had guidelines in this regard. No details were given about these guidelines and it remained unclear as to whether Bangladesh would be able to import power from Nepal under this. India needs to break out of this cycle if it actually wants any palpable progress in water and power management.
The two prime ministers directed that talks start in the CEPA. This is a good initiative. However, rather than just depending on bureaucracy, the actual stakeholders, that is, members of the business community, should be included in this discussions. They are the ones who will be carrying out the trade and making the investments. Care must be taken so that the interests of the businesspersons of both countries are upheld.
The people of Bangladesh, in the first place, did not have any high expectations about this visit
From the press briefing of the Indian foreign secretary and a number of Indian analysts, it seems that the main theme of this visit was India's concern about China's burgeoning presence in Bangladesh. This, of course, was not reflected in the joint statement. Perhaps India raised the issue during the closed door meetings. This concern of India is hardly justified. Bangladesh maintains relations with both countries in its own interests.
So how was the visit, overall? It is natural for two friendly and close neighbouring countries to have regular contact at the top most political level. The prime ministers of both countries visit each other's countries in turn. This visit of prime minister Sheikh Hasina should be seen as part of that continuity. It is not realistic to expect that all problems will be resolved in one visit. Actually, the people of Bangladesh, in the first place, did not have any high expectations about this visit. The success or failure of a visit is not always measured in terms of what was gained or not.
* Md Touhid Hossain is a former foreign secretary