West Bengal (BBN)-West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee will meet Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina in her first visit to the country.
The Teesta pact and ratification of a Land Boundary Agreement have cast a shadow over bilateral ties between Bangladesh and India, reports
India may be looking at a breakthrough in ties with Bangladesh on a long-pending bid to share the waters of the Teesta river, with hopes generated by a three-day visit to the country by West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee from 19 February.
Banerjee is to be chief guest at a ceremony in Dhaka to mark the “Bhasha Divas”, or Language Day, commemorated on 21 February to mark the killings of university students protesting the imposition of Urdu as the national language in 1952, when Bangladesh was part of Pakistan.
Before attending the ceremony, Banerjee will hold talks with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and government officials on 20 February, said Banerjee’s All India Trinamool Congress colleague and Lok Sabha MP Sugata Bose by phone from Kolkata.
This is Banerjee’s first visit to Bangladesh since taking office in 2011. She made headlines that year by dropping out of a delegation led by then Prime minister Manmohan Singh to Dhaka.
As a result, the Teesta river water sharing agreement has remained unsigned.
The Teesta river, which has its source in Sikkim, flows through the northern part of West Bengal in India before entering Bangladesh and joining the Brahmaputra river.
According to Bose, Banerjee is travelling to Dhaka with a business delegation, besides a cultural troupe, with the aim of increasing trade and investment between West Bengal and Bangladesh. “Certainly, the Teesta (water-sharing) pact will come up for discussion,” said Bose, adding West Bengal was looking to build positive relations with a friendly neighbour.
Two issues- finding a formula to share the Teesta waters and the ratification of a Land Boundary Agreement (LBA)- have cast a shadow over bilateral ties, although relations have been on the upswing since the election of Hasina and her Awami League party-seen as friendly to India. In January 2014, Sheikh Hasina began her third term as prime minister of Bangladesh, having led the country previously in 1996-2001 and 2009-14.
India and Bangladesh were expected to sign the river water sharing pact in 2011 but the plan fell through after Banerjee alleged that the agreement was skewed against the people of West Bengal.
“It is possible that both sides would find a solution to this problem (during Banerjee’s current visit)…the time is opportune,” said Jayant Ray, a professor at the Institute for Foreign Policy Studies at Kolkata University.
According to Ray, an agreement on Teesta would be a “godsend” to Hasina, who is facing a political crisis dating back to her controversial re-election last year in a poll that was boycotted by the opposition led by arch rival Begum Khaleda Zia.
Political violence in the country of approximately 160 million has killed more than 80 people this year, a recent AFP report from Dhaka said.
If there is a breakthrough on Teesta, Hasina would be seen as wresting a major concession from India, Ray said.
On the other hand, Banerjee who swept to power in the 2011 West Bengal state elections has been swamped by the multi-crore Saradha chitfund scam with three members of her party including two members of Parliament arrested by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
Adding to Banerjee’s woes is an aggressive bid by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to make political inroads into the state where elections are due in May 2016.
Making matters worse was the uncovering of a terror plot in West Bengal last year, reportedly targeting Hasina.
With Banerjee under such pressure, she could win some points with the central government in New Delhi if an agreement were to be reached, said Ray.
“Given these factors, it would be opportune for both sides to clinch an agreement. But one has to wait and see. If both sides have done their homework, it will be easy.”
India signed the additional protocol to the LBA in September 2011, but it was not ratified because the then Manmohan Singh government failed to get Parliament’s backing.
The main opposition came from the now governing BJP- especially the party’s Assam unit. The BJP’s key objection to the LBA came from the fact that India stood to lose some 10,000 acres of land under the terms of the agreement when Bangladesh took over 111 enclaves (17,160 acres) from India’s possession and India in turn received 51 enclaves (7,110 acres) from Bangladesh.
These enclaves are tiny landlocked territories that each country has within the borders of the other nation.
But hopes of the LBA being passed by the Indian Parliament have risen since Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a BJP rally in Assam in November that ratification of the LBA would result in a better demarcated border and stem the flow of illegal migrants from Bangladesh to India- a key concern for the BJP and some regional parties.
A multi-party parliamentary standing committee in December too backed the ratification, saying it was in India’s national interest.
BBN/SK/AD-18Feb15-5:50pm (BST)