Indian Foreign Secretary’s visit to Dhaka: What does it mean?

Indian Foreign Secretary’s visit to Dhaka: What does it mean?

India’s Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh’s one-day visit to Dhaka on 4th December takes place amid escalating political violence in Bangladesh over the looming general elections. The foreign secretary is expected to meet the politicians including the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, President Ershad and Foreign Minister.

Observers see Singh’s visit as a crucial development as India watches with concern the political crisis in Bangladesh. It is reported Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid has recently said that India is worried over poll-related violence in Bangladesh: “I think there are some developments that are worrisome.”

Former President Ershad, the chairman of Jatiya Party (third largest party), who agreed to run in the election under Sheikh Hasina as PM in return of six ministers from his party in the government, changed his decision and announced on 3rd December his party would not join the election. This is a blow to the Awami League (AL) because his boycott will make holding of lopsided election more apparent, according to many analysts.

It is expected that the Indian Foreign Secretary will report back to New Delhi her assessment of the political impasse in Bangladesh ahead of elections.

The US Assistant Secretary for South Asia Nisha Desai Biswal recently visited Dhaka and spoke with political leaders, apart from meeting the prime minister and the leader of the opposition. On November 18, replying to a question on whether the election would be credible without BNP, Biswal reportedly asked: “Is it credible to your people? The international community will be making a determination based on the assessment of the Bangladeshi people. And that’s the bottom line”.

The US ambassador to Dhaka also visited New Delhi and consulted with the Indian External Affairs officials including the Secretary Singh about Bangladesh’s political situation. The Indian high commissioner in Dhaka earlier told journalists that they were discussing the political situation of Bangladesh “with different countries who have an interest in peace and stability” of the country. Even the Chinese and Japanese envoys who normally keep quiet in an internal matter also expressed concern on the situation.

The announcement of the poll schedule on November 25 sharply divided the country. Since then BNP and its allies continued to call blockades leading to arson, blasts and deaths of many people all over the country. In October-November alone, 36 people died.

During the last 42 years, the constitution has been amended 15 times and it is a pity that political leaders could not arrive at an agreement on the type of the polls-time government.

In 1996, it was the unrelenting demands of AL which forced Khaleda Zia’s government to incorporate a polls-time caretaker non-party government in the constitution.

After coming to power in 2009, Sheikh Hasina amended the constitution in 2011 and abolished the caretaker non-party polls-time government on the grounds of the verdict of the apex court which declared that such unelected government was unconstitutional.

BNP, on the other hand, strongly argues that the AL misconceived the verdict and that the apex court did not rule out the non-partisan government for another two parliamentary elections, meaning that such government can exist until 2024 in the given political situation in the country.

One of the effects of the political crisis is to make fertile ground for ugly heads of Islamic extremism to rise in the country which may be of security concern to the region.

Bilateral talks:

The talks between Ms Singh and her Bangladesh counterpart will provide an opportunity for both sides to take a stock of the progress of implementation of decisions on the issues such as the sharing of the Teesta river water, ratification of Land Boundary agreement and an end to the of killings of Bangladeshi nationals along the border with India.

Whatever India wanted from Bangladesh, Dhaka has moved quickly to address Delhi’s concerns on cross-border terrorism and transit/trans-shipment to the North-East. However it appears the implementation of the bargain on the Indian side has not been met as yet.

Since 2009, Bangladesh –India relations have resulted in many positive results in many sectors, such as energy, infrastructure, river dredging, facility of easy travel bus and train, 24-hr access of Bangladeshis to Angorpota and Dahagram enclave and duty free access of Bangladeshi goods to Indian markets. However the non-signing of Teesta Water Sharing agreement, non-ratification of the Land Boundary agreement and border killing of Bangladeshis has overshadowed the positive gains among people

Noted Indian columnist Kuldip Nayar in his article in April 2011 after visiting Bangladesh writes: “It (Dhaka) has given the transit facilities to enable northeastern states to have better and quicker connectivity with the rest of India … India is too squeamish when it comes to dealing with neighbours.”

Observers suspect the issues concerning Bangladesh get low priority. Whether bureaucrats of New Delhi or state governments are responsible for the delay, the ultimate responsibility rests on the government of India to facilitate the smooth implementation of outstanding issues quickly.

Many friends of India in Bangladesh think that India missed an opportunity to create goodwill with people of Bangladesh for non-delivery of promises. In settling the disputes, Bangladesh’s gains do not have to come at India’s expense, or vice versa. Win-win solutions are possible on all the issues, given the comprehensive new vision for bilateral cooperation following the Bangladesh prime minister’s visit to New Delhi in January 2010

Hopefully, the foreign secretary’s visit will make Indian leaders and top bureaucrats realise that India has to generate good will with people of Bangladesh by adopting a pragmatic view of the interests of Bangladesh.

Given the right spirit and the desire to live together in cooperation, there is no reason why the two countries cannot move on a mature partnership on a political, economic and social level.

Brief Profile of Ms. Singh:

Born in 1954, Sujatha is the daughter of T.V.Rajeshawar, former Director of Indian Intelligence Bureau. He retired in 1983 and later became Governor of Uttar Pradesh state.

Sujatha took her degree in economics and joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1976 and so also her husband. Her husband Sanjay Singh was Secretary (East), Ministery of External Affairs and retired in 2012.

Sujatha was India’s High Commissioner to Australia (2007-2012). She has a reputation for toughness, which was demonstrated by taking a tough stance with the Australian authorities on dealing with the racial attacks against Indians there. She was India’s Ambassador to Germany (2012-13). She never served in any neighbouring country.

She was appointed as Foreign Secretary on 1st August of this year, the third woman foreign service officer to become Foreign Secretary. She replaced Rajan Mathai and will retire on 1st August 2015.

By Barrister Harun ur Rashid

Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN ,Geneva

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