NEW DELHI: Balancing the imperatives of foreign policy with domestic politics can be perilous. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina knows this only too well as she battles criticism yet again from her opponents, civil society and even the media, for being ‘short-changed’ by New Delhi during her recent visit.
Of greater cause for anxiety is the murder of a student of a premier engineering institute in her country, allegedly by fellow students who were members of the Chhatra League, the student wing of her own party, the Awami League. Abrar Fahad, a second year student at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), had criticized Sheikh Hasina in a Facebook post for acceding to New Delhi’s request to share waters of the Feni river.
In the post uploaded a few hours after New Delhi and Dhaka announced seven pacts, Abrar also slammed his PM for agreeing to export LPG to India and allow it the use of Mongla port.
Abrar was echoing the sentiments of many Bangladeshis who feel their country has been made to wait far too long for a share of the waters of the Teesta river, with Dhaka being an overall net loser in its dealings with New Delhi. But he probably hadn’t anticipated the violent reaction his post would provoke.
Reports say he was attacked and beaten by members of the BUET unit of the Chhatra League. They also believed Abrar belonged to Islami Chhatra Shibir, the student wing of the radical Jamaat-e-Islami, which was unable to field candidates for Bangladesh’s parliamentary polls in December last year after being de-registered by the Election Commission. Sheikh Hasina has cracked down on Jamaat elements.
The assault left the 22-year-old dead, which triggered widespread protests. It has left Sheikh Hasina battling trenchant criticism from political rivals, not just about the murder but also for having got little out of New Delhi while giving much more. Sheikh Hasina has been a steadfast friend of India in its immediate neighbourhood where leaders past and present, have actively played the China card.
Hasina, now in her third term as prime minister, has consistently delivered on Indian expectations, whether it be cracking down on Northeast insurgents sheltering in her country or Islamic radicals. But is she losing domestic goodwill in the process?
The Assam NRC issue and Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s references to infiltrators (Bangladeshis?) as “termites”, has incensed many in Bangladesh. Dhaka has publicly acknowledged it is keeping an eye as the NRC process unfolds. The Rohingya refugee issue, too, is bubbling with Dhaka seeking New Delhi’s backing to pressurize Myanmar into taking them back.
Prime Minister Modi’s claims of “Sonali Adhyay” (golden chapter) to describe the India-Bangladesh relationship have little meaning for Sheikh Hasina’s constituency as they wait for India to deliver on its promises.
Even though the long-awaited Teesta water sharing agreement was not on the cards during her recent visit—New Delhi has its own share of domestic politics to deal with in order to deliver this pact to Dhaka—Sheikh Hasina is facing the heat for not having got it till now.
“Feni water given; wait on for Teesta’ was the headline of a story carried by a leading English daily in Bangladesh, the ‘Daily Star’. The reference was to the commitment by Hasina that residents of Sabroom town in neighbouring Tripura, would be allowed to draw 1.82 cusecs of water from the Feni river in Bangladesh. Writing in the Daily Star, noted economist Nazrul Islam acknowledged that “the quantity is small” but pointed out that “the symbolism is large. It shows that as far as shared rivers are concerned, India gets what it wants while Bangladesh keeps pleading. There is hardly any concrete progress towards meeting Bangladesh’s concerns regarding shared waters”.
He was referring to the Teesta river waters pact, scuttled by West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. Islam wrote, “Assurances of a Teesta sharing agreement are not of much value, because Bangladesh has been getting such assurances for many years now, and more importantly because, by the time any such agreement may be reached, there will be hardly any flow left of the Teesta River beyond the Gajoldoba Barrage in winter.”
The decision to export LPG to India too has evoked criticism from some quarters amidst fears that it was natural gas that would be provided. Sheikh Hasina has had to clarify, during a press conference that it’s LPG which Bangladesh imported in bulk that will be exported to India.
On the more emotive issue of sharing the waters of the Feni, Sheikh Hasina chose to defend it on humanitarian grounds. Bangladeshi newspapers quoting her as saying, “If anyone seeks water for drinking purposes and if we don’t give it, it doesn’t look good”. She maintained that the quantity of water that will be given from the Feni river is insignificant.
Sheikh Hasina is factually accurate but reason and logic fade when sentiment and emotion gain ground. Anti-India sentiment is not far from the surface in Bangladesh. Hasina has been able to keep it in check but the longer the perceived sense of India’s injustice is allowed to prevail, the more difficult she will find it being Delhi’s best friend in the neighbourhood.