Mamata Banerjee tore the draft of the Teesta River water-sharing treaty into pieces and threw it into the dustbin of history as Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina watched helplessly. Now let me tell Bangladeshis some bitter truths which I hope will help them come to terms with the rapidly unfolding reality.
First and foremost, the whole of West Bengal is fully behind Banerjee. Bengalis are extremely happy that Banerjee has killed the proposed Teesta treaty. Human beings are self-centered, nay selfish, by nature. So when Banerjee announced that there wasn’t enough water in the Teesta to share with Bangladesh, Bengal’s unanimous reaction was: We come first; let’s keep all the water for ourselves; let Bangladesh fend for itself!
Banerjee’s voters would have been very angry and unforgiving if she gave Bangladesh priority over Bengal and tried to justify it on the ground that Hasina-ruled Bangladesh is a strategic ally, which must be obliged because it has done more for India than India has done for it so far. Nobody would have bought that as provincial interest comes before national interest, thank you.
Secondly, Bengalis are rebellious by nature, and are ready to die for leaders who cock a snook at Delhi. They worshipped Subhash Chandra Bose and immortalised him as Netaji because he defied Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the British government. They gave birth to the Bangla Congress when the central Congress Party leadership became too arrogant and brought down the Congress in league with the communists, clearing the decks for the Left Front’s 34-year-rule.
Jyoti Basu refused to meet AB Vajpayee and LK Advani branding them uncivilised and communal for demolishing the Babri Masjid. He boycotted Vajpayee and Advani whenever they visited Kolkata, although chief ministers are expected to call on the visiting premier or deputy premier. Basu’s stature rose because he treated BJP stalwarts with contempt.
Today, there is a lot of admiration for Banerjee for taking on Modi who anyway comes across as an autocratic and divisive figure. They are happy that Banerjee has thrown a spanner in his works. Bengalis believe that Banerjee stopped Modi in the nick of time -- otherwise he would have sold them down the river!
For Bengalis, self-preservation and pride are non-negotiable. And Banerjee epitomises Bengali pride -- a leader who would go to any lengths for her people.
West Bengal’s Urdu and Bengali-speaking Muslims, who comprise 27-30% of the population and are loyal to Banerjee, are even more happy than their Hindu brethren that she has pulled the plug on the Teesta treaty. Reason? Their anger at the Shahbagh movement and all that it signifies.
Their sympathies lie with personalities and organisations which are in the gun-sights of Bangladesh government, hence they are overjoyed at Hasina’s defeat.
For instance, there is disquiet among Bengal’s Muslims over Hasina government’s no-holds-barred campaign against Jamaat-e-Islami with India’s backing. Muslims have turned out in hundreds of thousands across Bengal to protest against trials by war crime tribunals and execution of BNP and Jamaat leaders. Kolkata has witnessed some of the biggest demonstrations in South Asia against their imprisonment and hangings.
Banerjee’s voters would have been very angry and unforgiving if she gave Bangladesh priority over Bengal and tried to justify it on the ground that Hasina-ruled Bangladesh is a strategic ally
Not a single Muslim participated in processions taken out in Kolkata to express solidarity with the Shahbagh movement. When Pakistan and Bangladesh clashed in Kolkata’s Eden Gardens last year, the predominantly Muslim spectators at the cricket match rooted for Pakistan and booed Bangladeshis. Their behaviour underlined their anti-Bangladesh and pro-Pakistan stance.
After Banerjee’s successive victory in assembly elections last year, leaders of the Muslim community which had voted en masse for Trinamool Congress, urged Banerjee to publicly denounce what they described as the Hasina government’s “anti-Islamic” campaign, to reciprocate Muslim support which gave her a record number of seats.
If Banerjee had obliged community leaders like Sidiqullah Chowdhury, Ahmed Hassan Imran, and Sultan Ahmed, it would have been very embarrassing for New Delhi.
In the run-up to Hasina’s visit, a Muslim organisation in Kolkata suddenly demanded the removal of Mujibur Rahman’s bust from Maulana Azad College’s Baker Hostel. When Bangladesh’s deputy high commissioner Zokey Ahad called on Banerjee to counter the demand, she advised him to call on Sidiqullah Chowdhury, Jamiat-ulema-e-Hind leader known for his links with Jamaat Bangladesh who is now a minister in her government.
Ahad not only visited Chowdhury bearing gifts to calm him down, but also invited Noorur Rahman Barkati, Imam of the Tipu Sultan Mosque, who was in the news for offering a reward of Rs25 lakh to anyone for blackening Modi’s face after demonetisation, to the Bangladesh National Day reception.
Barkati has not only led numerous processions expressing solidarity with Jamaat Bangladesh, but also organised a big namaz-e-janaza, or funeral prayers, for Osama bin Laden after he was killed by US forces in Pakistan.
Barkati arrived with his bodyguards after all but a few guests invited for National Day celebrations at Grand Hotel had left. He broke bread with Ahad and other Bangladeshi diplomats who were taken by surprise. I think Bangladesh did all that it could to keep everyone happy ahead of Hasina’s visit, but the trophy which Dhaka wanted proved elusive.
S. N. M. Abdi is former deputy editor of Outlook and a well-known commentator and analyst.