There seems to be an eerie silence on the matter
It goes from bad to worse.
What appears to have been a botched effort India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardan Shringla, to further ties between his country and Bangladesh, is gaining the wrong kind of traction.
Dhaka’s Indian High Commission has reacted to some probing local journalism as being “misinformation and mischievous.” Around the same time, the Jatiya Sangshad Standing Committee on the Foreign Ministry has asked for details to be made public about the visit. That is a rare phenomenon, but comes in the wake of an eerie silence by both the ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office.
The Indian Ministry of External Affairs hasn’t released any such statement about the Indian media, many of whom have been found grossly wanting in their reportage. Shringla has built his reputation with care. His stint as high commissioner in Dhaka was largely successful, leading to his transfer as the envoy to the United Nations and then as India’s foreign secretary.
He has made impressive contacts in government, public, and private sectors including the Bangladesh media. His first visit in his new capacity in March this year was widely covered. Not this time. There was no airport protocol, no photo session with the prime minister, no meeting with the foreign minister or the state minister, and an almost after-thought session with our foreign secretary.
Yet, he was carrying a message from India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. That message wasn’t disclosed by anyone, though there were attempts to suggest it was about prioritizing Bangladesh for the vaccine under-development by Oxford University. If anything, that’s a lame one. Bangladesh has enough goodwill in the UK and a competent high commissioner in Syed Muna Tasneem to pursue the matter.
Till the writing of this piece, there has been no comment, thereby no confirmation that Shringla at all met the prime minister. The meeting was thrice delayed till at least 7:30 in the evening, and there was zilch media coverage of the meeting, giving rise to BBC Bangla service raising the question. The PMO spokesman confirmed at night that no meeting had taken place, though sections of the media on both sides of the border suggest a one-hour session took place.
The prime minister hasn’t met any foreigners in the last five months or so, what with her plate being more than full. That she would find an hour for a foreign secretary is fairly untenable. It is also debatable whether an “unofficial” visit, as described by the outgoing Indian High Commissioner Riva Ganguly, allows for a meeting with the prime minister.
The visit came to fore through the Indian media that not only let us know it was happening, but also that “a two-year strategic roadmap for bilateral cooperation” had been discussed. Our Foreign Secretary Masud Momen made no mention of any such discussion. He had said that there had been discussions on the border killings by the BSF and water-sharing of common rivers.
According to him, Mr Shringla had promised to take these up, including a meeting of the heads of BGB and BSF. The border killings issue is a strange one. Why does it take persuasion at this level for a meeting of the two-border chiefs? A few years ago, the then Foreign Minister Dipu Moni had informed the press that agreement had been reached in using rubber bullets in place of live ammunition. None in the Indian media raised this, though one suggested Bangladesh should exercise caution among cattle rustlers. There too, they didn’t take cognizance of the fact that it takes two to tango.
Those that follow geopolitics put the visit down to alarm-bells following the Bangladesh decision to approach China for a $1 billion fund to build a catchment dam on the Teesta after 10 years of foot-dragging by India on the river water sharing. Do the Indians not know how fed up we have become?
The second sticking point was the Pakistan prime minister’s second phone call in less than a year where he is reported to have sought Bangladesh’s support on the Kashmir issue and bolstering relations between the two countries. The government’s public stance did not mention the subject and twice in quick succession Sheikh Hasina has been diplomatically prudent in her silence.
Bangladesh has been repeatedly snubbed by India in recent times. The Teesta water sharing agreement, to have been signed by the Indian prime minister on his visit to the country, was jettisoned by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s reticence on inter-state issues. Yet that was to have been a crowning moment.
The granting of transshipment for Indian goods has not been reciprocated for our exports to Nepal or Bhutan. Nor has there been diplomatic support for us on the Rohingya issue. As a sovereign nation, Bangladesh will enter into treaties and discussion with anyone of its choosing. Attempts to influence that decision-making is gross interference in our internal affairs.
We have held our peace on the violence in Kashmir on those grounds. The displeasure over the NCA and National Register has been muted, as has been the less than decent reception to Sheikh Hasina on her most recent visits to India. Indian High Commission officials’ visits to hooligan-damaged temples and support for their reconstruction have been countenanced.
Whether a similar move by our High Commission to the Babri Masjid would have been met with the same is doubtful.
The Indian media has highlighted the nearly $10bn line of credit for infrastructural development granted to Bangladesh. That most of that is to facilitate business connectivity lopsidedly favouring India doesn’t come up for discussion. Nor does the almost spontaneous gesture of allowing Feni river water to be diverted.
The Indian Ministry of External Affairs would do well to question its own media about “misinformation and mischievous” reporting. In the meantime, perhaps the media owners, editors, and businessmen that met Mr Shringla might choose to come clean on their discussions during the “unofficial” visit.
Mahmudur Rahman is a writer, columnist, broadcaster, and communications specialist.