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Dhaka Tribune

The issues which remain

In search of a resolution to the remaining contentious issues between Bangladesh and India. This is the final part of a four-part series on the early history of Indo-Bangla relations (1972-1975)

Update : 13 Mar 2024, 11:27 AM

After liberation in 1971, the new Indo-Bangladesh bilateral relationship faced several contentious issues. Water sharing and maritime delimitation were the most contentious topics. In Bangladeshi politics, those who aspired for good relations with India often overlooked contentious topics in favour of areas of convergence and agreement. Contentious issues were exploited by anti-India elements to stir up public sentiment against the rosy and romantic idealism of Indo-Bangla ties. 

Anti-India baiters often argue that Dhaka was unable to extract any concessions from Delhi after 1971. But this defies logic and reality. There were indeed significant concessions from the Indian side. In the second volume of his memoirs, Professor Rehman Sobhan writes about how the temporary agreement on the Farakka Barrage and the land boundary treaty were the “last great concessions” extracted by Bangabandhu from Indira Gandhi. The temporary agreement on Farakka was complemented by the Ganges water sharing treaty in 1996. 

Between 1972 and 1975, India and Bangladesh signed a plethora of agreements, including the friendship treaty, a telecoms agreement, a Trade Agreement, a nuclear deal, a protocol on inland water transit and trade, the Statute of the Joint Rivers Commission, an MoU on electricity grids, the land boundary treaty, a balance of payments agreement, and guidelines for border authorities.

Professor Sobhan writes that the political revival of defeated elements of 1971 relied not only on discrediting the Awami League, but discrediting the events of 1971 itself. In reality, Bangladesh pursued an eclectic foreign policy in the Bangabandhu era, by aspiring close ties with India and the USSR, while being equally keen to maintain strong ties with the US, West Asia, and the rest of the world. This was embodied by our foreign policy maxim of friendship to all and malice to none.   

The goodwill that Bangladesh enjoyed globally undoubtedly increased our leverage towards resolving contentious disputes. It has always been in our inherent mutual interest to not let contentious issues get in the way of the big picture.  

Farakka barrage 

The Farakka dispute centred on India’s plans to divert water that would otherwise flow into Bangladesh via the Padma River. The construction of the Farakka barrage elicited strong opposition from Bangladesh. On April 9, 1972, India and Bangladesh established a Joint Rivers Commission. The JRC’s functions are to exchange data on transboundary rivers, conduct joint studies, formulate plans for flood control and irrigation projects, and promote the utilization of water resources.  

An agreement was concluded on April 18, 1974 to develop a water sharing formula. India agreed to withdraw far less water under Bangladesh’s terms compared to the proposed formula with Pakistan in 1968 which would have allowed India to withdraw more water. 

Even critics of the Awami League hailed the agreement. The Ittefaq newspaper, which was a staunch critic of Indian policies at the time, described the agreement as a “victory” for Bangladesh because it effectively safeguarded our national interest. 

Maritime delimitation 

Bangladesh became the first country in South Asia to formally declare its claim to an exclusive economic zone (EEZ). This is elaborated in the memoirs of Kamal Hossain. Bangladesh staked its claim at a time when the concept of the EEZ was being pioneered in the early 1970s. The concept was codified in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1982.   

The first round of maritime boundary talks was held in December 1974. India preferred the equidistance method while Bangladesh opted for equitable delimitation. The basis for Bangladesh’s position was a decision of the International Court of Justice in the North Sea Continental Shelf Case. Equitable delimitation would take into consideration not just geography, but the population and economic needs of the claimant. Further talks after 1975 did not make much headway.   

Bangladesh and India agreed to submit their dispute to arbitration in 2009. An UNCLOS tribunal settled the boundary in 2014 on the basis of proportionality, in keeping with precedents set by the Black Sea case (Romania v Ukraine) and the Bangladesh/Myanmar case at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Bangladesh was awarded 19,467sq-km out of a disputed area of 25,602sq-km, corresponding to 76% of the formerly disputed area. 



Umran Chowdhury works in the legal field.

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