Saturday, July 4, 2009

Indian High Commissioner provokes opposition on Tipaimukh

M. Serajul Islam

THE Indian High Commissioner in Dhaka Mr. Pinak Ranjan Chakravarti has taken the centre stage in our volatile politics, albeit for the wrong reasons. He has incurred the wrath of the BNP who has demanded his withdrawal immediately. According to media reports, the High Commissioner made disparaging remarks about the BNP without naming it for opposition to the proposed Tipaimukh dam at a seminar on regional connectivity sponsored by the India-Bangladesh Friendship Society. The Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni was present as the chief guest.

The Indian High Commissioner has also been in the news before his controversial speech while making rounds in the Secretariat, explaining to the Ministers that the Tipaimukh dam will not be harmful for Bangladesh and that it would not be constructed in violation of international law. His efforts have been reasonably successful as some of the Ministers have supported him in the media; although, outside this small circle, significant opposition has been building up against the dam across a wide section of the people.

In fact, environmental groups and the civil society in Bangladesh were already at work articulating public opinion against Tipaimukh dam before the High Commissioner's speech. In Manipur where the dam will provide electricity and control floods, indigenous people have described it as a "death trap." Environmental groups there also have fiercely objected to this dam. There is a whole literature available on the internet on vicious opposition inside India to Tipaimukh. Quite expectedly, the BNP, sensing the political potentials, has been leading the opposition to the dam.

The issue has all it takes to arouse passion in Bangladesh. If constructed, it will affect Bangladesh's northeast the same way the Farakka Barrage has started environmental degradation in the north-western part of the country. This dam, like the Farakka, is on an international river that India has planned without proper consultation with Bangladesh as the lower riparian. The site of the dam is on an earthquake prone zone that raises the possibility of devastating the north eastern part of Bangladesh with water if the dam is destroyed by an earthquake in future.

The High Commissioner has not cared to take note of the passion building in Bangladesh or opposition in his own country over the dam. He said instead that Bangladesh has no position under international law to object to the project. The High Commissioner has dismissed the opposition to the dam as “India phobia” implying that the BNP is responsible for it, although to a vast majority of the people of Bangladesh, this is patriotism. In fact, thanks to the High Commissioner's efforts, he has brought “India phobia” and patriotism to mean the same in the context of the Tipaimukh issue.

The high commissioner's explanation that the proposed dam would not violate international law and, therefore, Bangladesh has no right of objection is very simplistic. There are serious legal issues that could be subject of a separate article. Additionally, Bangladesh Water Development Board officials in 2003 had informed through the media that the Tipaimukh dam is part of a grand plan to connect thirty international rivers that flow from India to Bangladesh by building man-made canals and dams to divert water from India's flood prone northeastern region to the relatively arid central provinces. The high commissioner has not mentioned about these serious matters concerning the dam that the public of Bangladesh are learning nevertheless as they become more and more concerned with the potential dangers.

In Bangladesh, we are more tolerant than any other capital in giving leeway to foreign ambassadors and high commissioners over their activities as guests in our country. We tolerate them even when they address press conferences to openly accuse us of being corrupt, ungovernable, etc. in contravention of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. In this case, the Indian high commissioner has trashed public sentiment over a very volatile issue and provoked the BNP, a major party in Bangladesh that has twice formed the government, leaving it with little choice than to react in the manner in which they did. He disparagingly made statements that questioned the expertise of Bangladeshi experts and accused opponents of the dam for “lies” in projecting the dangers of the dam.

The high commissioner should have been summoned to the Foreign Ministry for an explanation for these remarks, particularly those hinted at the BNP. Unfortunately that was not possible because the foreign minister was present when the high commissioner made his remarks. However, she chose to remain silent and gave the BNP an opportunity to shoot at two targets with one bullet. They have been looking for an opportunity to confront the high commissioner for his views on Tipaimukh in recent times. He has given them this opportunity in a silver platter by his speech. Dipu Moni's silence has come as a “political bonus” to the BNP as they called for her resignation together with the withdrawal of the Indian high commissioner.

The foreign minister seems to be finding herself increasingly on sticky wickets while facing the media. In this instance, the Indian high commissioner spoke before she did. She thus had the opportunity to react to the remarks. If she had an antenna attuned to diplomatic norms and deviations, she would have instantly realized that she has been put on a spot, just like she was when an Indian journalist caught her on the wrong foot with the question on “buffer state” during the visit of the Indian foreign minister in February.

Indian diplomats are well known for their professionalism and their calm under testing circumstances. They never reacted in the manner the present Indian high commissioner has even when provoked. In fact, Indian environmentalists oppose this dam more forcefully than ours do and that makes the tone of the high commissioner's remarks difficult to comprehend. During the last BNP government, the present high commissioner's predecessor was made to listen to an anti-Indian diatribe from then Bangladesh foreign minister in a seminar. She retained her calm during the seminar, which was then considered by everyone as a professional reaction to an unprofessional conduct.

In February this year, the Indian foreign minister visited Bangladesh as special envoy and met the army chief without meeting the leader of the opposition. In April, the Indian foreign secretary also met the army chief. These meetings have raised questions and concerns in Bangladesh about Indian intentions. The high commissioner's speech enhances these concerns because it suggests that India's diplomacy vis-à-vis Bangladesh is becoming more assertive and arrogant and less helpful for development of better Bangladesh-India relations.

Bangladesh is a deltaic plane where the rivers that flow from India through her into the Bay of Bengal give her the fertility to sustain one of the most densely populated parts of the world. The grand Indian Plan will turn this fertile deltaic plane into part desert and part land unfit for agriculture due to rising salinity. The proposed Tipaimukh dam will carry on this dangerous process started by the Farakka barrage by destroying the fertile Sylhet division that receives water from the Barak River into its Surma and Kushiara rivers. The high commissioner has suggested generation of electricity as a main reason for construction of the Tipaimukh dam. In fact, it will generate only 400 MW of electricity. If India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan cooperate for building dams in Nepal where the terrain is natural for such projects, then there would be ten times more electricity with the added advantage of controlling dangerous floods in these parts. The argument of electricity generation from Tipaimukh dam is therefore a very weak one indeed compared to environmental threats and damages to Bangladesh-India relations that it would surely cause.

The prime minister correctly sensed that the Indian high commissioner has raised a politically harmful controversy for her party and Bangladesh. She has therefore asked the BNP to send its own experts to study Tipaimukh, whose opinion would be considered in adopting Bangladesh's response. The ministers have also stopped talking about the dam. The high commissioner's speech may in fact become a conduit in bridging the AL-BNP divide against Tipaimukh for its dangers to Bangladesh. It should now move the foreign ministry to enforce norms in the way ambassadors act in Bangladesh.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies

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