Are you 'satisfied' with our diplomacy?
The just-concluded visit by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India has been described by officials in both the countries as a success that will further cement friendly ties between the two neighbours. However, a good number of observers in Bangladesh feel that the outcome fell short of the expectations.
According to them, the seven MOUs signed during the visit were mostly on routine cooperation. The most significant MOU signed was the one regarding the sharing of Kushiyara river water, which was agreed upon at the Joint River Commission (JRC) meeting a week before.
After reading the 33-point joint statement issued following the bilateral talks and the two leaders' meeting, one conclusion that, I think, exasperated and saddened every conscious citizen was the use of the word "satisfaction," despite failing to bring down border killings to zero. Item 10 of the joint statement says, "Noting with satisfaction that the number of deaths due to incidents along the border has significantly reduced, both sides agreed to work towards bringing the number down to zero."
Commitment to bring down border killings to zero is not new. Rather, it is a reiteration of a bilateral agreement reached on April 26, 2018 to deploy non-lethal weapons on the borders to ensure zero deaths. It took almost seven years to agree on zero deaths since the death of 15-year-old Felani Khatun in January 2011, which caused a global outcry. In 2009, British TV outlet Channel 4 had dubbed the Bangladesh-India border as the world's deadliest border, as by then casualties in the new millennium had crossed more than 1,000. No wonder the Indian rights group MASUM (Manobadhikar Suroksha Mancha), known for monitoring the Indo-Bangla frontier, protested the joint statement last week, saying, "We protest the political intent of the governments that has been reflected through this statement, which is to conceal facts, propagate false information and non-cognisance of the sufferings of the border populace." MASUM estimates that the number of killings by the border guards at the Bangladesh-India border has drastically increased in the past decade to almost 200 per year.
Usual diplomatic practices dictate that differences of opinion between parties are either to be noted in the agreed minutes or in joint statements, or simply referred to by describing that it was "discussed" or "noted." The same statement has such instances. For example, Item 12 in the statement says, "The Indian side requested for early signing of the interim water-sharing agreement on Feni River, taking into account the urgent irrigation requirements of the state of Tripura. The Bangladesh side took note of the Indian request."
Another example is Item 8, where the joint statement notes, "The Bangladesh side requested the Indian side for predictable supply of the essential food commodities from India such as rice, wheat, sugar, onion, ginger and garlic. The Indian side conveyed that Bangladesh's requests will be favourably considered based on (the) prevalent supply conditions in India, and all efforts will be made in this regard."
Given the fact that considerable resentment exists in Bangladesh about border killings, why did our foreign ministry not insist on retaining some mention of the fact, without just expressing "satisfaction"? Is it our foreign ministry's view that no resentment exists on our side about border killings? Does our government agree that those killed are criminals, illegal trespassers or involved in illicit trades, and deserve to be killed? Is it Bangladesh's official stance that even if someone is "suspected" of such crimes, they can just be killed without any chance of protection, especially if they are unarmed? Will no distinction be made for unarmed civilians? Is there any other country on Earth that does not protest deaths caused by the actions of another country, but expresses satisfaction instead because the number was not higher than before? The reason for such "insensitivity" at the Segunbagicha arm of our government needs to be seriously questioned.
It is particularly disheartening and a cause for grave concern as the standard of our diplomacy has been questioned by the foreign media, too. One of the oldest newspapers in India, the Deccan Herald, described our foreign minister as "a garrulous Momen" (September 4, 2022). Following his controversial comment, where he said, "I went to India and said Sheikh Hasina's continuation must be ensured," another Indian newspaper The Statesman wrote, "Many knowledgeable thinkers also say that the remarks of the Foreign Minister tend to signal to the global community that Bangladesh's diplomatic corps is professionally below par and not capable of setting out foreign policy plans and vision." (August 25, 2022).
Can anyone blame commentators who think our diplomatic corps is professionally below par? Or is it the amateurish political appointees who are not only damaging the image of the nation, but also making blunders like expressing satisfaction over limiting the numbers of extrajudicial killings on the border?
Kamal Ahmed is an independent journalist and writes from London, UK. His Twitter handle is: @ahmedka1