Documenting follies

Published : May 23, 2003 00:00 IST

India-Bangladesh Relations: Documents - 1971-2002, Volumes I-V edited and introduced by Avtar Singh Bhasin; Geetika Publishers, New Delhi; pages 2,869, Rs.5,000.

THE publication of this set of documents on India's relations with Bangladesh since its birth, marks a milestone in the career of a scholar. Thirty years ago, Avtar Singh Bhasin published Documents on Nepal's Relations with India and China - 1947-66. He updated it in 1994 in two volumes to cover the period up to 1992. The present work in five tomes is, likewise, a considerably expanded edition of a similar work on Indo-Bangladesh relations during the period 1971 to 1994, in two volumes.

Two years ago, India Research Press, New Delhi, published Bhasin's Documents on Indo-Sri Lanka Relations in five volumes (Rs.5,500). The work also covered Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict. In each case, he went to the capital of the neighbouring country and ferreted out documents; some of them were being published for the first time. This was particularly noticeable in the Sri Lanka compilation, which contains important minutes of high-level discussions.

The Nepal compilation contained the unpublished draft of a treaty, which Minister for External Affairs Inder Kumar Gujral tried to palm off to Nepal on March 31, 1990, while that country was in turmoil. Bhasin's comments on the draft were apt: "Events move fast (thereafter) and the emergence of a new democratic order in Nepal deservedly dealt the draft a death blow. The Indian draft smacked of neo-colonialism, to use a haggard cliche, as it sought to bind Nepal in an unequal relationship more tightly than even the 1950 treaty had envisaged. Apart from affirming the 1950 treaty, the draft sought to recreate a defence arrangement of a binding nature and sought to obtain for India monopoly control on Nepal's natural resources thus closing all options for Nepal once and for all."

That shows an unfortunate streak in Gujral and puts a question mark on the Gujral Doctrine. The Treaty with Bangladesh on the sharing of the waters of the Ganga, signed on December 12, 1996 owed little to him. It was accomplished thanks only to the decisive intervention of West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu. Even so, it is less favourable to Bangladesh than the Agreement of 1977, which, unlike the Treaty, contained a binding minimum guarantee clause in favour of Bangladesh. He publicly complained on January 1, 1997: "We saw from the figures that some people are talking things which are not correct." Jyoti Basu was given incorrect statistics by New Delhi.

Bhasin's Introduction to this compilation is as comprehensive and candid. There is, however, one serious omission in his work. The sources are not cited. This is unfortunate. Bhasin expended has not only labour but his own funds in this enterprise. He served in the National Archives, the Ministry of Defence and in the Ministry of External Affairs in various posts, in the last instance as Director (Historical Division). One hopes he will compile a set of documents on India's relations with Pakistan.

THIS work comprises seven sections in five volumes. The first volume covers political relations; the next, the long-drawn-out dispute on the sharing of river waters. The third volume includes documents on commerce, economic relations and transport. The next is on border issues and miscellaneous matters. The last volume, which the National Democratic Alliance government has made more relevant, has documents on Bangladesh refugees, illegal immigrants and pre-Bangladesh documents that bear on India's relations with the new state. These include the Radcilffe Award on the boundaries between the two Bengals and between Sylhet district, which went to East Pakistan, and the rest of Assam. Both Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel wrote to Lord Mountbatten as the findings were leaked.

Unfortunately, unlike Documents on Indo-Sri Lanka Relations, which has good maps, this compilation has none at all though they are very necessary; for instance, on the border issues and on the territorial dispute over two newly formed tiny deltaic islands, which India calls New Moore and Bangladesh calls South Talpatty. Discovered by an American satellite in 1974, they became an issue in the maritime talks in 1979. They lie at the mouth of the Hariabhanga river which separates the two countries.

Indira Gandhi personalised India's foreign policy; especially towards the neighbouring countries. This had harmful results. It widened the political divide within the neighbouring country; put the `pro-India' tag on one of the parties and made relations with India an issue in the neighbour's democratic strife. This was true for quite some time in Sri Lanka. It is true to an extent even now in Nepal. But it is markedly pronounced in Bangladesh. Bhasin's introduction brings out the paranoia that was whipped up in Bangladesh over relations with India. The pro-Pakistan constituency exploited it. But he criticises India also for its lapses. Both countries harmed their own interests, as he demonstrates.

No serious student of the subject can afford to neglect this work.

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