By Smita Sharma
No one knows why Mamta Banerjee is backing out on an agreement that would strengthen the hands of India’s allies.
Last week, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid stood up in the upper house of Parliament to place the Constitution (119th) Amendment Bill 2013 for ratification-sparking off the kind of ruckus rarely seen in Parliament over a foreign policy issue.
Assom Gana Parishad member Birendra Prasad Baishya trooped into the well of the house with placards in hand. He had the support of the Trinamool Congress with, with Derek O Brien asking the chair to allow Baishya to speak. The Minister was unable to introduce the Bill and Deputy Chairman PJ Kurien had to adjourn the house for ten minutes. When Rajya Sabha reassembled, the Chair said the matter was to be taken up at a later time. But more drama ensued with TMC members joining the lone AGP warrior Baishya in the well. BJP too came out in support of the protesters. The uproar ended only once Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Rajiv Shukla announced-“the Bill has been deferred .”
The Bill in concern, if ratified by two thirds majority in both houses of Parliament, would bring into effect the 1974 India-Bangladesh land boundary agreement and the draft protocol agreed upon by the two countries. With a common boundary of 4097.6 kms, the Bill when implemented would settle disputes over demarcation at various places along the Indo-Bangla border.
What is interesting is that exactly two years ago – on 20th of August 2011 -then Chief Secretary of West Bengal, Samar Ghosh sent a written consent to then Foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai on the issue. The letter signed by Samar Ghosh said-“I hereby convey the State Government’s approval of the draft Protocol.”
When asked about the same, Trinamool Congress Rajya Sabha member Sukhendu Shekhar Roy told Network18, “West Bengal government and Mamata Banerjee should have been consulted before placing the bill in House. The Centre has, however, held official talks neither with our chief minister or our officials.”
He added, “I am not aware of any letter of consent given by the state government. Even if there is one, discussions must have been held at some level other than the state government or our CM.”
Network18 has access to the letter, whose content Mr Roy forcefully denies. The letter No.176-CS/2011 was sent in official capacity from the office of the Chief Secretary of West Bengal on 20th of August 2011. Ms Banerjee had won a landslide victory in the month of May the same year- and in the next three months would have surely known about what her chief secretary was up to. Notably Samar Ghosh was given an extension of six months on completion of his tenure by Mamata government which was then a part of the UPA.
Speaking to Bangladesh News, Samar Ghosh confirmed-"I did consult Mamata Banerjee and she said we agree, so I conveyed the same to Ranjan Mathai."
Trinamool Congress insists that ‘national interest’ cannot overrule ‘regional interest’ and by handing over 111 enclaves to Dhaka in exchange of 51 enclaves, New Delhi stands to lose strategic land.
Congress’s Pradeep Bhattacharya though argues “people in these enclaves are nobody’s citizens, and this process cannot linger. It is a humanitarian issue that must not be politicized. The Bengal government had earlier supported the bill, but why has Mamata-ji now done a U-turn is beyond our understanding.”
It is a question being asked in Delhi’s bureaucratic circles. Not to forget an already at unease with the bill BJP which looks a divided house on the issue. While senior leader and ex Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha has opposed the ratification of the bill on grounds of no consultation with the opposition and lack of consensus building. Another Former Foreign Minister of the BJP Jaswant Singh says, “There is no opposition to it.Let the bill first be introduced.”
It’s worth noting that during her Delhi visit in July this year, Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Dipu Moni had met Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley to seek his support. A day after, reports suggested, Bangladeshi High Commissioner Tariq Azim had traveled to Ahmedabad to meet the BJP’s Chief Election Campaigner Narendra Modi on the same issue. Later on 8th of August Prime Minister Manmohan Singh accompanied by EAM Khurshid and NSA Shiv Shankar Menon briefed senior BJP Leaders LK Advani, Rajnath Singh, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley to address their concerns.
Despite opposition from the Bengal and Assam state units of the BJP, party headquarter seems to be now coming around on the bill. But it is the feisty Banerjee, who earlier managed to derail the Prime Minister’s attempt at Teesta water sharing agreement with Dhaka, is the new surprise hurdle on the way of the Land Boundary Agreement.
And with January 2014 elections in Bangladesh closing in, a pro-India Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina can only hope that the failure of the agreement will not provide ammunition to her opponent Begum Khaleda Zia. Meanwhile, New Delhi is still waiting to hear why Mamata Banerjee chose to do a U- turn on a matter of international significance, even as it hopes to try and table this bill sometime again this week in the ongoing Monsoon session.
Smita Sharma is the Associate Editor Foreign Affairs/Anchor for IBN7 News
Twitter id: @smita_sharma
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