One letter, many questions. Bangladesh is shocked by the statement that has come up in this letter! West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has written this letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. There is nothing wrong in writing letters, in the federal system, the Chief Minister of a province can write to the head of the central government on any issue. However the question arises about the Ganges treaty and Teesta water management with Bangladesh. The Ganges is one of the 54 rivers that flow between India and Bangladesh. The Teesta River agreement between India and Bangladesh was not signed due to Mamata’s opposition. On the other hand, the Ganges-Farakka accord between India and Bangladesh was signed in 1996 at the initiative of the then Chief Minister of West Bengal Jyoti Basu, and under the leadership of Deve Gowda and Sheikh Hasina.

By Dr. Arun Kumar Goswami

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on Monday (June 24, 2024) wrote a letter to her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, a day after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s two-day visit to India. There she wrote, ‘I strongly object to any agreement with Bangladesh on Teesta and Farakka water sharing without the participation of the West Bengal government.’ However, according to the information presented by the media, Mamata’s allegations are not true. News agency PTI reported that on July 24, 2023, a committee was formed for an internal review of the Ganges water-sharing treaty. The West Bengal government was requested to send a representative there. On August 25, 2023, the West Bengal government, led by Mamata Banerjee, informed the Centre that it had nominated the chief engineer of the irrigation and waterways department as its representative in the committee. On April 5, 2024, the Joint Secretary of the Irrigation and Waterways Department of the West Bengal government informed the Centre about the amount it would need for the downstream of the Farakka Barrage over the next 30 years.

On the other hand, Mamata Banerjee had earlier conveyed all kinds of cooperation to Bangladesh in resolving the water problem, especially during her visit to Bangladesh in 2015. Responding to the call for a representative to the Internal Review Panel, on August 25, 2023, the West Bengal State Government nominated the Chief Engineer of the Department of Irrigation and Waterways. The news has also been published in the news media of Bangladesh with the question: Why is Mamata lying about the fact that the central government properly informed her about the renew of Ganges water sharing treaty?  .

The Teesta deal was supposed to be signed during the visit of then-Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Bangladesh in 2011, but it was not signed at the last moment due to objections from West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. However, the Prime Minister of India said at that time that they would not take any action that would have an adverse effect.

Since 2011, Teesta water has been withdrawn unilaterally. Last year, the West Bengal government took the initiative to dig two more canals upstream to divert water without following the rules.  According to Indian media reports, Mamata may also create trouble in renewing the Ganges water sharing treaty due to differences with the central government and various issues of local politics in West Bengal.

The Ganges Water Sharing Treaty was signed between Bangladesh and India in 1996. It will expire in 2026. In this situation, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited India in the third week of June 2024. During her meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, she discussed the renewal of the Ganges water sharing treaty. After that, the people of Bangladesh have become very upset about Mamata’s strong objection to any kind of compromise that goes in favor of Bangladesh.

The question is being raised in the conscious circles of Bangladesh, is it not possible to solve the problem of renewing the Ganges Treaty and Teesta water sharing without a Bangladesh-friendly Chief Minister in West Bengal?  Was the Ganges Water Treaty possible in 1996 because Jyoti Basu was born in Bangladesh (then East Bengal)? These questions have become relevant and important in the context of the friendly role of the then Chief Minister of West Bengal Jyoti Basu in making the signing of the Ganges-Farakka Water Treaty possible between India and Bangladesh in 1996 and the threat of the present Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, to the renewal of the agreement and sharing of Teesta water!   The historic agreement was signed by Indian Prime Minister H D Deve Garda and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on December 12, 1996 in New Delhi. This unresolved issue of many years was settled very quickly during their tenure. However, many observers believe that this was possible because of the presence of West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu. At that time, both countries agreed to reach a similar agreement on mutual cooperation for increasing the flow of Ganges water in the long term and sharing the waters of other rivers flowing through the two countries. Jyoti Basu, the then Chief Minister of West Bengal, who was born in Sonargaon in present-day Narayanganj district, had brokered the Ganges water treaty signed between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the then Indian Prime Minister Deve Gowda. He passed away long ago. Former Prime Minister Deve Gowda is also in his 80s. He is inactive in politics. However, luckily the leadership of Bangladesh is in the hand of Sheikh Hasina, the worthy daughter of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. At present, the governments of both countries claim that the golden era of Bangladesh-India relations is going on.  In such a situation, problems are being created due to Mamata Banerjee on various issues including water sharing. The big example of this is that the Teesta water-sharing agreement was not signed even after being finalized. And to deny the renewal of the Ganges accord! However, in February 2015, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee assured Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of playing a positive role in signing the Teesta water-sharing agreement. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had arrived in Dhaka on February 19, 2015 on a three-day visit at the invitation of the Bangladesh Foreign Minister. The Bangladesh Prime Minister handed over a boat to the West Bengal Chief Minister at Ganabhaban. At that moment, Sheikh Hasina said, “Keep in mind that the boat can move.” In response, the Chief Minister of West Bengal said, “You can rest assured. We will play a positive role in ensuring that the water goes. Don’t worry.” While talking about water, the topic of Hilsa (a popular fish of Bangladesh and West Bengal) came naturally. At one point of the conversation, Mamata Banerjee complained about getting less Hilsa. Sheikh Hasina said then that “If the water comes, the Hilsa will also go.” It is well known to all, including Mamata Banerjee, that there are 54 rivers connecting India and Bangladesh. The natural flow of 54 rivers should not be obstructed for political reasons.

As a result of the partition of the subcontinent on August 14, 1947, the then East Bengal joining Pakistan, the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent and sovereign state through the liberation war of 1971, etc., the question of division of many things, including rivers, has now arisen! Bangladesh wants as much water as it can get normally, nothing more. But for the sake of her own politics, Mamata Banerjee is sometimes resorting to lies about the Ganges water treaty and Teesta management, and sometimes talking about love for Bangladesh.

When the Ganges Water Treaty was signed, the then Chief Minister of West Bengal Jyoti Basu and the then Prime Minister of India, Deve Gowda, did not have such a trick in mind. Now Narendra Modi, the head of the central government of India, is quite sincere about the water agreement and Teesta water management with Bangladesh. But Mamata Banerjee seems to have some Pakistani consciousness at work. So, in the name of the interests of West Bengal, he is creating ‘political obstacles’ in the way of the flow of water of the common rivers of India and Bangladesh.

Gautam Lahiri, president of the Press Club of India, said in an exclusive interview to Channel 24 on March 23, 2024, “The Teesta deal is not happening due to India’s internal political reasons. But I know that the Indian government wants this agreement to be implemented. Narendra Modi himself stood beside Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and promised that this agreement will be concluded within our time. I personally think as an Indian that the Teesta agreement is a fair demand of Bangladesh. This should be resolved.” He further said, “it took 40 years for the Land Boundary Agreement to be reached. In comparison, the Teesta agreement talks have started since 2011. Still, I don’t think it’s going to be too late.” Gautam Lahiri then said, “After the elections in India, if it is found that there is no government in favour of Mamata Banerjee and if she is politically weak, then it will be beneficial for the Indian government to go ahead with the deal.”

Mr Lahiri had made the remarks before the Lok Sabha elections of 2024. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Narendra Modi has formed the government for the third time, but Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress has not been weakened. However, it was a Lok Sabha election. The West Bengal Assembly elections will be held in 2026. Shocked by the behaviour of Mamata Banerjee, the people of Bangladesh want a ‘Bangladesh-friendly’ political party to be elected to power in West Bengal in the next assembly elections of 2026. Only then can a reasonable and equitable solution be found on all issues like Ganges treaty, Teesta water management etc.

Professor Dr. Arun Kumar Goswami, Columnist and Director, Centre for South Asian Studies, Dhaka.