West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee declared that the Teesta doesn’t have enough water flowing down it to share with Bangladesh. She told visiting Bangladesh premier Sheikh Hasina Wazed that with dams being erected on the river in its upper reaches at Sikkim, the flow of the river has gone down drastically. What she left unsaid was that a major share of the remaining water of the river was being diverted from the Gajadoba barrage over the river in West Bengal.
Mamata has given the impression that sharing a greater quantum of the water of the river with Bangladesh will amount to denying the farmers of north Bengal water for irrigating their farmlands. She has told New Delhi that she would not be able to go against the interests of the farmers of her state.
But that is not the entire truth. In fact, that may just be a minor reason for opposing the Teesta water agreement. Fact is, hard-line Islamists in Bengal want Mamata to oppose the deal, and she seems to be merely obliging them. These hardline Salafi Islamists have very close ties with, and some are even members of, the proscribed Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). Given Mamata’s pre-eminent position in the state, it would have been quite easy for her to convince farmers in north Bengal to make do with less water from the Teesta for the sake of better relations with a neighbouring country and in the greater interests of the nation. The fact that she chose not to do so veils the real reason for her opposition to the Teesta deal.
The logic of the Islamist hardliners opposing the Teesta deal, even when it would translate into enormous benefits for Bangladesh, is simple, even though warped and evil. If Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina manages to wrap the deal before the 2019 general election in that country, it would bolster public support for her and she would sail to an an easy victory. That would automatically translate into a huge setback for the Islamists who are being hunted down by Hasina’s Awami League government.
Over the past few years, Islamist hardliners and the JMB have been on the run from a massive crackdown on them by the Hasina government. The hard-line and anti-India Jamaat-e-Islami, a political party aligned with the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), has also been in the cross hairs of the Hasina regime, and a number of its top leaders have been executed for their involvement in the 1971 genocide that resulted in the deaths of up to 30 lakh Bengali-speaking men and women and rape of up to four lakh women.
The Awami League government has been relentless in its pursuit of Islamist hard-liners, resulting in many of them taking shelter in neighbouring West Bengal. According to Indian intelligence reports, a few hundred JMB and Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (HuJI) men and women have been sheltered in Bengal by Islamist hard-liners, mainly Salafi maulanas, within the state. These Bangladeshi Islamists are actively plotting Hasina’s downfall since she is seen as the driving force behind the crackdown on them, the latest being the execution of the HuJI chief Mufti Abdul Hannan and two of his associates a few days ago.
With their backs to the wall and many of their leaders being executed, facing execution, under arrest or in exile, it has become a last-ditch battle for survival for the Islamists in Bangladesh. They know that if Hasina returns to power for a third term in 2019, they will be rooted out of that country. And their only bet for survival is the BNP’s return to power (the BNP is allied to the Jamaat and is also anti-India and pro-Pakistan). Thus, they don’t want Hasina to gain any advantage before the polls. Getting New Delhi to sign the Teesta deal would confer a huge advantage on Hasina and, hence, the Islamists of Bangladesh and their friends in Bengal want to avoid that by all means.
Mamata is heavily dependant on the Islamist hardliners in Bengal for her Muslim vote bank. She has made them so powerful by conferring huge undue favours on them that they now command the allegiance of an overwhelming majority of Muslims in the state. Mamata’s various acts favouring the hard-line Islamists have resulted in the moderate Muslims being sidelined in the state. Salafi maulanas like Maulana Nuroor Rehman Barkati have her ears and she is said to heed their advice. She is beholden to them for their support and for the Muslim votes they deliver to her.
Many Trinamool Congress leaders who are unhappy with the excessive influence wielded by hard-liners like Barkati over Mamata say that it is on their advice that the Bengal Chief Minister does not want the Teesta agreement to be signed as long as Hasina is in power in Bangladesh. It is at their behest, it is learnt, that Mamata offered Hasina waters of Torsa and four other minor rivers (which run dry through most of the year anyway) instead of the Teesta, knowing fully well that the offer was hardly worth even considering.
Mamata, thus, is merely playing the game hatched by her Islamist hard-line advisers who desperately want the Awami League defeated in 2019 and the BNP in power. Insiders say that Mamata’s show of warmth towards Hasina is very artificial and she is quite opposed to any step that would give Hasina an electoral edge over BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia. Trinamool leaders who are uncomfortable with Mamata’s closeness to Islamist hard-liners say the hard-liners now dictate Mamata’s agenda in many spheres, including her dealings with Bangladesh.
Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.
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