The Battle by the Bay of Bengal

In the 1980s, when there was only one state-run television channel in Bangladesh, a Philips advertisement became very popular. In the advertisement, a family is eating dinner, but the light in the room is so dim they can’t pick out the bones in their fish. The mother asks her son to go and fetch another bulb. Suddenly, the modest clay-walled kitchen is illuminated in a bright yellow glow. The man smiles widely and says, “Macher raja ilish, ar batir raja Philips!” Which means, the king of fish is the ilish, and the king of light is Philips.

It may seem strange to use fish to sell light bulbs, but one can never underestimate a Bengali’s love of the thin-boned ilish — a strong-smelling member of the herring family, notoriously difficult to eat but considered a treasured delicacy. And if the ilish is the king of fish, then the river it swims in is equally prized.

With miles of coastline, including what is reputed to be the longest stretch of sandy beach in the world, you might think that we would revere the sea as much as we do the river. That the pomfret, say, would be as beloved as the ilish. Given a choice, though, the river and its fish always come first for Bengalis.

Rivers have an outsize significance for us partly because Bangladesh has battled its powerful neighbor, India, for water rights, almost from the moment our country gained its independence from Pakistan in 1971. Two of Bangladesh’s major rivers — the Ganges and the Brahmaputra — flow from India’s territory. When dams are built in India, the villages downstream in Bangladesh become arid.

The conflict over water began in 1975, when India completed the Farakka dam, which is situated less than 10 miles from the border and diverts water from the Ganges to the Hooghly basin. Finally, in 1996, during her first term as prime minister, Sheikh Hasina signed the Ganges treaty, a 30-year water-sharing agreement with India that recognized Bangladesh’s rights.

Fast forward 18 years, and relations between India and Bangladesh remain fraught. Now that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party are in power in India, the pending Teesta water-sharing agreement, which would secure for Bangladesh a fair share of water from the Teesta and Mahananda Rivers, is in doubt. During his election campaign, Mr. Modi vowed to deport illegal Bangladeshi immigrants — pandering to Hindu anxiety about a Muslim onslaught. Not that Bangladeshi attitudes to India are without some cultural baggage. There is a strong current of anti-India prejudice in Bangladesh, a current understandable in the context of a small country nervous about its mighty neighbor — what the political anthropologist James Scott would call a “weapon of the weak” — but behind which is a deep-seated prejudice against Hindus. As we witnessed earlier this year, postelection violence in Bangladesh often includes land-grabbing, rape and the terrorization of minority communities.

So with a Hindu nationalist government next door, our water-sharing troubles with India are far from over. It has come as something of a surprise, then, that Bangladesh recently pulled off a considerable diplomatic coup.

In July, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague awarded Bangladesh about 7,500 square miles, or about three-quarters, of the sea area of the Bay of Bengal. The verdict gives Bangladesh rights to explore extensive oil and gas reserves that were previously held by India and could now turn around Bangladesh’s economic fortunes.

The ruling had a deep resonance. It was a British cartographer, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who was tasked with delineating the borders of India and Pakistan at the time of the 1947 partition — and his original map hung in the courtroom during the deliberations. Philippe Sands, a British lawyer representing Bangladesh, told me: “It reminded all present of the historic endeavor in which we were engaged, the importance of the moment, the dangers of getting it wrong.”

Bangladesh’s triumph took a combination of skillful diplomacy and astute legal maneuvering. First, India had to be persuaded to accept that the judgment of the court would be binding, which it did, voluntarily. Then the lawyers appointed by the Bangladeshi government had to prove that the unusual coastline of the Bay of Bengal meant that special rules should apply to Bangladesh in the case of sea rights, which they succeeded in doing.

Bangladesh stood up to India and won. Yet it was a quiet victory, achieved with patience and without naval face-offs or chest-thumping declarations to the press. The hope is that future negotiations will follow this example. If issues can be resolved behind the scenes, with little bombast, then in time our relationship with India may shed its tinge of prejudice.

The sea’s boundary has been decided in Bangladesh’s favor, but the rivers’ fate still hangs in the balance. Whether India will accept this verdict amicably, or perhaps retaliate by refusing to sign the Teesta agreement, is yet to be seen. It would be a shame if we lost our rights to the river because we won the battle for the sea.

Tahmima Anam is a writer and anthropologist, and the author of the novel A Golden Age.

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