Politics World Affairs

How does Hasina’s ‘Hilsa Diplomacy’ strengthen India-Bangladesh eternal ties?

hilsa fish diplomacy strengthen India-bangla relation

Good news for Bengal food lovers. A huge consignment of their favourite silvery delight hilsa fish, highly coveted by Bengalis, arrived in Kolkata’s adjoining Howrah wholesale fish market on Tuesday from neighbouring Bangladesh.

A piece of hilsa is enough for a Bengali leaf. The taste of hilsa in Bangladesh is different as a result, its demand is also high as a result, traders are hoping that the business will be good this time as Hilsa comes much before Puja. We have seen this for ages. However, leaf hilsa is no longer just leaves. The silver grain of Padma showed a big surprise. A leap has risen to the table of diplomacy! Hilsa gave birth to Hilsa diplomacy. In the discussion of Bangladesh-India relations, the topic of Hilsa diplomacy keeps coming up.

Especially when the Prime Minister of Bangladesh visits India, the topic comes up. This time was no exception. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina went to India on a four-day visit on Monday. On the very first day of the visit, the topic of Hilsa came before him.

Bangladesh is the largest producer of hilsa. They make good profit by exporting this fish to India. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee requested Bangladesh Commerce Minister Tipu Munshi, who visited India this year, to request Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to send hilsa to India this festive season.

Prime Minister Hasina is using ‘hilsa diplomacy’ to bridge the relationship between the two countries. She first used the hilsa gift for the then Chief Minister Jyoti Bose in 1996 before the signing of the Ganges Water Sharing Agreement between Bangladesh and India. Then, when Mamata Banerjee was the railway minister in 2010, Sheikh Hasina took hilsa fish for her.

Mamata Banerjee took oath as Chief Minister in 2016. Even then, Sheikh Hasina sent him 20 kg of hilsa. Then in 2017, he took 20 kg of hilsa and other gifts for President Pranab Mukherjee. It was hoped that the deadlock over Teesta water distribution would be overcome.

On the other hand, Bangladesh has banned hilsa catching since August 2012. Later, as a token of goodwill, Bangladesh lifted the ban on hilsa exports to India during Durga Puja in 2019.

There are reasons. Hilsa-loving Bengalis are divided into two Bengals. This geographical separation was created through the brutal partition of 1947. 

Due to the partition of India, Bengalis of Bangladesh and Bengalis of West Bengal are living in two separate lands. But hilsa is extracted mainly in Bangladesh. According to the information received, Bangladesh is at the top among 11 countries producing hilsa fish. About 86 percent of the world’s hilsa is harvested in Bangladesh. In the financial year 2019-20, 5 lakh 50 thousand tons have been extracted. The Bengalis on the other side of the Padma therefore look to this side for hilsa.

Many of the Bengalis of West Bengal were born in the territory of Bangladesh. The taste of hilsa eaten in childhood still remains in their mouths. The demand for this fish is also high in Odisha, Tripura and Assam. But the Bangladesh government stopped the export of hilsa from 2012 to 2018 as the production was not considered sufficient.

Since 2019, some amount of hilsa export has been approved only during Durgotsavam. But the demand is huge. The amount of production in Bangladesh has also increased now. Hilsa has become a part of diplomacy mainly due to the increase in hilsa extraction in the country and the huge demand in India. There is a lot of emphasis on Hilsa diplomacy now.

A look at Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s current visit to India makes it even clearer. In this trip, his main request is Teesta water. The waters of the Teesta River, which flows between India and Bangladesh, are very important to Dhaka. Bangladesh has been trying for many years to ensure a fair share of the water of this international river.

The Prime Minister has continued his efforts in this visit as well. And it is observed that she has resorted to Hilsa diplomacy to understand the Teesta water. It is known that he attended a diplomatic reception in Delhi on Monday. Realizing the opportunity, the demand for hilsa was raised to him. Laughing in response, the Prime Minister said, “You (India) are not giving us enough water, so I cannot give you hilsa fish right now.”

In other words, she made light of the moment by using the hilsa topic. When the field is ready, then directly make the difficult complaint. He made it clear that India is not giving its fair share of Teesta to Bangladesh. Bangladesh has goodwill. Expressing goodwill, she tried to say that Bangladesh is able to provide hilsa to India because India is not providing water.

What a surprise, no? Hilsa is standing with equal importance against important issues like Teesta! Playing a major role in the negotiations between the two countries. She answered many more questions on Hilsa. Tried to say that India should come forward with an open mind in advancing diplomatic relations. If they don’t come, they won’t get Bangladesh by their side.

Of course, after a few days, the autumn festival. In this biggest festival, Bengalis in India want hilsa very much. At other times, hilsa does not grow. They want hilsa in the special cooking of the puja. Forget the diplomatic battle and wait for the hilsa of Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina said at the event in Delhi that Hilsa will be sent for the puja again out of respect for this simple wish.

Following the announcement, the export of hilsa has started from Monday. The first shipment has already reached India. It had 16 tons of hilsa. These hilsa are sent in four trucks through Benapole port. According to the Ministry of Commerce of Bangladesh, the government has approved the export of 2,450 tons of hilsa from Bangladesh to India during the Durga Puja season. 49 approved establishments will export till September 30.

Meanwhile, as soon as the first shipment reached the market in Kolkata, a frenzy has started with hilsa. The media there is spreading the news of Padma’s hilsa coming with excitement. According to the information given by them, the auction of hilsa started from Tuesday morning in the Howrah fish market near Kolkata. And 8 and a half metric tons of hilsa was sold in the blink of an eye.

From this, the interest of Bengalis in West Bengal towards hilsa can be estimated. Will they ever realize that the Bengalis of Bangladesh are waiting for Teesta water in the same way? There may be an attempt to create this understanding through Hilsa diplomacy.

But even though it is called a gift of worship, Bangladesh is earning foreign currency by selling hilsa in India. Those identified as staunch opponents of India-Bangladesh relations may be reminded that nothing is happening for free here. Fish is being exported in exchange of money. The export price of hilsa per kg is USD 10. In other words, silver hilsa is also fetching foreign dollars on fasting days. 

Hasina’s hilsa diplomacy will get a big boost. Her Hilsa diplomacy will be considered with importance along with other types of diplomacy like– Ping-pong diplomacy between USA and China and Cricket diplomacy between India and Pakistan.

See Also: How Bangladesh trying to ensure ‘fertilizer security’?

The writer is based in Karnataka, India and has completed a master's degree from Jawaharlal Nehru University in International Relations. He is a researcher, strategic and international affairs analyst. He can be reached at [email protected]


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