Dhaka student murdered for criticising water deal with India

The brutal murder of a student in Bangladesh’s top university highlights the incendiary debate on water diplomacy with India, as well as the silencing of criticism of the government
<p>Sheikh Hasina signed a set of agreements with her counterpart, Narendra Modi, on her recent trip to India [image: Twitter @MEAIndia]</p>

Sheikh Hasina signed a set of agreements with her counterpart, Narendra Modi, on her recent trip to India [image: Twitter @MEAIndia]

Abrar Fahad’s body was covered with bruises. The autopsy report said he died of ‘internal bleeding and excessive pain’ early Monday morning after being brutally beaten up by blunt objects like cricket stumps or bamboo sticks in his Dhaka hostel.

Fahad was a second-year student of the Bangladesh University of Engineering & Technology (BUET), the country’s top university. His alleged murderers are members of the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), the student wing of the country’s ruling political party, the Awami League. The attack was triggered by his Facebook post criticising recent deals with India, including water sharing with Bangladesh.

The incident has led to a string of protests at universities across the country. Many took to the social media to demand justice for Fahad. BUET students put out an eight-point demand, which included the arrest of all the accused and severe punishment.

The police have arrested nine leaders and activists of the BCL out of the 19 accused in connection with the murder.

What went wrong?

Fahad, a student of electrical and electronic engineering department of BUET, was upset with the recent deals signed between India and Bangladesh. He shared his critical views in his Facebook post about the Feni River Deal which was signed on October 5, 2019 by the Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the Indian Prime Minister Narendara Modi. The deal will allow India to withdraw 1.82 cusec (cubic metres per second) of water from the Feni river, which flows into Bangladesh from the state of Tripura in India.

Fahad argued that during the Sheikh Hasina visit to New Delhi, Dhaka had failed to defend its interests on issues such as the use of ports, water sharing, and export of energy resources. Earlier, in a separate post, he had shared his concerns over Bangladesh’s decision to export Hilsa – Bangladesh’s most famous fish – to India.

His last post went viral and he was attacked by the BCL leaders at the university dormitory sometime between 7:00 pm Sunday and 2:30 am Monday. They alleged that he was “interrogated” for suspicion of belonging to the Islami Chhatra Shibir, the student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist organisation linked to the main Opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

BUET is considered Bangladesh's finest academic public university, and has a list of notable alumni to its credit [image by: Syed Zakir Hossain]
BUET is considered Bangladesh’s finest academic public university, and has a list of notable alumni to its credit [image by: Syed Zakir Hossain]
This is not the first time that BCL leaders have been involved in violence in support of the governing party. Last year when two students were killed after a bus ran into a group of them, protestors took to the streets in favour of safer roads. Activists of the BCL attacked the protestors on a number of occasions.

Deals signed by Dhaka and New Delhi

Bangladesh has signed seven bilateral agreements during the recent four day visit by the Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India. These include Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) on the establishment of a coastal surveillance system, cooperation in youth affairs, a cultural exchange programme and the withdrawal of 1.82 cusec of water from Feni River by India under a drinking water supply scheme for Tripura. Agreements on the use of the Chittagong and Mongla ports for movement of goods to and from India and the renewal of a line of credit committed by New Delhi to Dhaka were also signed along with an MoU between Dhaka University and the University of Hyderabad.

Apart from the Teesta and Feni rivers, Bangladesh and India have agreed to exchange updated data and information and prepare the draft framework of interim water sharing agreements six more transboundary rivers – Manu, Muhuri, Khowai, Gumti, Dharla and Dudhkumar.

Read: Can small rivers tie India and Bangladesh closer?

Read: Bangladeshis won’t accept anything short of Teesta treaty

The two premiers also discussed formulation of the terms of reference to conduct a feasibility study for the proposed Ganga-Padma Barrage Project in Bangladesh for optimum utilisation of the water received by Bangladesh as per the Ganga Water Sharing Treaty of 1996. They have talked about starting the Dhulian-Gadagari-Rajshahi-Daulatdia-Aricha inland waterway route down the Padma (the main distributory of the Ganga, which flows through Bangladesh), from Dhulian in West Bengal to the point where the Brahmaputra joins the Padma.  Another route they have discussed under the two countries’ Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade is (to and fro) is along the Gomati River, from Sonamura in Tripura to Daudkandi in Bangladesh, the point where this river flows into the Meghna.

Read: Text of the India- Bangladesh Joint Statement

The Feni River deal and the agreement on the use of Chittagong and Mongla ports by India have triggered criticism in Bangladesh. In an interview with the Bangladeshi media, though KM Anwar Hossain, a member of the Joint River Commission, Bangladesh, said that the withdrawal of 1.82 cusecs (equivalent to 51.54 litres per second) of water from the Feni River under the newly signed MoU will have little impact on Bangladesh downstream.

This, though, was not the main issue. For years the Bangladesh government has been pushing for a water-sharing agreement on the Teesta River, but India has so far avoided committing to it.

This time, too, there were massive expectations. Sheikh Hasina, during her meeting with Narendra Modi, highlighted that the people of Bangladesh are waiting for the early signing and implementation of the Teesta Agreement. In response, Narendra Modi said that his government is working with all stakeholders in India for conclusion of the agreement as soon as possible. The deal is being opposed by the West Bengal government – where the ruling Trinamool Congress Party is engaged in a bitter power struggle with Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

In this context, the new deal on the Feni River giving water to India has triggered massive criticism in Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina’s press conference on her visit is due later on Wednesday. She may have to answer some tough questions, including on the killing of the BUET student.

Even if the amount of withdrawal of water in the transboundary Feni river is very little, the political decision on the management of transboundary rivers between the two countries has had a serious impact on the ground. The murder of Fahad may have been because of violent student politics, but at its core the issue is about the marginalisation from decision making of the voices of people critically dependent on the rivers.