In this Idea Exchange moderated by Shubhajit Roy of The Indian Express, Bangladesh high commissioner to India Syed Moazzem Ali explains why Bangladesh is better on social indicators and why people in enclaves voted to stay with it, says intelligence-sharing between Delhi and Dhaka has stalled terrorist attacks, argues for more road connectivity, and lays down hopes from Modi visit.
Why SYED MOAZZEM ALI?
Syed Moazzem Ali, Bangladesh high commissioner to India, is a career diplomat who served as foreign secretary of Bangladesh between 1999 and 2001, during Sheikh Hasina’s first term as Prime Minister. Considered close to Hasina, his term coincides with the shift in India’s position on the Land Boundary Agreement with Dhaka, which was unanimously passed by both Houses of Parliament. With PM Narendra Modi on a state visit to Bangladesh, Ali is Dhaka’s point person in Delhi to explain the nuances of the new India- Bangladesh relations and the path ahead.
Shubhajit Roy: You have started out on a historic note by being present in Parliament when the Land Boundary Agreement was passed.
I am happy to be here at a time when India-Bangladesh ties are on the rise. The Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) has a personal significance for me too, because I am from Sylhet, which was the land bridge between Assam and Bengal during colonial rule. My father was an Assam civil service officer, so I spent my childhood in various districts of Assam. My maternal grandfather’s house is in Karimganj, Assam. When most of you talk about connectivity, I talk about returning to my maternal grandfather’s house. So the LBA will settle a lot of questions that have remained unanswered for the last 68 years.
The LBA has also resolved the question of adverse possessions that we had with the Indian side. You would recall several border conflicts in the past which mostly involved this adverse possession. Certainly, a 6.5-km stretch of un-demarcated land created a lot of tension. I hope that everything is now over and we can take a final decision in this regard soon. We intend to implement the LBA as quickly as possible because in the past a lot of criminal elements took shelter in these enclaves.
We also look forward to PM Narendra Modi’s visit. Our principal focus will be cooperation in energy, trade, investment, water-sharing and connectivity.
Shubhajit Roy: Bangladesh has recently seen the killings of liberal bloggers in the name of religion. Is secularism in Bangladesh under threat?
Historically, the people of Bangladesh have been secular. Never in the last four decades have we ceded (space) to extremists. The maximum number of seats the Jamaat-e-Islami and others like them could get was 17 out of 350. Since their capacity to come to power with people’s mandate is limited, they resort to violence, such as killing the bloggers, to make their presence felt. Despite utmost vigilance, it is not possible for us to eradicate this form of terrorism. However, in the case of the bloggers, we were able to arrest the principal accused and the investigation is on. The problem is that our judiciary is slow like yours. There is no summary trial to take action or a summary execution.
Sushant Singh: What is the status of the Teesta river-water sharing deal? What can we expect on it during Modi’s visit to Dhaka?
In 2011, an agreement over Teesta was about to be concluded during former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit. But the West Bengal government raised objections regarding the quantum of water they were getting from Sikkim. Discussions were going on between the Union, West Bengal and Sikim governments. So the process is still continuing. Mr Modi had visited West Bengal and I read in the newspaper that home minister Rajnath Singh was also there. So, if that dialogue process is conclusive, we will be happy to sign the agreement as soon as we can. We have been quite patient. Mamata Banerjee, during her recent visit to Bangladesh, made reconciliatory remarks, so we hope something positive will come.
Amitabh Sinha: The Indian government is keen on the land corridor to the Northeast. That reference came up in the Parliament debate on the LBA as well. Where is it placed on the Bangladesh side?
We are talking about connectivity. Previously, it was a sort of defence that ‘Delhi is far, so they cannot come quickly’. But I look at it differently—if you are well-connected, your security is enhanced. Before the 1965 War, East Pakistan was connected with other parts of India through a well-integrated railway system. There were seven or eight transit points, and my uncle wrote a book in which he talked about travelling all the way from Bengal to Peshawar, without even needing to change the compartment. I am basically trying to restore the rail connectivity first, by starting another service along with the Maitree Express. We’d also like to increase the road connectivity, but that will take time. At the moment, we are trying to start bus services between Kolkata and Dhaka, and Kolkata and Agartala via Dhaka. Also, Agartala to Dhaka, and Dhaka to Guwahati. Air connectivity is there but eastern India is still not connected with Bangladesh. We’d like to connect Guwahati and Dhaka. We’d also like to increase our diplomatic presence in Agartala and Guwahati so that people can come to Bangladesh directly without having to go to Kolkata for a visa.
We hope to make some concrete progress during Modi’s visit to Dhaka. We’ll be able to start certain bus services as we have had some trial runs.
Monojit Majumdar: When external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj visited Bangladesh last year, five or six agreements were signed, like starting the Dhaka-Shillong-Guwahati bus service and the five-year multi-entry visas for certain age groups. Is there going to be some progress on those issues when the PM is there?
Surely we have made some progress because now people over 65 and children below 13 do not need a visa. That is one exception. Second exception we made was that official passport and diplomatic passport holders do not need a visa. Thirdly, we are trying to start certain procedures for medical visas. But it hasn’t been done fully satisfactorily as yet. I hope we’ll be able to take some concrete steps during the visit.
Shubhajit Roy: At the last Saarc Summit that took place in Kathmandu, there was a growing chorus among the neighbours, especially Nepal, that China should be given a bigger role in Saarc. Do you see that happening?
Saarc also has a provision for inclusion of observers. The US, China, Southeast Asia, Myanmar, south Korea, Japan, European Union are all observers at Saarc. And there are some countries which perhaps may want to apply for membership. But the question of China, as of now, is a bit premature. Right now, our effort should be to consolidate cooperation within the region. We must try to promote inter-regional cooperation. For example, we don’t have a road to Guwahati, so for me to talk about connectivity to China will be premature.
Sushant Singh: The two major parties in Bangladesh—the ruling Awami League and the opposition BNP—support cooperation with China. China has supplied military equipment to Bangladesh. There has also been talk about development of ports, gas pipelines, oil fields, etc, with Chinese cooperation. How do you reconcile this bipartisan support for working with China vis-à-vis the fact that only the Awami League, and not the BNP, favours cooperation with India?
China has links with south Asia. For example, a number of rivers that enter Bangladesh originate in China. So on some issues, like sharing water, we will have to take note of the presence of China. On the question of a deep sea port, my Prime Minister’s idea is to form a kind of consortium—inviting all countries to take part in the development of this port, and sharing the port with them. I don’t foresee any clash of interest between India and China on this. On defence, Bangladesh and China have had a collaboration for many years. Most of our aircraft are Russian-made. We have collaboration with the US and India too. There are a lot of sources from where we obtain our defence equipment.
We do not view China and India as competitors for our development because we need India’s cooperation on issues where China has no role. For example, for connectivity within the region, China has absolutely no role. If China would contribute to the building of the road, we would like to take their help. Because the United States is not going to come here to build our roads or bridges. So we seek collaboration and cooperation from everybody. But the question is of political alliance. The present government has not pursued any policy which could be construed as ‘anti-India’ or anti any particular country.
Ipsita Chakravarty: There is an impression that Sheikh Hasina’s government is intolerant of the Opposition—Khaleda Zia was confined to a house, not allowed to hold a rally, and the 2014 elections were held even though the BNP withdrew. What is your take on that?
Bangladesh is not as lucky as India, which has had an unhindered democracy. Our democratic institutions are fragile. But we have tried and have been partly successful in having a parliamentary democracy. And in parliament, discussion should take place. Even if a party gets a low number of votes and is in opposition, it does not mean it is not a partner in dialogue or in actions of the government. But the problem arises when you decide to boycott parliament, when you create a vacuum and reduce the entire parliamentary process to a makeshift kind of situation. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in the last election, had made a concession to Begum (Khaleda) Zia—that, if necessary, we can make some adjustments through consultation. But Begum Zia decided to boycott parliament. Even recently, in the municipal election, she decided to contest but withdrew at the last minute.
The best place to express your viewpoint or play your legitimate role is parliament. Not through these cocktail bombs and hartals, like in 2013 and this year too. People’s lives were lost, and the economy suffered. We are all prepared to discuss these issues without any pre-condition or violence. Staying outside parliament and not contesting elections is not promoting democracy. I certainly would like to see a strong democracy, with a good and responsible opposition.
Seema Chishti: Professor Amartya Sen has often cited Bangladesh’s example to show that GDP growth is not necessary for improvement in the social sector. How has Bangladesh been successful on this front?
The ’71 War liberated us from a lot of inhibitions. Once you are exposed to hell, you are exposed to difficult parts of life. The people of Bangladesh today, despite the hartals of 2013 and 2015, have been able to make progress in every sector. Why? Because people are most resilient. If there is a hartal from Monday through Thursday, they will work on Friday and Saturday. And they will compensate for this work. Our exports rose by 15% last year because of the resilience and work of our industrial workers. In the garment industry, 80% of workers are women. There is no such figure in other south Asian countries because emancipation of women is taking place more in Bangladesh than in other parts of south Asia. So on women empowerment and emancipation, and the Millennium Development Goals, Bangladesh has impressive figures which Amartya Sen has quoted time and again.
Seema Chishti: Why do you think that unlike your country, India and Pakistan are struggling on social indicators like maternal mortality, infant mortality, education, etc?
I don’t think in Pakistan the workforce would be free to work in the garment industry the same way as they do in Bangladesh. Number two, Bangladeshi women, unlike Pakistanis, can take part in poverty alleviation and micro-credit programmes. In certain states in India, women emancipation is not of the same degree as ours. A number of European delegations that visited us say that at 5 am, they see thousands of women on the streets going to work in garment factories—something they’ve not seen in other south Asian countries.
But that’s not enough. We should not be all our lives the darzis (tailors) or the garment manufacturers of the world. We should try to promote ourselves. For example, Bangladesh used to be a ship-breaking country. Now, the ship-making industry of the world is preferring Bangladesh because of the high-performance labour. Our problem is we can’t give them enough land to set up their projects. Otherwise, ship-building is far more profitable than the garment industry. By importing 1.2 billion worth of components from Nordic countries as well as from Germany, we can export you ships and make nine times profit, which is much higher than the garment industry. But the garment industry also has the social spin of women emancipation, birth control, percentage of women literacy.
Ritu Sarin: What are your views on the subject of enhanced intelligence-sharing between the two countries, and whether it has resulted in what Indian agencies would like to believe is the shutting down of traditional smuggling groups and points from where both contraband and militant elements are pushed in? Do you expect anything on this during Modi’s visit?
Enhanced intelligence-sharing has put a full stop to the terrorist attacks that were seen during the previous Khaleda Zia government. There are no foreign insurgents or terrorist bases now. We have fully cooperated with other countries of the region, particularly India. We still have to be vigilant. And we do see certain blasts on our border. So we seek cooperation from India. On border management, we have tried to strengthen the mechanism. More meetings are now taking place at various levels. The border killings have decreased significantly, but we’d like to make them zero.
Again, we are not able to eradicate contraband smuggling. It is still going on, particularly between Bangladesh and Myanmar and India. There are border haats now between India and Bangladesh. Goods are exchanged on a small scale at these haats, which will help deter smuggling. If you can exchange goods legally, why would you do it illegally? There will be an exchange of views on this during Modi’s visit, and I hope that we can make some more concrete progress.
Sushant Singh: What is your and your government’s view on the issue of illegal Bangladeshi migrants?
On this issue, certain accusations are hurled at us from time to time. If there is a problem, we can resolve it with political will. Political parties in India have used this issue in the past to corner their opponents saying that these illegals were now a vote bank. During the enclave exchange, we did a survey to find out who would like to opt for Bangladeshi citizenship and who would like to go for Indian citizenship. According to our home ministry, roughly 95% of the people in the enclaves opted for Bangladesh. According to a newspaper report which came out in February, 3,500 out of 54,000 people living in 162 enclaves around the India-Bangladesh border are keen on taking Indian citizenship. The rest have opted for Bangladesh. It was a sort of green card offered to our people. If you want Indian citizenship, apply for a green card now and become a permanent citizen of India. But 95% did not take it up. I am not saying living conditions in Bangladesh are better than other areas of India. India is a huge country. But maybe compared to Assam, or certain areas where the enclaves are, people felt it is easier to live in Bangladesh.
If I ask somebody, ‘Would you like to come to Delhi with me?’, he’ll say, ‘Sir, what’s the point going to Delhi? I’d rather go to Abu Dhabi or Dubai’. But if illegal
migration is an issue here, it is my duty to repatriate any Bangladeshi citizen to his home. And I intend to do it very sincerely. We have to interview the person. If we are satisfied, we issue a one-time pass. And people are repatriate at the border. It happens regularly for the illegal trespassers. And it happens on the Indian side as well.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: Are you saying that Indian political parties exaggerate the issue of illegal migrants?
I am not saying there is no migration or movement. But the way it is projected does not depict the dimension of the reality. It is exaggerated. The movement of people from Bangladesh to the Middle East is also taking place. In Saudi Arabia, we have a huge population. Maybe a number of them do not have documents like work permits, visas, etc. If they have the opportunity, they would go to countries where they can earn more. But still, we should be more vigilant on the border. We can take care of the problem. And for that, we need a more diplomatic process. And I have said we will open a diplomatic mission in Guwahati. Because in Guwahati alone, a mission can give this consular service to the so-called ‘illegal’ Bangladeshis. So, sooner you open the mission, we would like to bring the situation more under control to see how far it is true.
Transcribed by Reeja Jacob & Rajkrishnan Menon