Wednesday, February 21, 2024

And as Manmohan Singh goes to Bangladesh …


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By Humra Quraishi

It would be appropriate if I go ahead and put this rather detailed conversation I’d had with Gowher Rizvi – who is Advisor and Special Representative of the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina …This interview was conducted several months back – around the time when Rizvi was appointed her advisor and accompanying the Bangladesh PM to New Delhi to sign that special Accord with India .

You have been ‘ handpicked’ , so as to say, to play the role of an advisor to Prime Minister of Bangladesh , Sheikh Hasina .What have been advising her on ? What changes /positives can one expect to see because of your inputs?

GR – Bangladesh, like India, has a parliamentary democracy and the ministries are headed by ministers most of whom are also elected members of parliament. In a cabinet system the prime minister is traditionally ‘primus inter pares’ or the first amongst equal. However over time the position of prime ministers in all parliamentary governments has changed. Increasingly the prime minister has become burdened with large numbers of executive and policy decisions. Prime Minister Hasina has recognized the burden and demands on her time and has appointed a number of advisors to ‘assist and advise’ her in the discharge of her responsibilities. It is important understand that while the advisors enjoy the status of a cabinet minister they do not have any line responsibilities nor do they exercise an executive authority. The role of the advisors is mainly to assist the prime minister both in the discharge of her duties and effective policy making. I was appointed as her advisor for International Affairs but essentially I do whatever I am called upon do. In fact I undertake any special project that the Prime Minister chooses to assign to me.

There’d been criticism from the Bangla Opposition political parties ( Khaleda Zia and the Jamaat -I Islami ) to the Accord signed in New Delhi between Sheikh Hasina and Manmohan Singh governments .Comment

GR – Indeed Begum Zia has opposed the various agreements that Bangladesh has reached with India. However Begum Zia seems to be opposing for the sake of opposition. In fact she candidly admitted that she had never even read the joint communiqué setting out the details of the accords. It is sad and cynical but that unfortunately is the reality of ‘opposition’ politics.

What does Bangladesh gain from this Accord ?

GR – I think it would be better to rephrase the question by asking what do both India and Bangladesh gain from this Accord in order to understand the spirit and philosophy that informs the agreements. It is a completely win-win agreement that has ever been negotiated between any two countries in the region and I believe has set an example and a benchmark for other bilateral agreements between the countries of South Asia. The accord has sought to remove all the irritants that have dogged the relationship between the two countries, has made mutual trust and interests as the basis of the relations between two equal democracies, and laid the foundation for realizing the full potentials for cooperative relationships between the two countries. The immediate agreements on security, border demarcation, trade, connectivity, environment, water, investments etc. are historic and wide ranging but these are only the tip of the iceberg. The real significance of the agreement is in the long term cooperation and the enormous economic benefits that will accrue to both countries from this cooperative relationship. In fact this agreement has been correctly described as ‘transformative’ and a ‘game changer’.

The two constant and rather obvious friction issues between India and Bangladesh have been disputes arising from water sharing and the killings on the border .Will the Accord provide relief on these two fronts ?

GR – The issues are complex but the answer is absolutely and unequivocally affirmative. Both these critical issues were fully discussed and addressed. We went to Delhi with a fervent belief that the loss of one life – civilian or armed personnel – is one too many. We want to transform the border of confrontation and conflict into one of peace and prosperity. We have reached substantive agreements on border demarcation, on adverse possessions and for solving the problems of access to the enclaves. We are actively working on the demarcation of the last few miles of the border. It is our hope to complete the border agreements in the next 3 months. We have not stopped there. We are working to make sure that our border security personnel engage in confidence building measures and the commanders hold ‘flag meetings’ periodically to resolve outstanding issues before they actually flare up into cross border firings. And finally we have also addressed the question of border trade and have agreed to set up a number of border markets where people from both sides of the border can come and trade.

Water is of critical importance to the people of both countries and our starting point in the discussion was that shortage of water is hurting our people on both sides. However we also took the view that this is not a zero sum game in which the gain of one side is the loss of the other. We agreed to work on a way to create a win-win situation for all our peoples by thinking in terms of joint-management of water resources, augmenting the quantity of the water available, understanding each others’ needs carefully and harnessing the water usage by avoiding wastage. We all understand that the rivers that run through our countries cannot be managed, trained or harnessed in piecemeal efforts by different countries but rather through a joint strategy for managing the entire basin. The rivers – from head to mouth – are one single entity and have to be managed as such.

Obviously we have to also ensure that water distribution is fair and equitable. With this in mind we have agreed to jointly collect hydrological data and enter into ad hoc interim agreements that will address the needs of both the countries. Like elsewhere we believe the problem of water will be best resolved cooperatively and working jointly.

This subcontinent is going through turmoil , with unease/tension between the neighbouring countries .What could be the emerging scenario in the coming years ?

GR – I believe that our recent Indo-Bangladesh agreement is a watershed event in the history of the subcontinent. It has really established what can be achieved by moving away from confrontation and pin-pricking to cooperation. The great success of India economically has given Indian leaders a confidence that enables them to deal with neighbors with generosity and understanding that was often perceived to be lacking in earlier periods. India has offered one billion dollars in concessional loan to Bangladesh that would have been difficult to imagine only a few short years ago. India has joined Bangladesh to help in building and upgrading its transport infrastructure which will benefit both countries. The decision by India to provide 250 megawatt of electricity as a priority will help to speed up industrialization in Bangladesh. It will provide technology and investment. I believe the other countries of South Asia will be watching the Indo-Bangladesh agreement and its implementation with keen interest and I will not be surprised if this agreement becomes the turning point in improved relationship between India and her other neighbors. ..As I said before this is just the beginning; and the agreement between Bangladesh and India should be seen as an investment in our vision for the future of South Asia. India is rapidly emerging as an economic superpower and it is our hope in Bangladesh we can become partners with India in our progress and development and can partake in India’s affluence. It is our hope that India will give us more unrestricted access to its huge market and unilaterally allow us duty free access. The prosperity and stability of Bangladesh is just as much in India’s interest as it is in our own.

Right -Wing Indian politicians heap blame on Bangla refugees living in India , for several of the prevailing problems .Also, comment on the irony – we have refugees from all over the world living here yet why these sharp negatives where Bangladeshi refugees are concerned ?

GR – This is part of India’s internal politics; it will be inappropriate for me to comment on it. …This is something that you might be able to explain better. Nor do I have the information to comment on this.

How factually true is the oft heard statement that Bangladesh provides a safe haven for terrorists ?

GR – One reads many things in the newspapers but it is difficult to comment with any certainty. However the question of our respective territories being used by terrorists and extremist groups has been in the forefront of our discussions. Both governments are unanimously agreed that we shall not allow our territory to be used against the other. Our leaders and security agencies are working closely to make sure that this does not happen. What I can say with complete confidence is that no foreign group is operating from within our boundaries and that we will not allow any Indian or any other foreign group to use our territory for cross-border terrorism or infiltration. It is not in our interest to allow outside groups to use our territory, it is not good for Indo-Bangladesh relations that is based on trust and goodwill; and it is not good for the region. Besides as I said we have been the victims of terrorism and our Prime Minister is a leading figure in a regional effort to root out the terrorists.

With SAARC getting reduced to some sort of bureaucratic -political formality , in your opinion is there some formula to hold this sub -continent strung together ?

GR – I would agree with you that SAARC is a failure. It may not have achieved its full potential and there is plenty that it could have done. However, today more than ever we recognize the importance and the necessity of both regional and sub-regional cooperation. The policy of confrontation that has often characterized our relationships in South Asia has been disastrous for our people. The problems of South Asia cannot be solved through confrontation but only through cross-border and regional cooperation. All the major issues facing South Asia – poverty, hunger, disease, environmental degradation, trafficking in women and children, small arms and drug smuggling, scarcity of water, public health issues and epidemics, trade and investment – are issues that cannot be resolved by any single country however large or resourceful. These problems can only be dealt through cooperative endeavors and cross-border collaboration. SAARC should be a major player in this endeavor. But there are also numerous other regional organizations – governmental and non-governmental – that are working to work regionally to address these issues. The importance of regional cooperation must not be underestimated.

(The writer is a columnist and journalist and has authored Kashmir – The Untold Story amongst other books)

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