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Gowher Rizvi: ‘(NRC) internal exercise, why should we raise it?’

The fact that Prime Minister Modi has chosen to come to Bangladesh — the first overseas trip in post-Covid period — shows the importance he is attaching to Bangladesh, said Rizvi.

Written by Shubhajit Roy |
Updated: March 26, 2021 7:14:51 am
Sheikh Hasina, Narendra ModiGowher Rizvi said, "Today's problems are much more difficult. There are smugglers, drug peddlers there are terrorists, there are human trafficking. So, we need to work together and see how we can reduce this." (File)

Shubhajit Roy speaks to Gowher Rizvi, Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina’s foreign affairs advisor on PM Modi’s visit, bilateral ties, the Rohingya issue and the NRC.

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What are your expectations from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit more than five years later?

This is a very important visit for us. The fact that Prime Minister Modi has chosen to come to Bangladesh — the first overseas trip in post-Covid period — shows the importance he is attaching to Bangladesh. The fact that he is coming not only for this centenary celebrations of Bangabandhu, but also this is the golden jubilee of Bangladesh’s independence. And so, in many ways, he is coming both to celebrate our 50 years, but also to celebrate what we did together in 1971. So in some sense, our independence celebration is a joint celebration for India and Bangladesh. It is very significant. Yes, we gave lots of lives, 3 million lives, but without India’s help, and without Indian soldiers shedding their blood, we may have had to struggle for many, many more years.

He is the first head of government who is going to go to Tungipara to pay his respects to the Father of the Nation (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman). And this single act has greatly endeared him to every one in Bangladesh.

He is making it a very special occasion. While the occasion for his visit is celebratory, obviously, we have a lot to talk. Bangladesh and India relations are deeper, wider and better than any time in our 50 years of history.

You will say, what about Teesta? What about border killings? You will say and I will also say yes, but you know what needs to be recognised is how we have cleaned the table of all irritations and problems that exist. Large problems — border demarcations, adverse possession of territories by each other, resolution of the enclaves, the famous Teen Bigha. Today there is free trade, free export duty free, quota free to India, our inland rivers are open to Indian exporters. Bangladesh is allowing transit through its territory, roads, ports and rails.

We have removed all mental and legal impediments. We have now reached a point where we need to go and explore new horizons and this is what we hope will happen during this visit.

We need to be strategically integrated, so that India and Bangladesh can take advantage of each other’s facilities and abilities. This is how we will maximise and grow our trade and industry. At the same time, we also need to play globally with one voice.

India is an aspiring superpower, it is aspiring to become a permanent member of the Security Council… there are many global issues like environment, global warming, trade, access to market…the two countries should strategically integrate their policies and standards and positions to maximise. We are a small country compared to India, but by doing this, we can punch much more than our weight. We also benefit just as India will benefit. And today there is no impediment.

But, what about the Teesta river water-sharing issue?

People will talk about Teesta. Of course, it is an enormous irritant. Many have made Teesta as a symbol for the failure or unequal relationship between the two countries. Bangladesh knows that we have an agreement, a draft agreement, a formula and we are hoping that India will resolve its domestic problems vis-a-vis West Bengal and sign it. Sooner it is signed, you know, this one remnant will go away.

And, the border killings…they have been a concern too?

…In 2009-10, we had put high emphasis on this. And in the meeting between the two Prime Ministers in Delhi in 2010, the two Prime Ministers had declared that the frontiers will be borders and they will be frontiers of peace. We had brought down border killing to single digit from triple digits. Unfortunately of late, this has increased. This doesn’t mean it is a result of bad relations.

Today’s problems are much more difficult. There are smugglers, drug peddlers there are terrorists, there are human trafficking. So, we need to work together and see how we can reduce this. Bangladesh has a very special relationship with India. We will be happy if India will complete the border fencing, because we believe good fences make good neighbours. It reduces cross border…all sorts of illegal activities. But at the same time, you have to make a determined effort — one life is too many.

What’s the threat perception after the Holey Artisan Bakery incident (in July 2016)?

First, the international media went berserk saying Al Qaeda had infiltrated into Bangladesh, these are Al Qaeda forces, these are Islamic State forces. That I can tell you was never true. Yes, some of our people may have been inspired by that. But we never allowed them to infiltrate our society. We were very vigilant. Extremely vigilant.

The way Mumbai shook India, Holey Artisan shook us. That form of barbarity, brutality, gory murder of men, women. This had never happened in Bangladesh. We were, I can tell you, for days, we were dazed — how did this happen in Bangladesh.? Well, mercifully, we have very good counterterrorism operations here, we cooperate with India and other countries of the world on counterterrorism. We have gone for counterterrorism operations.

But, one very important reason why we succeeded quickly is that our Prime Minister involved the entire society in that fight. Every family was told to keep a lookout on their children, if they were behaving oddly. Schools and colleges were told if any student is missing from school, immediately inform the parents and the police. Villages and communities were informed of any suspicious person you see in your community. The result was the total population was involved in fighting these terrorists. Obviously, we have avoided any serious terrorist attacks since then. But it is an ongoing struggle. You are only safe until it happens again. So, nobody can say but we are confident that we have dealt with it. And we have built up capacities. The Indo-Bangladesh cooperation on intelligence-sharing has been very helpful. Both countries have been apprehending criminals and under our agreements, handing over them to each other. So, working together, we are also resolving that.

There is a perception in Delhi that China is making its moves in Bangladesh. How do you address that concern?

Let me say, firstly and categorically — India is our most important neighbour. And we have the importance of our relationship with India. And as a result of that, Bangladesh is today domestically stable, politically stable and prosperous. A stable, prosperous, democratic Bangladesh is in India’s interest. And our relationship with China is not a zero-sum game, that if we develop a relationship with China, it must be at the expense of India. Absolutely not. Countries have multiple relationships. And our relationship with China is very much confined to investments and development projects. And this is not by way of a special preference. As you know, for all these international tenders, our procurement has to satisfy the international standards of procurement through open tender. Chinese have a unique advantage in outbidding even a country like India.

Countries like the United States don’t even compete with China. However, even then we have been very mindful. We do not want to create a situation where we have borrowed more than we can repay.

We have learnt from Sri Lanka, we have learnt from Djibouti. So we keep a very balanced, calibrated investment policy. Like India, we also have a huge balance of trade deficit with China. But it is in the nature of trade.

There was a huge concern that China will build Bangladesh’s deep seaport. Are you hearing anything of that sort? We know how to guard our sovereignty. We became an Independent State through a war of liberation. We very carefully monitor our borrowings. We are in a very healthy position insofar as our foreign repayment debt repayment is concerned.

But in order to fully realise our connectivity potentials, Bangladesh wants to be a hub, not only in the sub region, but within south and south east, we need more investment in transport infrastructure. On our own, we cannot do it.

Bangladesh took in about 1.1 million Rohingya refugees at a huge cost to its economy. How are you dealing with the situation?

In 1971, India opened its borders to us. India did not know that we would leave India, that refugees will return within nine months. That experience has coloured our Prime Minister’s outlook. So when Rohingya came, all the advice to her was — keep the borders locked. She allowed them to come, she said — we will share our food, let them be safe. And when they are safe, they can go back to Myanmar honourably, with dignity and in safety. We have kept our promise. Obviously, the long-term solution is not in Bangladesh. It is in Myanmar. Myanmar must take its own people back. And we know that Myanmar is not often amenable to reasoning. They make promises, they sign agreements every time. And so far, in three years almost, not a single Rohingya has gone back. We appreciate India’s role. Just, as we appreciate China’s role. Both these countries are bringing persuasion on Myanmar to accept their obligations. India has helped us, supported us with material aid for the Rohingya. You know, there’s a lot of clamour and there’s a lot of noise and the burden is on Bangladesh. Same thing happened in 1971. India bore the brunt of the weight of the refugees, the whole world clamoured. So this is the reality.

I mean, we built special facilities to move some of the Rohingya to safer places in Bhasan Char at an enormous cost. And how were we rewarded? We were criticised internationally that we have removed them without UN inspection. For God’s sake, did the UN inspect the suitability of Cox’s Bazar when 1 million refugees came? Again, we hosted them and to the best of our ability we housed them.

But in this case, we have actually provided standard quality accommodation. And yet we were criticised for that. What we would hope, is instead of criticising, please know the problem is in Myanmar, not in Bangladesh. Please fix the problem there, so these refugees voluntarily go back in safety and with dignity.

There was a strain in India-Bangladesh ties after the NRC issue came up. How do you view that?

At the end of the day, this is an internal exercise going on in India. Why should we interfere or raise this in our bilateral relationship? And if even a small percentage of the number that are being claimed, turned out to be Bangladeshis, genuinely Bangladeshis, obviously their home is Bangladesh. We will take them back. However, we will only take them back once we are satisfied as is the normal procedure.

Our consular people will have to establish that there they are genuinely Bangladeshi nationals. Now, we have illegal immigrants in Europe, whenever European government tells us, our Consular people go there, investigate it, interview them and then we do it. We have no reason to worry about it. I cannot imagine India will forcibly do what Myanmar is doing — make people Stateless. That is not India’s way of doing things. And India is a signatory to the Convention against making people Stateless. So we are talking for those who are Stateless. That is your business, not ours.

What’s your view on the outcome of the Bengal polls?

Again, you are inviting me to comment on your internal matters, which I will not say. I will say this much that we have a very special relationship with West Bengal. And this special relationship of shared culture, language, literature, music, food, proximity will not be disrupted by the outcome of the election.

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