‘Joint statement should have pledged end to border killing’

Sohrab Hassan | Update:

Hemayet UddinFormer foreign secretary Hemayet Uddin has cautioned that if the hype created by prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s just-concluded visit to India loses momentum with doubts and mistrust, Bangladesh’s relations with India will be taken back to the status quo.

In an interview with Prothom Alo, he said that the urgency of bringing border killings by BSF men to zero, stopping smuggling of phensidyl, and commitment to SAARC, should have been mentioned in the joint statements issued by the two prime ministers.

“I also feel that the present imbalance in trade with India has not been adequately reflected in the outcome document,” said the former Bangladesh diplomat.

The full text of the interview is given below:

Prothom Alo (PA): How do you evaluate the India visit of prime minister Sheikh Hasina?

Hemayet Uddin (HU): Bilateral relations with neighbouring countries are priority in our foreign policy and this assumes greater relevance in the case of India which is our closest neighbour. Bangladesh-India bilateral relations have never been better than now. This has been reflected at the extraordinarily warm reception that was accorded to prime minister Sheikh Hasina during this visit.

Mr. Modi’s words of recognition of prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s “strong and decisive leadership” for bringing about an “extraordinary transformation in relationship and achievements of the bilateral partnership vindicates the point.

Prime minister Sheikh Hasina must be congratulated for her vision in clearing the way for a stronger and meaningful relationship and partnership by meeting many of India’s longstanding concerns. By honouring the Indian soldiers who participated and were martyred in our 1971 War of Independence at the Manekshaw Centre, she has assuaged a longstanding grievance of the Indian people and leadership in failing to give due recognition and gratitude to India’s role in the 1971 war of independence. The Indian side reciprocated, inter alia, by naming a Delhi street after the father of the nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the joint launching by the two prime ministers of Bangabandhu’s “Unfinished Memoirs”. The 61 para outcome document or joint statement spells out the details of various areas of cooperation and partnership between our two countries. These include reiteration of strengthening existing cooperation as well identifying new vistas.

The visit has made a very positive impact in lifting the existing bilateral relations from a formal state to a more intimate one by naming it “fraternal relationship”. This is what is desired between two friendly neighbouring states, to co-exist as “brothers” and meet each others concerns by keeping national interests intact.

We know that security concerns have always been a major issue for India. The conclusion of the Land Boundary agreement, the Extradition Treaty as well as the delineation of the Maritime Boundary has allayed much of India’s concerns. The Indian foreign secretary, while briefing the press on the ongoing visit, admitted the substantial  improvement in  the law and order and containment of insurgency in India’s eastern and north eastern states because of the strong cooperation from our side.

An allegation that keeps on being labeled against Bangladesh is the so called “illegal immigration” from Bangladesh. This is often termed as infiltration as well. The Indian foreign secretary as well has the Indian high commissioner to Bangladesh, in the  press briefing before the release of the joint statement admitted that this “issue” has large been addressed by liberalisation of the visa regime to facilitate and ease legalised movement The high commissioner admitted the flaws of the online visa application that led to delays and problems.

The various other areas of cooperation including bus and train services, training of judicial and civil servants, energy and power, cooperation in civil uses of nuclear energy , border haats, etc are all positive elements in bilateral cooperation. The question is implementation.

There are some pressing issues of concerns from our side that have not been reflected in the joint statement. I would have been happier to see mention of a resolve of bringing border killings by BSF to zero as well on trafficking of drugs in particular destruction of phensidyl production in border areas, a commitment to carry on SAARC as a strong and effective machine of regional development and cooperation, and a firm assurance from India against inter-linking of international Himalayan rivers (Ganges-Brahmaputra). I also feel that the present imbalance in trade with India has not been adequately reflected in the outcome document. Notwithstanding these, the visit of the prime minister of Bangladesh has lifted our bilateral relationship to a “fraternal” one, and is definitely praiseworthy. It is my hope that the two sides will remain focused on better and stronger bilateral relations between our two countries so that the momentum created is not lost.

PA: Do you think expanded cooperation with India in energy and electricity sector will make us dependent on India?

HU: I do not think this would be the case. In the present world we cannot live in isolation. We have to exploit our own resources as well as keep our options open to energy resources from outside. India is equally involved in exploiting options to meet its energy needs from other countries and far off continents.

PA: Do you think defence deals with India will make any positive outcome for Bangladesh?

HU: A new element in the visit which has drawn much attention was the signing of the memorandums of understanding on defence cooperation. Defence is a surely a sensitive matter and signing of any document that would entail a pact or military alliance would justifiably raise concerns. However the MoUs that were signed, five in number are, in my view, are nothing out of the ordinary if these are indeed limited to cooperation in developing a framework of the cooperation, exchanges and cooperation between the national defence colleges and staff colleges, the Coast Guards.

There is of course one MoU which pertains to a LOC of US$500 million on procurement of defence material. I believe the two sides have clarified that this procurement is not a binding one and it would be at Bangladesh’s needs and requirement to procure defence equipment. As two friendly countries, the military establishments of our two countries do not view at each other as adversaries. We are a peaceful country and we do neither see or pose to be a threat to India or any other country At the same time we will remain free to choose what we would need to meet our defence requirements to defend and uphold our sovereignty and territorial integrity. We proved our invincibility as a nation in our war of liberation  and entering into defence cooperation understandings with friendly countries should not be a matter of concern.

PA: Is the Teesta issue dead now? Do you think the new proposal of Mamata Banarjee is practical?

HU: While all has gone good in the visit, one element came as a spoiler. This is failure to reach an agreement on sharing of the Teesta waters. The stubborn and rigid position taken by the West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee to oppose any deal on Teesta has been unfortunate. Whatever be the position for India, our fair share of waters of the Teesta and other common rivers is vital and we cannot relent on this. The entire Bangladesh nation is looking for a show of statesmanship from the Indian prime minister and we hope that he will live up to his commitment to resolve the issue in the not too distant future. I am also encouraged that our prime minister has taken a firm position on this issue. The commitment and assurances of resolving the Teesta water from the highest level notwithstanding, it is no longer a concern that is confined to the political and diplomatic elite but has transcended to the ordinary person.

Mamamta Banerjee may have her point in holding onto her obstinacy from WB’s point of view and contemplating alternate options, but it is not going to cut ice with us. As a lower riparian country we have our demand for share of the river waters as a legitimate one.  If it was not so then the agreement would not have been made ready for signature during the Manmohan Singh visit. Prime minister Modi has made a commitment and we expect that he will fulfill it. If not, all the good and hype that has been created by the ongoing visit will lose its momentum with doubts and mistrust, creeping back and take us to the status quo. I would hope that it does not come to that.

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