Interview with Dr. Gowher Rizvi, Adviser to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh.

Political scientist Dr. Gowher Rizvi, who is the International Affairs Adviser to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, has been widely engaged in managing conflicts and strengthening democratic institutions and processes in Asia. A former director of the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation and former director of contemporary affairs at the Asia Society in New York, he has taught for nearly two decades at several British universities, including Oxford, and served as the Asia-Pacific head for the Oxford Analytical Daily Brief, a think-tank. His publications span the disciplines of history, politics, international relations and development economics. Dr. Rizvi shared his thoughts on India-Bangladesh relations with Haroon Habib in an interview in the context of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Bangladesh starting on September 6. Excerpts:

How do you see the visit of Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh to Bangladesh?

The visit, by all accounts, is truly historic. It will build on, and take forward, the vision and the transformative agenda charted by the two Prime Ministers during their New Delhi summit in January 2010. The joint communiqué spelled out as many as 46 areas of cooperation that are aimed to wipe out the hostilities and misgivings that previously characterised relations between the two countries. The visit will not only enable the two Prime Ministers to address some of the key outstanding issues — water, power, border disputes, trade and investment — but also spell out the direction and focus of the relations in the years ahead. The two Prime Ministers will seek to expand bilateral cooperation to incorporate sub-regional collaborations that would involve India's northeastern States, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal in the future, and especially to address the problems of water, power and connectivity.

What are the two countries going to achieve out of the summit meeting between Sheikh Hasina and Manmohan Singh, who have jointly initiated a new phase of bilateral relations following the Bangladesh Premier's landmark visit to New Delhi in 2010?

The two Prime Ministers have a large agenda to cover. The entire gamut of the relationship between the countries will be discussed. The Prime Ministers will take stock of the progress of implementation of the agreements outlined in the Delhi summit of January 2010, including the questions of boundary disputes, Teesta river water-sharing, power purchase agreement, trade liberalisation and the modalities for making connectivity more effective, environmental and cultural issues…. They will also look ahead and explore new areas of cooperation to address the many challenges facing the two countries, including poverty, terrorism, and the adverse effects of global warming.

What are the main issues that need to be addressed for a durable relationship?

There are some longstanding issues that date as far back as 1947 and have not been resolved till today. The most important issue concerns the land boundary between the two countries. This includes about 6.5 km of border that has never been demarcated; a large number of enclaves that belong to India and are located in Bangladesh and vice versa; the vexed issue of adverse possession of land where Indians and Bangladeshis are occupying land in each other's country; and the pressing demand for Bangladesh to have access, through Tin Bigha, to its enclaves in Angarapota and Dhahagram.

Second, it is expected that the two Prime Ministers will sign a framework agreement for development cooperation and an interim agreement to share Teesta river water; finalise the operational modalities for the use of transit facilities through Bangladesh; revisit the question of allowing Bangladesh manufacturers access to the Indian market tariff-free; the connection of the Indian power grid to that of Bangladesh; the power purchase agreement between the two countries; joint exploration of energy resources in the Bay of Bengal; joint conservation of the Sunderbans and the tiger reserve; coordinated and cooperative management of the rivers that are shared by the two countries; and a number of other issues. All in all, the meeting between the Prime Ministers is expected to raise the level of cooperation between the two countries to new heights.

Can the present phase of Dhaka-New Delhi relations influence a greater South Asian understanding on ways to achieve peace, stability and development in the tension-torn region?

I think it would not be a great exaggeration to claim that the forging of relations between India and Bangladesh is an exemplar for the region. The experience of the last half a century has shown that the challenges and problems facing the South Asian countries are transnational and transcend the boundaries of the state — poverty, environmental degradation, terrorism, food security, water scarcity, trafficking in women and children, public health epidemics and so forth — and are incapable of being resolved within the jurisdiction of a single state.

Confrontation and force will not resolve these crises. These issues can only be addressed through cooperation and collaboration.

Here, Bangladesh and India have charted a new course and their cooperative approach offers a model for other countries to resolve their problems with their neighbours. India is rapidly emerging as an economic super power and its neighbours can confidently look forward to partaking in its prosperity, trade and technological innovations.

Will the transit facility to India harm Bangladesh's interests in any way, or is it going to open up a new horizon in the region? How do you assess the development in the backdrop of a strong political opposition to providing transit facilities, including the use of Bangladesh's seaports by India, Nepal and Bhutan?

There appears to be a deliberate attempt to spread disinformation to confuse the issues and create an environment of fear and suspicion by those who are opposed to good relations between the countries. Connectivity is considered as one of the yardsticks or indicators for measuring the development of a society. To the extent that Bangladesh is seeking to improve its connectivity with its neighbours — India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar — it will be wholly beneficial. It should also be pointed out that connectivity is nothing new. In the pre-1947 period, the entire region of Bengal, Assam and the northeast were connected by integrated rail and river services. Much of the transport network survived Partition (of 1947) and was only interrupted during the 1965 India-Pakistan war.

Thereafter, the Pakistan government deliberately uprooted the railroad connections, closed many of the border-crossings and imposed restrictions on transport and movement between India and [the] then East Pakistan. However, connectivity was immediately restored after our War of Liberation, and in 1972 Bangladesh and India signed the Inland Water Transport Agreement that provided for multi-modal transportation — rail, river and road — between the two countries. A further effort was made to strengthen connectivity in the 1974 Indira-Mujib accord under the clause for strengthening the bilateral trade.

Sadly, the 1974 Accord was never implemented fully as Bangabandhu [Sheikh Mujibur Rahman] was assassinated in 1975, and the agreement was stalled but not repealed or rescinded. Our effort today is to make this agreement operational through improved and expanded rail, river and road infrastructure.

The ability of India now to transport goods and passengers to its northeast through the much shorter route, via Bangladesh, is clearly a great boon — it will cut down distances, time and costs and speed up the development of the region. For Bangladesh also, this is a complete win-win situation. The country will not only earn a significant fee for the use of its transit facilities and infrastructure, but also improve its domestic transportation, stimulate domestic trade by between 3 to 5 per cent annually, and make Bangladesh an attractive destination for Indian and foreign investment. It will create a large number of job opportunities as new industries are set up to take advantage of the large Indian market. I believe connectivity and transit will have a transformative impact for all the countries of the sub-region — Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Bhutan.

The political opponents of the Sheikh Hasina government, including those who preach extremism and support militancy, are strongly opposing the deals with India signed in recent times or are likely to be signed soon. Do you subscribe to their views?

It would be fair to say that the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), and its Jamaat allies, have considerably toned down their anti-Indian rhetoric and have voiced support for improving relations with India. In large part, there is a growing realisation throughout the country that the path of confrontation is barren and counter-productive. There is also a realisation that India is our closest and biggest neighbour, and the earlier policy of hostility is futile in a rapidly globalising society. But more importantly, all parties understand that the people of Bangladesh overwhelmingly support an improvement in the relationship with India. Interestingly, the anti-Indian bogey failed to garner votes for the BNP.

However, the opposition will not spare any opportunity to embarrass the government and will look for areas of vulnerability. It is, therefore, important to manage the relationship and move away from a ‘zero-sum game' mentality, to recognise that peace and cooperation create a positive-sum, win-win situation for all.

What are your perceptions of advancing democracy, development and cooperation in South Asia, the challenges of extremism and militancy, and the removal of distrust and colonial shadows?

Democracy lies at the core of peace and prosperity in the region. For the first time in the history of the region, all the eight South Asian states have democratic governance, albeit in varying levels. And so long as governments are accountable to the people, they will be obliged to move away from wasteful confrontation and focus their resources on development.

All South Asian states, in varying degrees, have been the victims of political and religious extremism and terrorism. Bangladesh has been subjected to terrorism since 1975, when the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu, was assassinated by a bunch of terrorists. Since then, different extremists have resorted to political terrorism to undermine our democratic, secular and plural society. Most recently, in August 2004, the present Prime Minister was the target of an assassination attempt by her political opponents, who have not reconciled themselves to an independent and secular Bangladesh. We also have a history of cross-border terrorism of which every country has been a victim. It is, therefore, in the interest of Bangladesh and India to cooperate in the fight against terrorism. As a result of this cooperation, both countries have been saved from the scourge of terrorism.

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