Interview | International

No question of re-negotiating the Teesta agreement: Gowher Rizvi

Gowher Rizvi.  

Gowher Rizvi, foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, discussed a plethora of issues, including those connecting Bangladesh and India, days before the country’s general election on December 30. Excerpts:

 Bangladesh-India relationship has taken a giant leap forward. But many issues remain unresolved and often argued in Bangladesh that India has not done enough.

Geography, history, culture, language and proximity binds the two countries together. Close and cooperative relations between the countries is not just a choice but also an imperative. The relationship is sanctified by shared experience and sacrifice of our war of liberation. This unique relationship cannot be defined or measured in the language of book keepers ledger of profit and loss. In the last decade the relationship between the two neighbours has reached new heights– virtually almost all outstanding issues have been amicably settled including demarcation of boundaries, resolution of adverse territorial possessions including ‘teen bigha’ and the enclaves; cross-border purchase of electricity; joint power ventures, significant Indian private investments in Bangladesh industries; and untied line of credit amounting to nearly 8 billion dollars. Buses are running from Shillong and Guwahati to Kolkata via Dhaka; direct passenger and goods trains have started to operate again; the waterways are being renovated to enable commerce through riverine routes; and the agreement on coastal shipping has cut the cost of cargo massively. The benefits of connectivity – road, air, rail, river and ICT– is fostering sub-regional cooperation and bringing benefits to India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. We are rebuilding the linkages, especially through river and road, the links which were destroyed in 1965 Pakistan-India war, and visa regime is enormously eased. Even though the adverse trade balance prevails, Bangladesh exports to India has almost quadrupled in the last couple of years.

There are unresolved issues like Teesta.

Indeed, the Teesta water agreement has not yet been signed. But it is important to understand that an agreement on water-sharing has been arrived at; and as far as we are concerned there is no question of re-negotiating the agreement. The agreement could not be signed because of India’s domestic reasons. However, we have been repeatedly reassured by the Indian Prime Minister that the treaty will be signed soon.

There is some concern about Awami League’s alignment before this election with Islamist group Hifazat-e-Islam Bangladesh. Getting closer to such an organization may create problem later…what do you feel?

Hifazat is not a political party but consists but consists of a large number of Madrasah students. Obviosuly any government will have interest in ensuring quality education in Madrasas…to ensure inclusion of secular teaching with science, mathematics, physics, chemistry, English etc. We are working with Hifazat to broaden the curriculum to ensure that they are not snared into radical and extremist ideologies. [But] unlike the Jamaat, Hifazat is not against the creation of Bangladesh. They [unlike Jamaat] do not profess extra territorial loyalties to other countries.

Then there was funding top about 550 mosques and Madrashas from Saudi Arab…that is another concern?

Instead of talking about any particular country, let me say that we are concerned about unchecked foreign donations coming to the country. We have recently revised the foreign contributions regulations act, like India, to prevent money laundering and funding of activities that undermines our plural, secular and multicultural society.

Yes, we have received fund for building some mosques but it is designed in such a way that the space can be used for multi-purposes – it will they will also provide social space where youth and civil society members interact, make music, debate and organize community activities. They are aimed at creating a liberal, open society.

Regarding elections, Awami League has done a lot of developmental work, but still it seems that the party is under huge pressure. Why?

Elections in Bangladesh are hugely competitive; and it would be surprising if the government did not face strong opposition. This is the essence of democracy. You know, election in the subcontinent is noisy and it is so good that people can do this. It indicates that there is a democratic space and there is a space to voice your grievances. It is wrong to think that the Awami League promoted development at the expense of democracy. In fact, the two are integral and you cannot have one without the other. The Awami League is committed to liberal democracy, plural and secular society, and social justice.

Will the election will be free and fair?

Free and fair elections depend on political and constitutional institutions, and they take time to mature. Sadly we have been under military regime for long periods which has emaciated our political institutions. Until the institutions are rebuilt there will be lack of confidence. It is a global experience. It takes time for the institutions– like the Election Commission– to mature. In India, for example, T N Seshan played a significant role to give the EC in India a global stature. We aspire to achieve the same objective.

Jamaat with Bangladesh Nationalist Party [BNP] contesting together seems to be a matter of great concern for Awami League and in India?

Jamaat is an integral part of BNP. They are one and the same. When the Opposition coalition, the Jatiyo Oikya Front was formed its chief Kamal Hossain promised that Jamaat will be excluded. But Jamaat members are contesting under the banner of the MNP.

But you can’t stop someone from contesting the poll if her or his party is not registered with EC?

Bangladesh is secular polity, while Jamaat advocates theocratic state. The EC has refused to register Jamaat as a political party because its stated objective is in conflict with the Constitution of Bangladesh. The Jamaat members are participating under the banner of BNP/United Front.  We must understand that the BNP-Jamaat are joined in the hips and have shared outlook.

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