So much has moved forward, on trade, on visa, on people-to-people ties, says Bangladesh Minister Shahriar Alam

Bangladesh Minister of State for Foreign Affairs says Sheikh Hasina’s visit was productive on major aspects, rejects concerns over attacks on minorities

Updated - September 09, 2022 01:30 am IST

Published - September 08, 2022 11:18 am IST - NEW DELHI

Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Bangladesh, Shahriar Alam speaks during an Interview in New Delhi on September 7, 2022.

Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Bangladesh, Shahriar Alam speaks during an Interview in New Delhi on September 7, 2022. | Photo Credit: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s ongoing state visit to India ends on Thursday. After a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday, where the Kushiyara river sharing agreement was signed, Ms. Hasina said she hoped the Teesta issue would be resolved “soon”. Speaking to The Hindu, Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Shahriar Alam says the visit was productive, and Bangladesh and India have an understanding of even difficult issues like Rohingya refugees and minority rights.

What, according to you, are the major outcomes of this visit?

This visit is special, even though we are quite frequent visitors to each other’s capital. Firstly, it comes after Prime Minister Narendra Modi and then President Ramnath Kovind visited Dhaka in the same calendar year [2021], which is unprecedented. Our celebrations for the centenary of the Father of the Nation [Sheikh Mujibur Rahman] and 50 years of our independence, the 50th year of our relationship coincided with India’s celebrations of 75 years of independence. We have seven tangible outcomes and seven MoUs. The Kushiyara water sharing agreement is only the second river water sharing in 25 years agreement. This will, create a fresh enthusiasm for the Teesta agreement. We understand the domestic compulsions [with the West Bengal government]. But what Prime Minister said to Indian media prior to departing Dhaka for Delhi is that she expects Delhi to do more, and work a little harder. So, I think the message is clear. We have other areas where we need to ease the life between the two countries, whether they are in business or in exchange for technology exchange of ideas, and the other MoUs will help people come even closer.

Apart from that, we have other regional issues like the Rohingya issue, where, unfortunately, it looks like there is no immediate solution. We hoped Myanmar would at least honour its agreement [to take back refugees]. But unfortunately, there are reports that there are fresh problems in Rakhine State, and things are looking worse than in 2016 and 2017 [the last big ethnic attacks]. We have made it absolutely clear we do not allow any more to cross the border into Bangladesh because we are already burdened with over a million. Our joint response team with the UN agency needs $822 million to look after Rohingyas for a year. And so far, we have managed to raise only 30% of it, with only a few months to go till next March. So, it’s not looking great.

The Indian government has said it will deport more Rohingyas and has already sent back about 12. So, what exactly did PM Hasina ask PM Modi for, given that she said India is a big country and can help?

What PM Hasina meant by saying that was that India has as good if not better relationship than we have with [Myanmar], as well as with other countries who are not supporting Rohingya causes or their safe repatriation. It’s not just China that opposes repatriation, there are friendly, other countries who are opposing that as well, which we find quite strange is a little unfortunate- a bit like 1971, the first time in the history of the world, probably that U.S. and China were on the same side.

Are you disappointed that India has not done more, in terms of using its relationship with the Myanmar military to push for the return of the Rohingya?

Well, we are only disappointed that there is no result, even with countries who have claimed to do more. We actually set a date and time for Rohingyas to return voluntarily, but on that particular day, no one showed up to return [to Myanmar] due to safety concerns. We understand that it’s a difficult situation, a difficult country to deal with.

On the river agreements, Prime Minister Hasina mentioned the unfinished Teesta agreement in her opening comments. Has there been any headway on the Teesta agreement during this visit or since 2011?

As far as we’re concerned, unfortunately not. But it’s not just about what we are gaining from this particular visit... we were assured by Prime Minister Modi that Bangladesh and India will work together to tackle the crisis the region is going through and the world is going through. At a time when there is trouble everywhere, we should focus on the positives in our relationship: we have restarted the Joint River Commission (after 12 years), and very regular BGB- BSF [border] talks are taking place. People who criticise should see the progress- out of 54 shared rivers, we have ticked the Ganga and now we have ticked the Kushiyara. Yes, it would have been nice to tick Teesta as well. We cannot possibly wait 25 years for our third agreement to be signed, we should be doing two or three rivers in a year. But so much else has moved forward, on trade, on visas, on people-to-people ties, that it is wrong to claim that the results from the visit are not enough.

During this visit, there was a meeting between PM Hasina and Mr. Gautam Adani, and also with Indian chambers of commerce. What sectors do you hope for Indian investment in, which at present is a very small percentage of Bangladesh FDI inflows?

Yes, it is true that they are low, but we do see a sharp rise in interest and the next couple of years will yield much more than what they did in the past three years or five years. The greatest contribution is PM Hasina has provided peace and stability, which also provides stability in Indian northeast States, as she will not allow any terrorist outfit to use the land, even an inch of land will not be spared for them. And that’s a commitment we have upheld, since [2009]. Prime Minister Modi also said the next growth engine is North East. Also, the large businesses in other parts of India are waiting for the Special Economic Zone like the one in Mongla to get ready so that they can set up their plants.

India has publicly spoken about its concerns over the attacks on Hindu minorities in Bangladesh. Did Prime Minister Hasina raise the issue of minorities in India as well, and in particular the citizenship Amendment Act?

We consider such issues as our own internal issues as the Citizenship Act is in India’s case [an internal matter]. But we have been assured and we believe that India will not do anything that might create, a crisis for us, targeting Bangladesh or where Bangladesh will be negatively impacted. I have not been asked about [minority attacks] during my visit here, and I would say that the prompt action taken by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina should give enough confidence to the practitioners of all religions that Bangladesh is for everyone. It’s not for any particular religion. Some politicians from both sides will go to a great length and make comments publicly, which are not justified, and not fact-based, and they do not help the greater cause [of bilateral ties]. We all have challenges. This is a very sensitive issue across South Asia, and political parties play this card rather frequently. So, we are careful. And Bangladesh has performed way better than many other countries in the region when it comes to minorities.

Could the CAA be an issue in the next election in Bangladesh?

No. I mean, our election is our election and you know, whatever happens within the boundary of India is India’s concern.

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