Since Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina assumed office again in Bangladesh in 2009, bilateral relations between New Delhi and Dhaka have been on a steady upward trajectory. Bangladesh High Commissioner Syed Muazzem Ali has been a key mover in the promotion of enhanced ties in all spheres between India and Bangladesh.
In an exclusive interview to INDIA REVIEW AND ANALYSIS, the journal of the Society for Policy Studies, High Commissioner Ali talks says the ties between the neighbours have moved beyond strategic partnership and "we are lucky that our emotional bond has only strengthened our people-to-people endeavours".
Q: Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s historic visit saw major agreements signed, in defence, cyber security, civil nuclear energy. How would you describe the current state of relations?
A: Prime Ministers Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi have taken our bilateral ties to a new level which is well beyond the "strategic partnership". The 11 agreements and 24 MoUs signed during the visit virtually encompass every important sector in our bilateral cooperation namely security, trade, connectivity, energy, civil nuclear agreement, defence, and introduction of new bus and train services. Our private sectors also made their valuable inputs when they signed MoUs for investment to the tune of USD13 billion, primarily in the energy sector. In a nutshell, the visit was a grand success. Apart from these developments, the visit was also high on optics. Premier Modi broke protocol and received our Prime Minister at the airport, and was also present at "Sommanona" (to honour Indian martyrs of Bangladesh’s Liberation War). “Sommanona” was an historic event. To describe the current state of relations, I note, with great satisfaction, that our cooperation, based “on mutual benefit, shared future, equality and respect for each other’s sovereignty,” is moving at a fast pace. Former President of India Pranab Mukherjee termed current state of ties as the “best ever since 1974”. President Kovind has termed Bangladesh as India’s “closest neighbour.”
Q: Some contentious issues still remain, primarily sharing of river waters, especially theTeesta River. How are these contentious and sensitive issues being handled?
A: Since assumption of power for the second time in 2009, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has consistently tried to resolve all bilateral issues and restore mutual trust and cooperation. She has brought in a change in our mindsets. The successful conclusion of the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) and demarcation of the Maritime Boundary with India were clear manifestations of that desire. Similarly, she took initiatives to resolve Teesta water sharing issue. Through proactive engagement and protracted negotiations, an agreement was finalized in 2011 when the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Dhaka. But it was not signed at the last minute due to the objection raised by the Chief Minister of West Bengal. It is true that despite best of efforts by the top leadership of both the countries, there has been no progress on the Teesta Water Sharing issue, which has been a big disappointment. In a riverine country like Bangladesh, our people wholly depend on our rivers for our agriculture, communication and all aspects of life. Rivers are virtually our lifeblood and naturally, water sharing is a highly emotive issue. I would like to underscore that early resolution of Teesta water sharing issue would have salutary effects on all aspects of our bilateral relations.
Q: India -Bangladesh relations have acted as a stabilizing force for the peace and prosperity of South Asia, which has been a victim of terrorism. How are both coping?
A: In today's world security is a major concern and we in South Asia also face major challenges. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has, since 2009, steadfastly maintained “Zero Tolerance” to all forms of terrorism”, both state-sponsored and individual. In line with her commitment, she has taken concrete steps to improve the security climate in the region. She has firmly controlled the situation and did not allow any terrorist activities, or any terrorist group, to use Bangladesh soil to launch any attack against India or any other neighbouring countries. Whenever any country tried to interfere in our internal affairs or tried to involve in any terrorist activities, we have strongly opposed it and we will continue to do so. On the question of terrorism, our position is firm and unequivocal. This commitment has been amply demonstrated in the last nine years through our tough and decisive actions. Our multi-tiered consultative mechanisms are well in place and are working smoothly.
Q: Last year the SAARC Summit was cancelled, but this year we saw the launch of SAARC satellite. How do you resolve this conundrum? Is BIMSTEC the alternative mechanism?
A: Here we need to understand the objectives and priorities of these two organizations, which are very different. It is not fair to consider BIMSTEC as an alternative to SAARC. SAARC is an organization of South Asian countries which share common history and geographical proximity and culture. We can’t ignore this reality. In South Asia we are beset with numerous problems. Prominent among them are trust deficit among the member countries, burdens of history, lack of development, lack of infrastructure, poverty, inequality. So far SAARC may not have made any spectacular progress in hardcore economic areas, but it has made significant progress in the areas of disaster management, cooperative and rural development, health, education, telecommunications and other areas of functional cooperation. We hope, with the greater political will and mutual trust and confidence, we will be able to make progress in hardcore areas in the future. The launching of the SAARC Satellite is a timely initiative. SAARC Summits have always offered opportunities to our leaders to meet and discuss important bilateral issues on the sidelines. These sidelines meetings have helped us in resolving some sensitive bilateral issues. BIMSTEC is basically an inter-regional body. Five members of BIMSTEC are from South Asia; Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, while two, Thailand and Myanmar, are from South East Asia. Our common goal is to emerge as a bridge between South and South East Asia. Its primary emphasis is on trade, investment, connectivity and anti-terrorism.
Q: Has the increasing role of China become a point of contention with India? Bangladesh recently joined the One Belt One Road initiative. China has also extended a huge 24 billion dollar line of credit to your country. How would Bangladesh allay India’s concerns?
A: Since 2009, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has steered Bangladesh towards its goal of becoming a developed nation; "Shonar Bangla” dream of the father of the nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. She has adopted “Vision 2021” and “Vision 2041” as our development targets; to attain the status of a middle-income country by 2021 and a developed country by 2041. To meet our development goals, we need huge overseas investments to develop our infrastructure. We are closely working with both India and China. Both India and Bangladesh enjoy a model of bilateral relations which goes beyond strategic partnership. Both the countries understand the neighbour’s areas of concern and sensitivity, and I am sure that, as close neighbours, we will continue to work together to establish a win-win equation for the benefit of our two countries and for the entire region. Bangladesh Prime Minister, repeatedly has mentioned that Bangladesh would like to develop a deep sea port in Chittagong, on a consortium arrangement basis, for use by all countries of this region and beyond.
Q: Durga Puja celebrations are a major event in the Bengali calendar. How are people to people ties progressing?
A: From ancient times, people of Bangladesh and West Bengal have been celebrating various religious festivals with enthusiasm and gaiety. During Durga Puja, the largest Hindu festival, a large number of Indian nationals visit Bangladesh to celebrate the event with their near and dear ones and vice versa. We also see the same enthusiasm during Eid festivals. Let me underline that there is no alternative to peoples’ camaraderie in any bilateral relations. We are lucky that our emotional bond has only strengthened our people-to-people endeavours.