Bangladesh's High Commissioner to India Syed Muazzem Ali believes that bilateral ties have never been better. In an interview to Ramananda Sengupta, he explains that the relationship, which "is deep rooted in history, geography and culture," is now grounded in a firm economic, strategic and political relationship based on mutual trust and respect, and despite issues like the Teesta Water sharing agreement hanging fire, things can only get better.
When you first came to India, what was the topmost item on your agenda, and why?
Before assuming responsibility here as the High Commissioner of Bangladesh, I also served here during my early days of career as a Counsellor from 1986-88. And when I was called out of my retirement in 2014, I see a sea change in Indian society and economy. We are happy that India, our biggest neighbor and one of the largest democratic countries, is fast emerging as a global power with strong economic growth coupled with scientific and technological advancement. This is really a remarkable achievement given the highly pluralistic characteristics of Indian society.
I was confident that a strong and vibrant India will offer Bangladesh lots of economic opportunities which Bangladesh should take full advantage of to further her own economic development. On the other hand, a strong and stable Bangladesh provides the best security guarantee for India. Therefore, my priority was to devise ways to synergise the priorities of our two countries and see how best we could complement each other to make relations stronger, stable and irreversible. I am happy to see that today, we are enjoying the best of our relations.
The long standing issues of enclaves, transit rights etc have been resolved, and the two nations have also started cooperation in intelligence and anti-terror operations. What other areas do you think need attention in bilateral ties?
Indeed there had been a great momentum in the Bangladesh-India relations since the current Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina came to power in 2009. This has further been consolidated since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014 and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina came to power again for the consecutive term in 2014. Since then, both Prime Ministers have shown tremendous commitment in promoting the bilateral relations , and hence our relations stand at its best. They have demonstrated how long-standing complex bilateral issues like Land Boundary Agreement and Maritime Boundaries could be resolved unanimously through consultation, compassion, and consensus-building. Yes, Security has been one of the issues which had bedevilled our bilateral relations in the past. However, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, since assumption of power in 2009, has firmly controlled the security situation and has made it clear that no Bangladesh territory would be used for terrorist purpose. She has shown 'Zero tolerance' to acts of terrorism and expects similar reciprocal actions from all our neighbours. Our cooperation, however, is not limited to security, it is expanding in multifarious areas like energy, connectivity, trade & Commerce, culture, people to people contact etc. which will not just benefit our two nations but the entire region.
At their meeting in Shantiniketan in May, both Prime Ministers spoke of a golden era in bilateral ties. Would you agree with that, or do you think it is still work in progress?
As I have already said, currently we are enjoying the best ever relations, covering virtually every area of bilateral cooperation. We have resolved some issues like Land Boundary Agreement and Maritime Boundaries. However, unfortunately, we are yet to maximize the benefits of the joint rivers and that could be one area to look forward to. There is now a greater recognition among the political leadership on both sides that the destinies of our two neighboring countries are inescapably intertwined and we must grow together.
One of the issues that bedevil ties is trade. Apart from non-tariff barriers, after Bangladesh graduates from the Least Developed Country (LDC) status, it will no longer have duty-free and quota-free access for its products to the Indian market under SAFTA (South Asia Free Trade Agreement). Is there any progress on a bilateral FTA?
The volume of bilateral trade has been growing over the past seven years. We, however, want to see this trade and commerce relations from a different angle. India being the sixth largest economy in the world and third largest economy in the Asia and being our closest neighbor, we want to look at our trade and commerce relations beyond 'access of products'. We want to see trade and investment together. We want Indian investors to invest in big projects in Bangladesh. They can set up big industry in Bangladesh taking advantage of Bangladesh's efficient labor force and the facilities in three Indian economic zones that our government has offered to India. Subsequently, they could export these produces to the North-Eastern States in India and other neighboring countries. This will help us in diversifying our export basket and also will help us reduce the trade deficit. As for the FTA, a proposal has been discussed during the recent visit of Indian Commerce Minister to Bangladesh and a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) is currently under consideration.
While the two nations broadly agree on how to deal with Rohingya crisis, is there something else New Delhi can do resolve the issue?
The Indian government had sent substantial relief materials for the Forcibly Displaced Myanmar Nationals (FDMN), by air and ship, which is the largest Humanitarian Assistances given by any country to Bangladesh during the crisis. We appreciate this humanitarian gesture from our closest neighbor. We also count on India's continued support in the international arena for the early return of Forcibly Displaced Myanmar Nationals. We also appreciate Indian government's initiative for rehabilitation projects to be taken in Myanmar for constructing prefabricated houses along with China and Japan, for the Forcibly Displaced Myanmar Nationals. We are happy that, due to our intense engagement and continuous international pressure, we have been able to conclude a "Physical Arrangement" with Myanmar government, under which Myanmar government agreed to repatriate the Forcibly Displaced Myanmar Nationals who took shelter in Bangladesh in phases. We need to sustain the ongoing international pressure to execute the repatriation process. We believe India will continue its support to ensure international pressure for securing the rights of these displaced people in Myanmar.
Looking at regional issues, while SAARC appears dead in the water, India is pushing BIMSTEC as another option.do you think SAARC became a victim of a bilateral spat?
It's true that progress in SAARC has been slow, but yet we cannot rule it out as an option. SAARC and BIMSTEC, I would say are little different in nature. While one (SAARC) is connecting the South Asian neighbors, the other one is connecting the South Asia with South-East Asian Region. It is gratifying to note that BIMSTEC has been showing much promise as a sub-regional and inter-regional organization, I believe, both the organizations could very well complement each other, instead of competing. To that end, we must create a favorable and congenial environment within the SAARC.
Of late, there has been a bit of an uproar over the National Register of Citizens in Assam, which involves so called Bangladeshi migrants.has New Delhi discussed this at any level with Bangladesh?
As far as we see this seems to be an internal matter of Government of India. I think being an Ambassador of another country it would not be appropriate for me to comment on an internal matter.
Like India, China too has been investing in various energy and infrastructural projects in Bangladesh. How would you describe or compare Dhaka-Delhi relations with the Dhaka-Beijing one, in terms of scope, size and strategic significance?
Well, we just can't simply compare between the relations between the two countries, as they have two different contexts and dimensions, and both are important. With India we enjoy a relation which is deep rooted in history, geography and culture. The assistance and cooperation that we received from the Government of India and her people during the critical time of our Liberation War, has been the very basis of our relations and this will be remembered by generations after generations. And our relations are now expanding in multifarious areas starting from security to connectivity, trade, energy, people-to-people contact etc. On the other hand, China is coming up with investment projects that we need to further our economic development. So, we are happy that China and India, being the two giant economies in Asia, offers us with lots of economic opportunities.
The Teesta accord is still pending, and remains a slightly sore point. How justified is West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's assertion that the accord would hurt Indian interests, including the possibility of Kolkata port silting up?
Bangladesh and India share 54 common rivers and these rivers have enough water for us to share during the monsoon and other months. But the problem arises during the winter months when the level of water goes down. This is also the crucial period when we need the water for the cultivation of our winter crops. On the basis of detailed consultations and negotiations, an interim sharing formula was worked out between Bangladesh and India for the sharing of Teesta River Water during the lean months (90 days) in 2011. However, because of opposition of West Bengal, the water sharing deal could not be finalised during last 7 years. We, however, have been reassured by Prime Minister Modi in categorical terms that a solution of the issue would be found at the soonest possible time. Bangladesh is eagerly looking forward to an early conclusion of the Agreement as it would open up newer opportunities for cooperation. In addition to water sharing, Bangladesh and India will have to cooperate with each other for the joint management of our rivers, as constant siltation has largely hindered their capacity to hold water for the lean season. Bangladesh-India are currently cooperating with each other for joint drainage of common rivers. These rivers if properly managed, offer great opportunities for development of our communication, agriculture and tourism sectors.
What do you personally consider as your biggest achievement during your posting in India so far?
I am really happy the way the relations between our two countries progressed in recent times. I am particularly happy that the spirit of 1971 is once again guiding our two countries to sustain and deepen the relations despite profound geo-political changes in the international arena. Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his historic visit to Dhaka in 2015 had said, "Bangladesh is 'not merely a neighbor' but a nation with which India shares 'enduring links' ". President Ram Nath Kovind has termed Bangladesh as India's "closest neighbor". External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj during her last visit to Dhaka had termed the partnership as "all encompassing" that goes "far beyond a strategic partnership" touching upon "virtually all areas of human endeavour. She also said "Paroshi pehele, lekin Bangladesh sabse pehele" [Neighbors first, but Bangladesh is before everybody].
There have been some landmark achievements in last few years. Sixty eight years after the partition of 1947, and forty-one years after the conclusion of the Indira-Mujib Border Accord of 1974, the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) between the two countries was concluded and ratified. Premier Narendra Modi had demonstrated how a long-standing complex bilateral issue could be resolved unanimously through consultation, compassion, and consensus-building. The longstanding maritime boundaries between the two countries were also resolved in July of 2015 through UN arbitration. There have been six VVIP visits between Bangladesh and India in last 4 years. The Summit level visit of our Hon'ble Prime Minister in 2017 has given new dynamics to the relations between the two countries. Eleven Agreements and Twenty-four MoUs were signed, which virtually encompassed every important sector in our bilateral cooperation, namely security, trade, connectivity, energy, civil nuclear agreement, defence and introduction of new bus and train services etc. During that visit, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had personally honored members of families of war martyrs through an unprecedented "Sommanona" ceremony in Delhi. Through this unique program, she recognized the supreme sacrifices made by 1,661 Indian martyrs for the liberation of Bangladesh. All these have taken our relations to the all time best. I am really happy to be a part of this endeavor.