India wants a defence deal with Bangladesh, according to media reports. What are your thoughts on that?
I have also seen media reports about a proposed defence agreement with India. Newspapers have reported that Bangladesh prefers a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) but India wants a stronger agreement. Since I am not privy to any official discussion between India and Bangladesh, I have no knowledge about what is actually being discussed between the two countries except what I read in the newspapers.
Frankly, I am surprised as to why we are now considering signing an agreement on defence. At the official level, the relationship between the governments of India and Bangladesh is excellent.
After being elected to office in 2008, the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has addressed a key security concern of India by taking a tough stance against the insurgents of North Eastern India. She has taken a firm stance against allowing Bangladeshi territory to be used for the training or sanctuary or shipment of arms for use by the insurgents.
A major complaint of India against the BNP-Jamaat alliance government was that it was supporting the insurgents in the North East. But now, the government of Sheikh Hasina has addressed that long standing complaint and has taken tough measures to facilitate security of India in the North East. And she has done this without having a defence agreement with India. Sheikh Hasina has taken the action because she perceived this to be in our own enlightened national interest.
Often in poorly governed or undemocratic countries, the bogy of risk to sovereignty and security is used to promote narrow partisan interests. I do not think we face any threat to our security from any external power
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has shown statesmanship by steering our foreign policy that is consistent with our founding principles of “friendship to all and malice to none.” She has nurtured friendly relations with India, our biggest neighbour. At the same time she has developed friendly relations with other Asian powers such as Japan and China who are our important partners in trade and investment. Her policy of consolidating friendly relations with three big Asian powers – India, China and Japan – enjoys popular support in Bangladesh. Being a relatively small country, Bangladesh wants to be friendly with all her big neighbours and not be perceived as being allied to one against the other. Being a peace loving country Bangladesh’s foreign policy is primarily guided by her trade, investment and socio-economic development priorities.
What would be the positives and negatives of such a deal? What would be the consequences in national politics?
Unfortunately, Indo-Bangladesh relations had for many years been a contested issue in our domestic politics. The relationship with our biggest neighbour India, who played a critical supporting role in our emergence as an independent country, should have been nurtured with the support of all major parties. There should have been a national consensus on this issue.
Instead, since 1975, anti-India campaign was used for narrow domestic partisan political gains which was a major obstacle to developing close cooperation, particularly economic cooperation between the two countries. Fortunately in the last decade, there has been a greater understanding among all major political parties about the imperative of promoting a close cooperation between India and Bangladesh. The BNP has given up its past anti-India posture and has sought to emphasise the need for close economic and trade relations with India. At a time when the two major parties, the Awami League and the BNP, have narrowed their past divide vis-à-vis economic relationship with India, the issue of a defence agreement with India will give BNP an opening to again revive an anti-India campaign for its domestic political purposes. Indeed many of the BNP leaders are already questioning the proposed defence agreement.
Would such a deal undermine Bangladesh’s sovereignty and security?
Without knowing any details about the proposed agreement, I cannot comment on this. Often in poorly governed or undemocratic countries, the bogy of risk to sovereignty and security is used to promote narrow partisan interests. I do not think we face any threat to our security from any external power. The best guarantee of a country’s sovereignty and security lies in the domestic political and economic stability of the country. So long as we have sustained economic and social development, peaceful and harmonious relationship amongst various groups, protection of fundamental rights and freedoms and institutionalisation of democratic values and practices, I do not think we need to worry about our sovereignty or security.
What would be the difference of signing an MoU instead of a deal?
From newspaper reports I gather Bangladesh wants an MoU which is an understanding without any legal binding.
How would China and USA react to such a deal?
Again not knowing any details about the proposed deal, I cannot comment on this. My hunch is Bangladesh will not enter into any agreement with India that will be perceived as against the interests of any other country.
How can Bangladesh work with India in jointly curbing militancy without undermining our own sovereignty and security? How to step up cooperation between the two countries regarding security issue?
Many countries are now cooperating in sharing intelligence to curb the threat of militancy. Bangladesh and India can increase cooperation on intelligence sharing. But intelligence sharing requires mutual trust and common understanding of who is a militant or who is a terrorist. I think we still have a gap in establishing such common understanding and mutual trust.
When Indian Border Security Force still kills Bangladeshi civilians at the border, how justified is it to have a cooperation with Indian security forces? How Bangladesh should deal with India regarding border killing issue?
The border killings have nothing to do with political or security issues. The victims are mainly poor civilians who cross borders for their livelihoods. As such, these killings are perceived as unjustified. Bangladesh has repeatedly raised the issue of Bangladeshi civilian killings by Indian Border Security Force in past meetings. Despite promises by the Indian government, these killings have continued. This needs to be taken more seriously by the Indian government. Otherwise it creates an impression that Bangladeshi lives do not matter. The border killings of civilians have a big impact in creating adverse public opinion in Bangladesh.
What are your thoughts on the prime minister’s remarks that Indian intelligence agencies influenced or interfered with Bangladesh’s elections in 2001?
I was somewhat surprised by the prime minister’s remarks particularly since Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a revered leader of the BJP, was then the Indian prime minister. I have not seen any official Indian reaction to these allegations.
Since Sheikh Hasina had been able to forge a close relationship with India after her election in 2008, I assume she has been now assured by India that there would be no such interference in our future elections.