We signed treaty about only Ganges water but we have another 54 rivers: PM Hasina to ANI

Prime minister Shaikh Hasina talks to ANI during an interviewScreengrab of a video avaiable on Twitter handle ANI

Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina lauded Indian prime minister Narendra Modi led initiative towards rescuing students of her country who were stuck in eastern Europe following the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

In a free-wheeling television interaction with ANI, prime minister Hasina, who is set to visit India on Monday, also lavished praise on the Modi government’s gesture of providing Covid-19 vaccines to neighbouring countries under its Vaccine Maitri programme when the pandemic was fast-spreading.

The Bangladesh prime minister emphasised on closer cooperation between the two neighbours. There can be differences but these should be addressed through dialogue, she said adding that in a number of areas, India and Bangladesh had precisely done that.

She, however, marked out two areas for special praise where the Indian government’s support helped Bangladeshi citizens. One of these was the evacuation of Bangladesh students, who like many Indians, were stuck in Ukraine and its neighbouring countries after the outbreak of the conflict.

“I really would like to express my thanks to prime minister that during this war between Russia and Ukraine, many of our students were just stuck and they came to Poland for shelter. But when you evacuate your students, Indian students, they also brought our students back home. So it is really... You have shown a clearly friendly gesture. I thank prime minister for this initiative,” Hasina said.

She was responding to a question about remarks often made especially by western observers that there was a lack of cooperation among SAARC (South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation) nations. To another question about the Indian government’s Vaccine Maitri programme, Hasina said it was a very “prudent” initiative taken by prime minister Modi.

“I really thank prime minister Modi for this initiative, and that way he... you know, contributed vaccines to not only Bangladesh, also some south Asian countries, and it’s really very very helpful. And it’s a really prudent initiative he has taken, and beside that we bought vaccines with our own money, and also many other countries also contributed,” Hasina said.

India should show more broadness. Because both the countries will be beneficiaries. So sometimes our people suffered a lot because of this need of water. Especially Teesta, we could not go for harvest and so many problems take place
Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh prime minister

Hasina also gave details about her country’s vaccination programme. Bangladesh has administered Covid-19 vaccines to 90 per cent of its population. “Usually, you know, people from our country, especially the village level, even in some towns also, I found many people very much reluctant to take vaccine. They don’t want to take the... you know... the pinch of needle or ‘sui nai lena hai’ so... but we have to pursue them. We told them that this is nothing but it will save your life. So that way we engaged everybody, so that they make people... so it was really very good initiative, this Vaccine Maitri itself... very good initiative. I really support,” she said.

Hasina referred to India as a “tested” friend and said that country had stood by Bangladesh in its hour of need, first in 1971 and then at later times also.

“We always remember their contributions during our 1971 war. And, besides that, even in 1975, when we lost all my family members. So, the then prime minister, she gave us shelter in India. Besides that, you see, these two countries, we are neighbours, close neighbours and I always give importance and priority to friendship with our neighbouring countries,” she said.

The relationship between the two countries should be for the betterment of their citizens, she said.

Hasina said even during the Covid-19 period, Indian leadership had shown their positive intentions as both, the then president Ram Nath Kovind and prime minister Narendra Modi visited Bangladesh as it celebrated its Independence Day.

“I really thank prime minister Modi and also your honourable president. Both of them visited Bangladesh when we were celebrating our father of the nation’s birth centenary and also our independence, 50 years of our Independence Day, and our friendship with India. India recognised Bangladesh early on, so that bonding, I think that is our main priority. That their visit at such a time, even that time there was a Covid-19 pandemic but beside that both of them honoured us, honoured our people,” she said.

‘Won’t face Sri Lanka type crisis, country takes loans after much diligence’

Dismissing concerns that Bangladesh could go the Sri Lanka way, prime minister Sheikh Hasina said that despite the Covid-19 onslaught and the conflict in Ukraine, her country’s economy continued to be in robust shape and that her regime exercised a high level of diligence when taking any loans.

India’s external affairs minister S Jaishankar calls on prime minister Sheikh Hasina, in Dhaka on 28 April 2022

Prime minister Hasina said that currently the world as a whole was facing challenges which were not restricted only to Bangladesh.

“Our economy, still it is very strong. Though, we faced this Covid-19 pandemic, now the Ukraine-Russia war. That has its effect here. But in debt rate, Bangladesh always pays timely all the debts. So our debt rate is very low. In the context of Sri Lanka, our economy trajectory and the development, it is (planned) in a very, very calculative way,” said the Bangladesh prime minister.

Hasina asserted that because of this measured approach, her country was secure on the economic front. Bangladesh did not take any loan unless it was sure that it would benefit from the project to be undertaken, she said.

“I think the whole world is facing economic problem. We are also. But yes there are some people they raise this issue. Oh, Bangladesh will be Sri Lanka, this and that. But I can assure, no, that will not happen. Because we... all our development plans, what we prepare and we implement, always we see that what would be the return? How people would be the beneficiary? Otherwise I don’t take any project (for) just spending money,” she said.

Hasina said that in Bangladesh, whenever the government considers any loan, it is a clear policy to estimate what would be the return for the country on the completion of the project. “How our economy will develop? And the people will be beneficiary - that is the priority. So that way we are taking all the plans, programmes. We don’t spend any money unnecessarily,” Hasina added.

Well you know... for us it’s a big burden. India is a vast country; you can accommodate but you don’t have much. But in our country... we have 1.1 million Rohingya
Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh prime minister

The Sri Lankan economy collapsed and many experts believe that debts extended by countries like China in ambitious projects that did not provide a commensurate return were among factors that led to the debacle. Many experts refer to such loans as debt traps to which developing countries are especially vulnerable. Hasina, however, shared insights about the way Bangladesh manages its affairs.

Hasina said that her government takes up plans for consideration in a very methodical manner.

“And we take the plan, so as because it is a very calculative way we are developing, I feel that we will not face a similar situation... Not only that, in the policy matter, the moment pandemic started , Covid-19, I called upon our people, and also we provided all kinds of support and inputs, up to the village level and also encouraged our people to grow more food items, as much as food they can grow. I always supported them that what you should do. You should grow your food so that we should not depend on others,” she said.

Hasina, however, confessed that the conflict in Ukraine had posed some problems for her country. “It has bad effect no doubt about it, especially the things we import from other countries,” she said.

Horrors of her family’s massacre in 1975

On the eve of her four-day visit to India, the Bangladesh prime minister revealed that she was once a secret resident of Delhi’s posh Pandara Road, where she lived with her children under an assumed identity trying to escape attention of those who assassinated her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

Mrs Indira Gandhi immediately sent information that she wanted to give us, I mean, security and shelter. So we received, especially from Marshal Tito from Yugoslavia, and Mrs Gandhi. We decided to come back here (Delhi)
Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh prime minister

Nearly five decades later, Hasina, in an emotional television interview with ANI, opened up about the piercing traumas that haunted her for decades.

Eyes moist, Hasina vividly recounted the fast-paced events of 1975 when she left Bangladesh to join her nuclear scientist husband in Germany. It was 30 July in 1975 and family members had come to the airport to see Hasina and her sister off. It was a happy farewell and Hasina had no inkling that it would turn out to be her last meeting with her parents.

“Because my husband was abroad, so I used to live in the same house (with parents). So that day everybody was there: my father, mother, my three brothers, two newly-wedded sisters-in-law, everybody was there. All the siblings and their spouses. They came to the airport to see us off. And we met father, mother. That was the last day, you know,” recounted Hasina on one of the darkest chapters in Bangladesh’s history.

A fortnight later, on the morning of 15 August, Hasina received news that she found hard to believe. Her father, the legendary statesman Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, had been killed. The horrors didn’t stop at learning about her father’s death, but got further compounded when she received news of the summary execution of more members of her family.

India’s chief of army staff General Manoj Pande called on prime minister Sheikh Hasina, in Dhaka on 19 July 2022

“It was really unbelievable. Unbelievable, that any Bengali could do it. And still we didn’t know how, what really happened. Only there was a coup, and then we heard that my father was assassinated. But we didn’t know that all the family members were, you know, they were assassinated,” Hasina said, fighting back tears.

India was one of the first countries to extend help, Hasina recalled.

“Mrs Indira Gandhi immediately sent information that she wanted to give us, I mean, security and shelter. So we received, especially from Marshal Tito from Yugoslavia, and Mrs Gandhi. We decided to come back here (Delhi) because we had in our mind that if we go to Delhi, from Delhi we’ll be able to go back to our country. And then we’ll be able to know how many members of family are still alive,” the Bangladesh prime minister said.

Five decades have passed, but the pain still reflects in Hasina’s voice. “It’s very difficult time,” she said. The then Bangladesh ambassador to Germany Humayun Rashid Chaudhary was the first person to give an account of her family’s massacre.

“For few moments I didn’t know where I was. But I thought about my sister, she is, actually she’s 10 years younger than me. So, I thought how she will take it. It is so difficult for her. Then when we returned to Delhi, at first they put us in a house with all security, because they were also worried about us,” recounted Hasina.

Asked if she felt that she too was a possible target, Hasina said the miscreants who had attacked her father had also carried out attacks at the houses of other relatives and killed some of her kin. “Almost 18 members and some, mostly my relatives and then some maid servants and their children and then some guests, my uncle,” were among those killed, she said.

The conspirators had a clear aim that nobody from Bangabandhu’s family should ever come back to power.

“My younger brother was only 10 years old, they did not spare him too. So when we returned to Delhi, it was perhaps 24 August, then I met prime minister Mrs Gandhi. She called us and we... so there we came to know that nobody is alive. Then she made all the arrangements for us, a job for my husband and this Pandara Road house. We stayed there. So first 2-3 years actually it was so difficult to accept this, my children, my son was only 4-years-old. My daughter, she’s younger, both of them used to cry. Come (let’s) go to my mother, my father and they still remembered my younger brother mostly,” Hasina recounted.

So much had been lost, yet, Hasina also realised somewhere that she had to think ahead. “So... but then gradually, we have and well... as because I have children. My sister is there, so this sorrow, pain, just very difficult but still we have, well ... We have to think what to do...We should do something...we should, we cannot live like this,” she said.

The pain, however, would not go away. “This crime, not only killed my father, also they changed the ideology of our liberation war. Everything just, just one night, everything just changed. And those killers...they were actually still haunting us. That they’re trying to find out where we are, so when we lived in Pandara road; even we did... we couldn’t, our name was changed,” said the Awami League leader.

But some incidents sometimes take place but immediately we take action. It is sometimes, it happened, it’s very unwanted situation but you know very well it is not only Bangladesh, even in India also sometimes minorities suffered
Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh prime minister

Having lost her parents, Hasina was forced to hide her identity. “Different name. And it is so painful that you cannot use your own name, own identity... Because of the security purpose they didn’t allow us,” said Hasina as she tried to muster the strength to recount the harrowing time.

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and members of his family were killed in cold blood on 15 August, 1975 by senior army officers, which plunged Bangladesh into political chaos and resulted in a military regime running the country for a number of years, thereby suspending the democratic process.

For the next six years, till 1981, Hasina lived in Delhi under a different name, under an assumed identity. However, many people back in Bangladesh wanted her to lead the Awami League party just like her father did.

“Definitely I wanted to come back to my country. But taking responsibility of such a big party, I never thought about it,” she said. However, Hasina travelled to different countries during this time and even addressed a public meeting in London’s York Hall on 16 August 1980 demanding punishment for her father’s killers.

Prime minister Sheikh Hasina and her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi jointly inaugurate ‘Bangabandhu-Bapu Digital Exhibition’ at Bangabandhu International Conference Centre, Dhaka on 26 March 2021

“To bring them to justice or bring them to book, so that the trial should take place, because there was immunity granted to them. There was an ordinance, they shoot, so you cannot demand or file any case against the killers. Killers got all type of facilities and immunity, this is very unlawful. The killer... and they killed... and it is in open and they claimed that yes, they committed this crime and they were very vocal. Because they thought they are very powerful,” said Hasina.

She continued with the campaign roping in many eminent people. “On one hand we lost everybody, and other hand I cannot ask for justice. Justice was denied. So that was the situation that time. Then again I returned to Delhi, end of 80 or 81,” she said.

However, by this time there was another important development in Bangladesh. “Awami League had a conference, at that time they, in my absence, they declared me as the president of the party,” said Hasina, who eventually moved to Bangladesh and again reached the top position in the country’s political arena.

“They tried to kill me, several times, yeah, but I survived. Even though in the broad daylight there was a grenade attack. I don’t know how I survived. Our party leaders, workers they just covered me, made human shields so they received all the splinters but I... I was totally safe. Then there was open fire in my meeting, I survived. They placed a huge bomb in my meeting place. Somehow it was discovered by just a simple man. So I survived. I don’t know its... you can ask God, Allah. Allah is helping me perhaps, maybe Allah has given me some job to do,” she said.

Bangladesh is a secular country

Seeking to assure the predominantly Hindu minorities in her country and the global community at large, Sheikh Hasina said that her government strongly supports secularism and any attempts to disturb communal harmony are immediately dealt with.

Hasina, however, contended that extremism was not limited to her country as many countries, including India, were witnessing it. She said one of the reasons for the rising extremism was social media, which had become “very very bad nowadays”.

“As long as we are in power, we always give importance to that and I always tell them (the minority) that you are our citizens. You should own our country. But some incidents sometimes take place but immediately we take action. It is sometimes, it happened, it’s very unwanted situation but you know very well it is not only Bangladesh, even India also sometimes minorities suffered,” she said.

There have been reports about attacks and hostility against the minority Hindu population in Bangladesh. Some reports have mentioned attacks on Durga Puja pandals or places of worship. Hasina, however, said that it was important that countries show magnanimity, when asked about incidents of attacks on the Hindu minority population.

“I think that both the country should show their magnanimity and our part, you know Bangladesh is a secular country and we have many religions here. And the religious harmony is here, very much. So one or two incident when it takes place immediately... especially my party... my party people, they are very much, conscious about it and also my government. We immediately take action,” she said.

Asked to comment on the role of the radical community of bloggers and others on social media, Hasina said that it is not desirable that people write things to hurt each other and added that her government tried to curb any such activity.

“Look, extremism is everywhere. Even in India or other countries if you see in the world, there are many countries you can find it out. So because of social media it has become very... very bad nowadays. Some people sometimes write something. Even sometimes it’s not the bloggers but even other religion or so... Sometimes they write and then immediately people they come, but we have been trying our best to control it. We never support that. Each and every religion, they have their right to perform their religion properly, and one should not say such a thing that will hurt the other religion,” she said.

Prime minister Sheikh Hasina and her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi at the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) on Saturday

Last month, responding to incidents of violence in some parts of Bangladesh, Hasina, while addressing the minority Hindus, had said that they had the same rights as her. She made the comments on the occasion of Janmashtami. Earlier, there were reports from southwestern Bangladesh that temples, shops, and houses of Hindus were vandalised.

Hasina, told ANI, that while some incidents occurred, Bangladesh has a tradition where people of all religions take part in all celebrations.

“We all, together we celebrate... As a cultural event, even you can see in Bangladesh, during Durga Puja. So many places, we have Durga Puja and people celebrate all together. So the religion harmony is there but now some... here and there some incidents happen but our government immediately takes action against it,” the Bangladesh PM said.

Asked about the prevalence of cattle-smuggling from India into Bangladesh, Hasina said the issue was under discussion and the magnitude of the problem had also been reduced a lot.

“But still sometimes some incident takes place. So we discuss with India that they should show some patience and this cattle trafficking. Already you know nowadays in our country, now we don’t depend on Indian cow much. We are growing our own, you know, cattle here because we need it. But some border smuggling takes place. So the two sides, the border forces, they are sitting together. Any incident happen, they hold the flag meetings, they discuss. So yes, we’ll say the assurance that it will reduce so it should not take place,” she said.

Hasina is set to visit India on a key bilateral visit on Monday. Hasina’s four-day India visit is being seen in both countries as an opportunity to further enhance the time-tested cooperation between the two fastest growing South Asian economies.

It is expected that the Bangladesh prime minister would also discuss defence cooperation and regional stability with the Indian counterpart Narendra Modi.

Over a million Rohingya migrants a “big burden” on Bangladesh

The Rohingya migrants are a “big burden” on Bangladesh and the country is reaching out to the international community to ensure they return to their homeland, prime minister Sheikh Hasina said adding that she feels India could play a major role in resolving the issue.

In an interaction with ANI, Hasina confessed that the presence of lakhs of Rohingyas in Bangladesh had created challenges for her regime.

“Well you know... for us it’s a big burden. India is a vast country; you can accommodate but you don’t have much. But in our country... we have 1.1 million Rohingya. So well... we are consulting with the international community and also our neighbouring countries, they should also take some steps so that they can go back home,” Hasina said.

In this file photo taken on 16 October, 2017, Rohingya refugees walk through a shallow canal after crossing the Naf River as they flee violence in Myanmar to reach Bangladesh

The Bangladesh prime minister said that her government had tried to take care of the displaced community keeping the humanitarian aspect in mind.

“This Rohingya, yes... on humanitarian ground we give them shelter and providing everything but during this Covid, we vaccinated all the Rohingya community. But how long they will stay here? So in the camp they are staying. Our environment hazard is there. Then some people engage in drug trafficking or some arms conflict, women trafficking. Day by day it is increasing. So as quick as they return home it is good for our country and also for Myanmar. So we have been trying our best to pursue them, we’re discussing with them and also the international community, like ASEAN or UNO, then other countries,” Hasina said.

The Bangladesh prime minister said that her country had offered shelter to the Rohingya when they were facing many troubles. “But now they should go back to their country. But India as a neighbour country, they can play a big role on it, I feel that,” Hasina added.

During the interview, Hasina was also asked about her country’s cooperation with India on river water sharing especially with regard to Teesta river. Hasina said that while there were challenges, they were not anything which could not be resolved mutually.

“It is very sad that, we are in a... you know... downstream. So water is coming from India, so India should show more broadness. Because both the countries will be beneficiaries. So sometimes our people suffered a lot because of this need of water. Especially Teesta, we could not go for harvest and so many problems take place. So I think it should be solved but, yes we found that the prime minister is very... you know... eager to solve this problem, but the problem is in your country. So... we hope that it should, you know... it should be solved,” Hasina said.

She added that the two countries shared the water of the river Ganges. “Only Ganges water we share. The water, we signed the treaty. But we have another 54 rivers. Yes... So it’s a longstanding problem, so it should be solved,” she said.