Imtiaz Ahmed, professor of international relations at Dhaka University, talks to Prothom Alo on various aspects of Bangladesh-India bilateral relations and the recent India election.
Prothom Alo: Did the election results in India surprise you?
Imtiaz Ahmed: Dynastic politics is Congress' biggest weakness. They could not form an opposition alliance. People could not rely on Rahul Gandhi. And BJP has widened its vote bank by using communalism. It is now a question as to how far India will survive as we know it. BJP was not supposed to win if we consider various issues including the rate of unemployment, 22 polluted cities out of 30 in the world, farmers’ hardship and demonetization. BJP has efficiently manipulated the election results. Earlier, Modi won the election by getting 36 per cent votes in two-third seats. I am waiting to find out what he has done this time. The rise of communalism is not only a concern for India, but for also its neighbours.
Prothom Alo: What is the impact of the Indian election on Bangladesh?
Imtiaz Ahmed: The people of Bangladesh and India are almost similar in merit and talent. If India, the largest democratic state, can use communalism in its election, there is a fear that this may happen in Bangladesh too. Communal slogans may be used to win the election. That may not be the same as that of India. There was anti-Muslim and anti-Bangladeshi sentiments used in West Bengal and northeast India. If the opposition against Bangladesh finds ground in India, there is no reason that the opposition against India will not be emerge in Bangladesh. There will be anti-Hindu elements in anti-Indian element. That fear is there. BJP's Anti-Gandhi element in the election had anti-Muslim influence and this may have an impact on Bangladesh.
Prothom Alo: During his first tenure, Narendra Modi had chosen Bhutan to visit first and he chose Maldives to visit first in his second tenure. How important is Dhaka to Delhi?
Imtiaz Ahmed: There was an issue to recognise pro-Indians or anti-Chinese in Maldives. The ruling party men there are no longer in favour of China. South Asia is not like Europe. Visits of top leaders there are mere formalities. But here the visits are significant. Bangladesh has a dispute with India over Teesta. Now the Rohingya issue has been added. It is important what India says about Rohingyas. In 2017, many had thought that India would have created pressure on Myanmar, but the opposite occurred. India still remains silent regarding Rohingyas.
Prothom Alo: Is Bangladesh tilting towards China?
Imtiaz Ahmed: It is mainly for economic reasons. Bangladesh will not join any alliance which has security and military significance. China has huge capital, which the western world doesn’t have. Those who want to win polls every five years have to show big development. Big investment will be needed in infrastructure if we want to achieve 10 per cent GDP. China has become the single biggest business partner of India. In 2018, the highest number of Indian students for the first time went to China instead of UK. Most of them are of science studies. So a quality change will come in relations between China and India in the next ten years. At this moment, India needs America. Modi says he is tilting towards China-Russia. Although India is indifferent to SAARC due to Pakistan, India and Pakistan actively participated in Shanghai Cooperation.
Prothom Alo: Has SAARC fallen apart?
Imtiaz Ahmed: I think Modi is using SAARC for internal politics. He can sit with Pakistan in Shanghai Cooperation, but he cannot in SAARC.
Prothom Alo: Our prime minister is going to China.
Imtiaz Ahmed: We hope we will get a positive message from China in repatriating Rohingyas. China has good relations with Myanmar. We should tell India and China, we need development. We have no intention to politically tilt towards any party.
Prothom Alo: Three female Nobel winners told Sheikh Hasina to go to the International Criminal Court (ICC) on the Rohingya issue. But she did not respond at that time. She has responded recently. What may be the result of this?
Imtiaz Ahmed: In view of the experience of the seventies and nineties, Bangladesh thought that it would be possible to send back Rohingyas in that way. But the government paid less attention to the issue as it was busy with the election. The government did not agree to go to ICC. I closely observed the process when Rohingyas were repatriated in the nineties. I stressed the resolution of citizenship issue of Rohingyas. At that time people concerned said when Myanmar was taking back Rohingyas, the issue of citizenship would be resolved. I think UNHCR has been a big failure. For example, UN did not do its homework about what might be the impact of the Kofi Annan Commission on Myanmar. Just look into the dates. The report was handed over on 23 August and was published on 24 August. Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) carried out on 26 August. Ethnic cleansing or mass killing started on 27 August. Bangladesh should have asked as to why the regiment, which carried out mass killings in other places, was brought to Rakhine state. It is proved that a genocide took place in Rakhine. This factor was not in the past. When crimes against humanity take place in any country, that are no more bilateral issues. Even if hundred per cent repatriation takes place, the issue of genocide remains. ICC has already started working. Rape was not considered as an element of genocide in the seventies. Now it is considered. Aung San Suu Kyi cannot visit any country except China and India. Suu Kyi cannot visit the countries which initiated the ICC. Awami League has got mandate for five years. They will be able to pay special attention to this. After Gambia, OIC comes forward. A big pressure may be created through these. So internationalisation has to be increased. As a result, China will be more concerned.
The main issue of One Belt and Road is investment. China will think ten times before investing in Arakan. China knows the world is paying attention to the area. We have realized that the solution will not come bilaterally. Bangladesh will be more vocal on many issues including safe zone during the prime minister’s upcoming visit to UN.
Prothom Alo: There are differing opinions over creating a safe zone.
Imtiaz Ahmed: China gave a three-tier policy (stopping the conflict, repatriation and going to the root of problems and solving through development). The policy includes the issue of the safe zone. After visiting Bangladesh, the Chinese foreign minister went to Naypyitaw and echoed the same words. A China scholar also talked about unattributed zone.
Prothom Alo: Cox’s Bazar sea port is close to North and East India and Yunnan province of 300 million people. Unrest in Rakhine can make the use of Cox’s Bazar sea port uncertain. It is of common interest to China and India.
Imtiaz Ahmed: It is not that China is unaware of the matter. Visiting China and discussing the matter, I realize that they are worried. It is not true that they have much confidence in Aung San Suu Kyi. China thinks India is giving proxy in Myanmar on behalf of US. But Myanmar is changing its thoughts. They thought that the fight for autonomy by Arakan Army will be stopped once Rohingyas are driven. But that did not stop. Arakan Army said they have no conflict with Rohingyas. Rohingyas do not want autonomy. They want citizenship and the right live anywhere in Myanmar.
Prothom Alo: Is it true that the ARSA is powerful as a source claims?
Imtiaz Ahmed: I don’t think so. Rather it is known that Karen or China has a link as a source of arms for Arakan Army. China has many tools to use. On the contrary, India thinks they need a support of Suu Kyi to create an economic base in Myanmar. Their policy is to keep Myanmar away from China. Narendra Modi could call Sheikh Hasina and Suu Kyi to Delhi and discussed the matter. Instead he tilted towards Myanmar and set an instance of failure. For the first two weeks, Bangladesh was silent. As Modi was going to Naypyitaw, many expected something positive. But he expressed solidarity there, Bangladesh became frustrated. We have to keep in mind that the relation we have with Congress, is not the same as with BJP. BJP thinks that we are the people of Congress and so why will they cooperate with us. The opportunity of mediation was lost and the matter was pushed towards China. People of Bangladesh now think India is not with us.
Prothom Alo: What should we do as far as the Rohingyas stay?
Imtiaz Ahmed: We should not stop negotiations with Myanmar. The number of Rohingyas is more that the total population of Bhutan. Our journalists have to know more about Myanmar. They should know which ministry does what and which western companies are doing business there. Rohingyas should be updated in their own languages. In presence of the state minister for foreign affairs and the foreign secretary, I made a proposal to launch an FM radio. Both of them said that they would follow up the matter.
Prothom Alo: What do you view about the water sharing of common rivers between Bangladesh and India?
Imtiaz Ahmed: Rivers are not only water resources. According to the Upanishads, it is a vein of blood. There must be three elements-soul, life and force. The people who work with water say there must be four elements: water, energy, bio-diversity and sediment. When we talk about water, we merely discuss about fair share of water. So, the outlook of all about rivers has to be changed radically. The people of India have to be made understood. At a hydro-diplomacy course organised by the foreign ministry, I said, “When you discuss water, you must point out how sediment and bio-diversity will be shared. They would realise it is impossible. Then a basin base approach on water sharing will come up. Bhutan, Nepal and China have to be engaged.”
Only 18 per cent water of Brahmaputra flows from the Himalayas. The remaining 82 per cent is rain water. However, that 18 per cent is very important. We have high quality hydrologists, but no sedimentologists. If we realise sediment, a big change will come over water politics with India for 50 years. People of both the countries will be benefited. We have to emphasise rain harvesting.
Prothom Alo: Will you say anything about Teesta agreement?
Imtiaz Ahmed: Indian river expert Kalyan Rudra’s Teesta report was not published. Sikkim built 18 to 20 barrages. Mamata wants guarantee from Sikkim as to how much water will flow to the West Bengal. If I don’t get the guarantee, Mamata said, “How will I share fifty-fifty? Will I give fifty of full glass or half glass?”
Prothom Alo: Has the politics been the main issue, more than sharing water by signing the Teesta agreement?
Imtiaz Ahmed: Of course there is a matter to show the people. This happened in the Farakka treaty.
Prothom Alo: The matter did not come to attention as Mamata publicly talked about Sikkim. She appointed Kalyan Rudra.
Imtiaz Ahmed: That is clear in the report of Rudra.
Prothom Alo: Have you read it?
Imtiaz Ahmed: I have heard from Rudra and other experts. We along with Veena Sikri went to Sikkim. It was six to seven years ago. Veena Sikri said, “There is no water.” Little water is flowing to West Bengal crossing so many dams. Now we are discussing about sharing this little amount water. It will not benefit us in a great deal. So those problematic those dams have to be closed first.
Prothom Alo: What have we heard for so long? Manmohan Singh also pointed to Mamata. People are not informed about the truth. Should we send hilsa fish as greetings to Sikkim?
Imtiaz Ahmed: At least they start breaking dams.
Prothom Alo: Thank you.
Imtiaz Ahmed: Thank you.
* Mizanur Rahman Khan is a joint editor at Prothom Alo. This interview, originally published in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Rabiul Islam.