Ershad: There's been no large migration from Bangladesh to India
Ershad's interview with The Times of India
Reported on: August 20, 2012 10:14 AM
Reported in: National
Hussain Muhammad Ershad, former president of Bangladesh and chief of the Bangladesh army, currently chairman of the Jatiya Party, was recently invited to parleys with the Indian leadership. Speaking with Rudroneel Ghosh, Ershad discussed the India-Bangladesh equation, Dhaka's democracy - and illegal migration from Bangladesh to India:
How do you define current India-Bangladesh relations?
There are three major issues that concern us right now - the Teesta water treaty, the exchange of enclaves and the proposed Tipaimukh dam. I talked to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh about these. He told me the Teesta deal will happen soon. On Tipaimukh, he told me I can rest assured India will not do anything to harm Bangladesh's interests. The enclave exchange is tricky. It requires a constitutional amendment and the government here is trying to get the support of other political parties.
But overall, the bilateral relationship is currently very good. We want a friendly India, a wealthy India, an economically strong India. You have given us a lot of benefits. Around 40 garment items from Bangladesh have been given duty-free access. Apart from 25 export items, everything else is tax-free. This is a great concession India has given us. I really appreciate this.
However, the Land Boundary Agreement hasn't been implemented - is there frustration over this in Bangladesh?
The 6.5 km of un-demarcated land boundary's been settled. But the enclave issue is going on for 60 years now. We handed over Berubari but didn't get anything in return. Although we've now got the right to use the Tin Bigha Corridor to access our enclaves, the corridor hasn't been handed over to us. Sooner or later, the issue needs to be settled. The people in these enclaves are virtually stateless. The moment they step outside, they are apprehended under the Foreigners Act. Such human misery must stop. I'm hopeful the land boundary agreement will be implemented soon.
The failure to ink the Teesta deal had caused a lot of heartache in Bangladesh. How critical is inking the deal before next year's general election?
There's no doubt it will help the Bangladesh government to see the deal on paper. Your government understands this. I am hopeful something will happen before our general election and your general election in 2014.
What are your thoughts on the illegal migration of Bangladeshis to India, which has led to strife in Assam?
We don't accept that people have migrated from Bangladesh to India on a large scale because our people are poor but your people aren't very rich either. Some people from Bangladesh might go across for work - but every big country faces this. You cannot say this is a migration problem. Yes, some people might come here for work and become permanent inhabitants over time. But again, this is not on a large scale.
You were Bangladesh's martial law administrator, then President, now an elected representative. What are your views on democracy in the subcontinent?
There's no doubt democracy has taken root in India. However, this hasn't happened in Bangladesh because the country is divided into two camps. Elections take place - but the party that loses doesn't go to parliament.
Recently, President Pranab Mukherjee said parliament is the soul of the people. Unfortunately, all the parliaments in Bangladesh have been one-party, non-functional parliaments. If we want to make democracy functional in Bangladesh, parliament must function properly.
Your party is part of the ruling grand alliance in Bangladesh. How would you rate your government's performance ahead of elections next year?
Bangladesh is a difficult country. There are so many problems - cross-currents in politics, anti-India feeling being fanned by certain people, etc. Many things come in the way of the government becoming popular - and the incumbent government in Bangladesh is always unpopular. Every five years people want a change, even though the new government might be worse. But overall, this government has done well.
One hot-button issue in Bangladeshi politics is the caretaker government system, abolished last year. But now there are calls to restore it - your thoughts?
The caretaker government is a popular demand. First the Awami League wanted it, then the BNP wanted it - it was the BNP who passed the 13th Amendment in 1996 and constitutionalised this system whereby elections were to be held under a neutral caretaker government.
But nowhere in the world does this system exist. Those in favour of this system say that the incumbent government cannot be trusted to hold free and fair elections. But we are the elected representatives of the people - they voted for us and want to see their constituencies develop through us. I feel this is a contradiction. Right from the beginning I have been saying the caretaker government system is a black spot. It's an insult to elected representatives.
Given Bangladesh's divided polity, how can bilateral relations be more durable?
There are two political camps in Bangladesh - Awami League and anti-Awami League. Awami League's always been pro-India. The main anti-Awami League party is the BNP. But all of us want good relations with India. Even the BNP knows the reality of India and is aware that Bangladesh cannot be hostile to India.
Some might indulge in anti-India rhetoric for political reasons but we all know India is a very important neighbour - we want positive and equal relations with you. India is a big country, and from that point of view, we want you to be benevolent to us.
What are the other areas of cooperation that the two countries can work on?
Bangladesh has a huge shortage of energy. During the BNP's last tenure, not a single megawatt of electricity was produced. Now India is helping us with the supply of 250MW of power - this is a significant area of cooperation.
Trade between the two neighbours is already doing well. But one issue that is a cause of concern for us is border killing - most of those who are shot by the Indian BSF are poor cattle smugglers. What is the need to do this? They can be simply caught and released after a few days. If we work on these minor issues, relations will smoothen even further.8