Former prime minister Moudud Ahmed discusses Bangladeshi electoral politics, the threat from ISIS, and diplomatic ties with India and China.
When the Bangladesh National Party-Jamaat combine was in power in Bangladesh from 2001-2006, India had a difficult relationship with its neighbour, especially given that Indian security agencies accused Dhaka of turning a blind eye to North East insurgency camps on its soil. But India has whole-heartedly supported the Awami League government since Sheikh Hasina came to power, despite the international community questioning the legitimacy of the 2014 Bangladeshi polls and the rise of radicalism in the country.
With New Delhi shielding Bangladesh in the international arena, the BNP, now in the opposition, has visibly softened its stance toward India in recent years. Although mid-level BNP party members visit Delhi on low profile visits to meet officials or politicians, there has been no concerted mission to court India yet.
Speaking to The Wire, former Bangladeshi prime minister Moudud Ahmed, who is a member of BNP’s standing committee, insists that his visit to India this week was only a private one to deliver a lecture at the invitation of Delhi-based think tank, the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies. However, he does not mince words when it comes to India’s interactions with Bangladesh and thinks New Delhi is being short-sighted by only dealing with one party. Ahmed claimed that the BNP and Awami League are now closer in their positions on terrorism, and that Bangladesh will not let its soil be used against India. With BNP’s links to the Jamaat a constant source of displeasure for India, Ahmed insisted the alliance was merely for electoral convenience.
Excerpts from the interview:
It is rare for a senior leader of the BNP to visit India. What is the message that you want to convey?
We would like to continue with our good relationship that we have with India and Bangladesh. That should be continued. There should be more cooperation between the two countries, particularly with respect to the sharing of waters. There are 54 rivers coming from India to Bangladesh and flowing into the Bay of Bengal. So far, we have only managed to resolve [the] sharing of waters of the Ganges. We are eagerly waiting to have agreement on the Teesta river waters. This was expected a long time ago. But it has yet not materialised. In 2011, Manmohan Singh as prime minister of India visited Bangladesh. On that occasion, it was announced that [the] agreement would be signed. Unfortunately, it did not go through.
We have resolved some problems, of course… land boundary, and the maritime zone – that has been resolved through arbitration. These were two important issues left over besides Teesta. The BJP government did take the initiative to amend the constitution [to implement the land boundary agreement].
When you came in 2012 as part of an all-party delegation, you had said that “India no more relies on one party”. But that is not how New Delhi’s relationship has panned out in the past few years. The Indian government, whether UPA or NDA, has given full support to the Awami League government, despite criticisms. Do you feel that there is justification for this one-party policy?
During the time of the liberation war when India had come to help us, that time Congress was ruling. Awami League was in the leadership of the freedom struggle. The bond that was created between the two countries continued. That relationship has continued, even today, after the BJP has come to power. Many people expected in Bangladesh that there would be a shift in policy (when the NDA took over in 2014). But it has not happened. The present government is following the same policy of the previous government, as far as the Awami league is concerned. This is a very short-sighted policy of India. India should aim at creating an environment so that people of Bangladesh and India, there is a connectivity between the people, instead of relying on a particular political party.
But, if the Awami League government meets India’s key security concerns, why shouldn’t they receive full support?
See, now on terrorism, there is no difference between the two political parties. BNP is more eager to see a national platform to unite all the political forces and sections of people to resist terrorism. That has been made clear. Then, BNP has categorically stated that Bangladesh will not allow Bangladeshi soil to be used against the interest of India.
But your key ally is the Jamaat-e-Islami, whose members have sometimes been accused of having terror links and close connections with Pakistan.
Our alliance with the Jamaat is an electoral alliance, rather than an ideological alliance. The BNP is a centrist, liberal democratic party and ideologically we are far, far, far away from each other. This was an electoral alliance. This can happen in any country that for winning the election, you must strike an alliance with a suitable partner as Jamaat is a registered political party. It is not a banned political party.
Remember, the Awami League in 2006 had agreed on a four point understanding with the Khilafat-e-Majlish, which was far, far right than even Jamaat. They believed in fatwa and everything. They struck an alliance for their election purposes. That doesn’t mean that the Awami League had sacrificed their ideology. Same here also. We may be working together on certain polls, but the BNP stands on its own politics, it cannot support the politics of Jamaat-e-islam and it can never do so in the future either.
So the BNP needs the Jamaat, as you don’t have the cadres?
Jamaat is more cadre based, BNP is not. BNP relies more on popular support… We are not together, even though we may act together. It is a question of distributing seats between the two. Where there are Jamaati strongholds there, more support, they were given those seats. This happens in India, in every democracy.
But, an electoral alliance is not so simple. It requires quid pro quo on policies, especially when the alliance wins power.
No. We did not compromise with the Jamaat when we were in power.
For the Indian establishment, one of the abiding memories of the BNP-Jamaat government was a lack of cooperation on security issues, with the massive Chittagong arms haul being part of institutional memory.
We were in the government, but it doesn’t mean we were involved. We immediately took action as any government would do and cases were started against them.
Even though the BNP has floated the concept of national unity on terrorism, there has not been any positive response from the government, so far.
Right now there is no democracy in Bangladesh. In the absence of democracy, there has been a rise of terrorism in Bangladesh recently as there is a political vacuum in the country. You have a government not representing the people. More than 50 million people did not have to go the polling centre to cast their vote (in Bangladesh general elections in January 2014). There was no contest in 152 constituencies out of 300 constituencies. Would you call it an election? Would you call it an elected government? Technically, you can say that they are elected, but for all practical purposes, they do not represent the people as they were not allowed to cast their vote.
How do you align this belief with the recent terror attack in Dhaka’s Gulshan area which was claimed by ISIS?
I am saying that maybe, I cannot say assertively about an international link. What I can say is that so long it was presumed that madarsa educated people were getting involved in jongibad. [The] Gulshan incident has opened up a new window that it is not just madarsa educated, but [also the] English educated have lost interest. One could be that they have lost faith in the politicians or they have lost faith in the present system of government or society as a whole. It is maybe a kind of expression of their frustration of their life and of their values that they aspire to have.
You said in a recent speech that there was an international conspiracy against Bangladesh. Can you explain what you meant?
I have no personal knowledge whether there is any international connection or not. I basically think that they are home-grown terrorists. But some of the terror organisations like Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh, Ansarullah Bangla and Hizb ut-Tahrir, they claim that they have international affiliation. But, I do not know that. I think that most of them are home-grown acts of terrorism.
In that aspect, you do agree with the Bangladesh government that all the acts of terrorism have been done by home-grown terrorists?
To an extent, yes, I do. How do I say that ISIS is involved? We don’t have the information. What I am saying is that people do suspect that they have international connections.
When you were justice minister, you began the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), which is now accused of severe human rights violations. Do you think that it has fulfilled its mandate?
RAB’s role is completely different now. RAB was never used for political purpose when we were in the government. Nobody could show a single example that a politician was arrested or harassed or killed in extrajudicial killing or crossfire. So, RAB was very popular because of their good work. But, since the Awami League government has come, they are using it. RAB is now very much involved in political matters, in suppressing the opposition.
How do you see Pakistan’s role in the current spike in terrorism in Bangladesh? Especially with fingers being pointed at a Pakistani connection.
In my view, Pakistan has no relevance to Bangladesh anymore. That chapter was over a long time ago. Though [the] Awami League tries to blame BNP by bringing up Pakistan, I can say that there is no connection with Pakistan. Pakistan is in so much trouble itself. Many people have started to call Pakistan a failed state, so what can it do in Bangladesh? So, I do not accept that.
Do you think that Bangladesh should be part of China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative?
I understand, that they want to have India in the (OBOR) exercise. Whatever will be good for the people in the region to Bangladesh, Nepal, India, we should encourage.
But, the rising presence of China with its South Asian neighbours always leads to unease in India. China already has a strong defence relationship with Bangladesh.
That is a matter between India and China. Bangladesh has hardly a say in it. India is our largest neighbour. Surrounding us on three sides. We have to have a good relationship with India. Even if BNP returns to power, it has to maintain a good cordial relationship with India.