Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Illegal migration not a bilateral conflict

Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni speaks to Barkha Dutt, an Indian television journalist and Group Editor with NDTV on the issue of migration from Bangladesh to India and water sharing treaty between the two countries. Here is the full transcript:

Barkha Dutt: This session of Parliament might well see the UPA government seeking a ratification of the land boundary agreement with Bangladesh. It's just one of the many issues between India and Bangladesh that could be resolved, but are awaiting the crossing of that last lap. Of course, in India there is also, now, a raging controversy over the issue of migration from Bangladesh into India. Here, in Dhaka, to take us through some of those issues is Bangladesh's Foreign Minister, Dipu Moni. Pleasure talking to you, Ma'am.

Dr Moni: Wonderful talking to you.

Barkha Dutt: Let me start by asking you, there was so much expectation of the Teesta Accord coming through between India and Bangladesh, the two Governments, of course, reached a consensus. And then domestic politics within India, in a sense, played obstacle. How seriously could this issue impact the larger relationship between Delhi and Dhaka?

Dr Moni: Well, as the relationship between our two countries stands now, I would say it is excellent. And it's the same spirit that we had in 1971; I think it's that kind of spirit that we're experiencing between the two countries, the way both the countries are collaborating with each other. And, during the landmark visit of our Prime Minister to Delhi in 2010, the Joint Declaration that the two Prime Ministers signed, I mean, that had many things in it. And over the years, over the last two years, both governments have worked very hard to implement those. And, I would say, we have done quite a lot. We have done quite a lot and a lot has been achieved. What; You talk about the expectation about the Teesta.

Barkha Dutt: Of course there was great disappointment...

Dr Moni: Just before the visit of Dr Manmohan Singh to Dhaka, there was this expectation, and very high, that the Teesta Accord will be signed. Unfortunately, it didn't...

Barkha Dutt: ...Materialise?

Dr Moni: Materialise. But, a lot of other things happened. And if we look at the positives that happened, quite substantial and we are very happy with those. But, definitely, if we could have had Teesta it would have been perfect. But you deal with imperfections all the time. So yes, people are disappointed, people, people in Bangladesh, we would like to see Teesta really done and we are waiting; and we would like it to be sooner rather than later.

Barkha Dutt: Is it your understanding that it will be delivered upon?

Dr Moni: Well, I believe, between the two countries, given the relationship, it's only natural that we would have this Accord; and would have this water treaty. And we have, we share, 54 common rivers. If we do this one, it will only be a second one. So what we have done already, during Dr Manmohan Singh's visit, is that we have signed a co-operation, a framework co-operation agreement. And, in that agreement, we have talked about dealing with the water issues in a holistic manner doing the basin-wide management of the rivers; so that is, I think, tremendous progress on this front. So, I'm not unhappy at all with the progress that we have made but, definitely, we would like to have Teesta. And, as I said, it's only the second one. So, it will be delivered; I'm sure, I'm sure.

Barkha Dutt: Were you surprised at Mamata Banerjee's statements and have you tried to, independently, reach out to her since then?

Dr Moni: Well we knew it was not going to be signed just, just, before the ...

Barkha Dutt: Just on the eve of it, yes.

Dr Moni: Just on the eve of it, and very late; but we didn't know why, at that moment.

Barkha Dutt: Since then she has made statements that there is not enough water for West Bengal.

Dr Moni: Yes, yes.  But I have visited her; I have met her once during my, on my way back from Bengaluru, after attending the IORAC meeting. And we discussed, of course, Teesta was one of the issues, and...

Barkha Dutt: What was your reading? Did you think that she would come around?

Dr Moni: Well, she said, she gave me her views and, obviously, I gave our view, which is, it is a common river, it is a common river, and there are rights of many, many people. And it's not the question of someone giving it to another; one person giving it to another, it's sharing. And if we have less water, we will share that lesser amount. It's all about sharing and between two neighbours, that's what we need to do.

Barkha Dutt: The transit-rights' issue that India and Bangladesh have been trying to work out for India to have faster access to parts of its own country in the East. How much of that is based on a reciprocal understanding that Teesta will be delivered by Delhi. And don't give me the diplomat's answer; give me the real answer.

Dr Moni: We are, we are, working on the transit issue because it is a very big issue; because it consists of the road transit, the rail transit and also the water transit. So we have, actually, engaged a task force, a core committee, which looked at the whole issue; and, because this is new for us, we tried to look at other comparable situations in other parts of the world, and have come up with a, a, framework and we are now looking at what we need in terms of infrastructure, in terms of legal, what do I call it ...

Barkha Dutt: Modalities?

Dr Moni: Legal instruments, where are the gaps; and now we have identified the gaps and infrastructure development, it takes time.

Barkha Dutt: But politically...

Dr Moni: But legal instruments, we're working on them. On infrastructure, both sides, we are working on them. So it will take a little time. I wouldn't say one is dependent on the other but it would be very nice if we could have Teesta.

Barkha Dutt: Is that another way of saying, if Teesta were delivered on, transit rights would move faster?

Dr Moni: Transit would. No, transit is moving at its own pace. Yes, it hasn't been stuck anywhere. It's moving, our work is going because we, this is something we, believe in, because we believe in regional connectivity.

Barkha Dutt: It's not conditional? It's not conditional on Teesta?

Dr Moni: I don't think so. I don't think it's conditional on Teesta. But, definitely, having Teesta would, definitely, be helpful.

Barkha Dutt: Another area of agreement that seeks the next step is, what's called, the land swap deal which are the enclaves on which Bangladesh and India have agreed to, virtually, swap these areas and give these people who haven't had citizenship right, on either side, those rights. Now this needs a Constitutional Amendment in India and a two-thirds majority in Parliament. So it not just needs the allies of the Congress Party's support, but also needs other groups. I'm sure you're aware about the real politics that drive this. Are you expecting this to go through soon or do you understand that domestic politics could mean that this could take a long time?

Dr Moni: This is ratification that is needed and we have been waiting. In fact both countries have been waiting for quite a long time. It's not '71; it goes back a long, long time. And, I believe, India will deliver.

Barkha Dutt: Is there a time frame?

Dr Moni: Well, I wouldn't. I wouldn't put any time frame because I can say what I, as a person, am going to do, but how can I say anything about a Parliament? You have so many people, and in their Parliament they have different ways of dealing with things, and they have their own pace. So how can you really?

Barkha Dutt: Let me ask you in another way. How patient is the political will here, in terms of understanding that there is a government here, which has its own majority, but there is a government in Delhi, which doesn't have its own majority? So the decision-making capacity is, naturally, influenced much more by domestic politics.

Dr Moni: See, at the same time, even during the Indian Law Minister's visit to Bangladesh, he was representing India in our celebration of 90 years bijoy, of Kazi Nazrul Islam, and he also had Members of Parliament belonging to the Opposition and they all spoke in one voice about being good neighbours and good friends with Bangladesh; and they did talk about the foreign policy of India, being something where they all come together. If a government has promised something to a neighbour or to another country, that, irrespective to whether someone is in opposition or in office, they would be supported. So, that was the, that was the understanding given to us by, as recently as I would say, two months ago. And the other thing is that this is something that has remained as an unresolved issue between the two countries for quite some time. And both countries are looking forward to resolving those long-pending issues and, I believe, India is as eager as Bangladesh is in resolving these issues. So, I hope that it is done soon.

Barkha Dutt: The border between India and Bangladesh is the root of many, many, many conflicts. And, for India, and you must have followed what's happening in India, the issue of migration from Bangladesh into India has become a very serious point of national debate; and that is because of the recent, very tragic, conflagration in the Eastern state of Assam. We have had our principle Opposition party, again, talking about deporting, what they call illegal migrants from Bangladesh. This case is now even in the courts of the country. Talking about this, it's a very emotive and a very volatile issue in India. How does the government here, in Dhaka, view this?

Dr Moni: Well, we had, you see; this whole region we have to; whenever we talk about migration, we have to know about the history. And there we have had migration in 1947; we have had migrations also in 1971. But during 1971, India hosted nearly 10 million of our people. But, I would say, most of them returned to Bangladesh after our Independence, after the Liberation. Since '71, how many people have crossed the border, either way, I don't know. We don't have any figures.

Barkha Dutt: Because the border is so porous...

Dr Moni: Border is porous and there is always to-ing and fro-ing all the time; and families, the way the borders were drawn, families were always going back and forth from both sides. So, I don't have any figures, we don't have any figures, whether in Assam or anywhere, or in Bangladesh of people who migrated.

Barkha Dutt: But when you hear of political parties in India talk about deporting, what they call illegal migrants, does that concern you? If that were to happen, because it could happen if the court ordered it; that has happened in the past, what would be the response of Bangladesh?

Dr Moni: When these people migrated that would, since when these people are there, that would definitely be something to look at. And, I'm sure, the legal issues that are concerned may be settled; and once these issues are settled, only then can we say.

Barkha Dutt: You don't see it as a point of bilateral conflict?

Dr Moni: I don't see it as a bilateral conflict, no, because this hasn't been raised with us, at least not in the recent past, no. There are economic migrations going on in so many places but the, this hasn't been, this hasn't been an issue that was raised with us. So, I wouldn't, I wouldn't term it as a bilateral issue. If there is something that is going wrong with Assam, they would have to look at the, because...

Barkha Dutt: Because there isn't actually agreement as to whether they are settlers or migrants, but then, the key question would be if migration still continues?

Dr Moni: Migration happened, so these are also some factual, some legal questions, so I wouldn't like to comment on that.

Barkha Dutt: But you know that, just at a humanitarian basis, one of the things that could come up, because this debate is happening in India right now, and the international debate is on Bangladesh's refusal to take in refugees from Burma, the Rohingyas; and, therefore, a number of people will say that of course, the humanitarian refuge was given to mass migration in, in for example, 1971. But then, shouldn't Bangladesh be doing the same for the Rohingyas today? And if it isn't, then why isn't it understanding that political parties are objecting to Bangladeshi migration?

Dr Moni: You see, Rohingyas coming into Bangladesh; that also has a history. And that is very different.

Barkha Dutt: No, I'm not doing a literal comparison but the principle of it.

Dr Moni: Yes. You see, Bangladesh has never forgotten 1971 and that is why, when the Rohingyas entered, there was a mass entry of mass expatriates from Myanmar into Bangladesh in 1979 and then also in 1992; we let them in. And we have been, I would say, very gracious hosts to a large number of Myanmar refugees, and until 2005, most of them went back. They were repatriated. About 24,000 of them were left and then the repatriating process completely stopped. And in the meantime, say about, now it's an estimate, between three hundred to five thousand illegal entrants into Bangladesh. They're now residing in the neighbouring areas, in the bordering areas. And this has been a huge burden on Bangladesh. Bangladesh, you know, is one of the most densely populated countries in the world and the Rohingya refugees are being very well taken care of. In fact I would say that they are better off than our local population who live outside the camps and that also gives rise to sometimes social tensions. 

Barkha Dutt: But in many ways that's the argument made in India as well. 

Dr Moni: So we have been very good to them, we have been very, very good to the refugees. And the illegal entrants, they have also been here now for a number of years and it is putting a huge burden on Bangladesh. And we have been talking about this since their entry; we have been talking about this repatriation process. This is not like one person migrating, having economic migration, having relatives on the other side, going there or one person coming to this side - it's not like that. This is like mass movement. I'm sure something like that didn't happen in the recent past in Assam. If something had happened, that happened in 1947, during the Partition, but not now. And that also happened in both ways. This one, the Rohingyas, we have been doing our best, but we also have, this is when a refugee situation occurs, it is also the responsibility of the world community to share the burden. That burden sharing hasn't been there. 

Barkha Dutt: There have been suggestions by some groups that if you let them in, the world, the world will step into help. 

Dr Moni: Well in refugee camps, some of them are helping. The UNHCR, some of them are helping. And about the illegal entrants, they are not refugees. So how do you deal with them? They have to be repatriated and for us voluntary repatriation is the only solution. And so we have been bilaterally discussing this issue with Myanmar and we hope that there will be a solution, but even the talks are very slow. But for Bangladesh, it has now reached a point where we cannot take anymore burden. What we have done is, when some of the people came through boats, we have given them fuel, we have given them medicines, we have given them the fuel for their boats so that they don't get stuck on the waters and then returned them. And since they have returned, now not too many people are coming. And this time also there was sectarian violence, not a state prosecution, like in the past. For sectarian violence if something happens, you do not expect another country to, I mean, this time the situation was factually very different from the past. And that is why we believe that our response was also not illogical at all or not irrational at all. And we believe that we have done the right thing and what best we could offer, we have offered. 

Barkha Dutt: Okay...

Dr Moni: And we have been talking to Myanmar people and what the best we could offer we offered. And we have been talking to Myanmar people and they have also been able to bring the violence down. 

Barkha Dutt: One of the other irritants between India and Bangladesh are the border killings. It has been, what the Border Security Force in India will say, or smugglers or criminals or infiltrators will say, your government has been told that even if they are criminals, arrest them, but you have argued that they are being fired upon indiscriminately. Is this an issue that is now resolved?

Dr Moni: Well, not yet. Because you see border killings are still happening, though, definitely in terms of numbers it has gone down, but still killings are happening and this is an issue, which I think, this one issue jeopardises all other achievements, I would say.

Barkha Dutt: So do you mean this casts a longer shadow than most other issues?

Dr Moni: Absolutely, absolutely. And people feel very strongly about it and that is why we have always urged the Indian side, and from the Indian government also, they have repeatedly said that they will try to contain their forces and try to make sure that they exercise utmost restraint. So the trend is good but we want the numbers down to zero.

Barkha Dutt: Something that grabs headlines for all the wrong reasons is somebody who never stays out of news for too long, is Taslima Nasrin. And I ask you about her, because I know you are a lover of good books and she is a writer and she has had an asylum in India previously, which stopped as well because of various controversies at home. How do you view her case? Do you view it as an international case that Bangladesh could handle or should handle differently?

Dr Moni: Well, she is a citizen of Bangladesh and she has been living in exile. Through her writings she sort of became very controversial. And there were, at that time, the extremist forces and the fundamentalists were also very vocal about it. So there was a situation maybe, or she chose to leave the country. So as a citizen am sure that she has all the rights. And I don't; I read a lot of books and I have read one of two of her books; am not very fond of her. I would say as a writer, obviously she has her own views, and she is entitled to that. I'm not a huge fan of her writing, not the style, not the style of writing, very provocative kind of writing.

Barkha Dutt: Okay. On a more personal note before we end, a woman in politics, Bangladesh's first woman Foreign Minister. This is a part of our world that all of us come from, where the paradox that women have never had a problem leading our country, being in the ministry of politics, yet it doesn't always percolate down. So, you know, you have great symbols of power, great symbols of political power, but not necessarily empowerment and freedom for the ordinary woman. How has the ride been for you so far, wearing the female hat? Has the gender ever come in the way of you being able to do your job? Is there resistance from other quarters?

Dr Moni: Well, it comes once in a while. 

Barkha Dutt: It always does, there is no escaping.

Dr Moni: I wouldn't say that it has never come. It has come once in a while, but I think I grew up in an environment where I was always treated as an individual, and when I felt like a woman, I thought, I always thought that was a privilege; that it was wonderful to be a woman. And, there are so many things. The most important thing in life, childbirth, that woman carries that child, so why shouldn't I feel proud for being a woman? I feel proud and I feel comfortable being a woman.

Barkha Dutt: And in politics is it an advantage, a disadvantage or neither? 

Dr Moni: Well I wouldn't say that it's an advantage or a disadvantage. Probably a lot it depends on self. You see in our personal lives also, every household, yes there are still many discriminations, and at the same time mothers are the decision makers in most houses I would say, and we have great women champions, and even if you look at the religion and I keep saying this, in Buddhism, they say that men are the carriers of Knowledge and women are carriers of Wisdom; and in Hinduism you have all the great goddesses. And in Islam the first person to convert was a woman, first martyr in the cause of Islam was a woman, and our prophet was actually surrounded by powerful women and very influential women, and the women played great roles in his life. So I think from that point of view also in our society, Bangladesh is a melting pot of religions, cultures and all that. Here we see that quite a lot; women are, at some stages of lives, are very powerful, they are the decision makers. At another stage, they are very vulnerable; there is still a lot of discrimination that goes on, there is still a lot of violence that goes on. But I think women decision makers, specially the President, Prime Minister, of Bangladesh, has made tremendous difference in her previous tenure, during the National Women's Development policy, doing a lot of things for the woman, empowering woman.

Barkha Dutt: There was a reference to it in her speech in the People's Empowerment Conference.

Dr Moni: Yes, and she believes in it. That is why there are so many of us in the Parliament, in the cabinet, in the party. And as I said, yes, sometimes we also feel, sort of not always, at times also I think it's also great, I would say most of the time it's great being a woman.

Barkha Dutt: Well, most of the time. It's a great pleasure talking to you.

Dr Moni: Thank you. Wonderful talking to you.

Barkha Dutt: Thank you so much.

Full transcript of the interview in NDTV, August 08, 2012