‘Bangladesh will never be a safe haven for militants’

Former Bangladesh Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia fears India is distancing itself from its neighbour by supporting the government of Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina. In an exclusive email interview to Sonia Sarkar, the Opposition leader, however, stresses that her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) believes in working closely with New Delhi. Would the BNP’s ties with India be affected if Narendra Modi came to power? “It is for the people of India to decide whom they choose to govern their country,” she replies. Extracts from the interview:

Q: Why did you boycott parliamentary polls in January 2014?

A:Our decision not to participate in the election was a principled one. It arose in response to the Awami League’s calculated move to annul the 13th Amendment, in May 2011, to the Constitution which provided for a neutral, non-party caretaker government to oversee general elections and replace it with the 15th Amendment one month later, which provided for elections to be held under a political government while members of Parliament were still in place.

The BNP along with the overwhelming majority of the people of Bangladesh opposed the Constitution’s 15th Amendment because of their firm belief that is was susceptible to widespread electoral manipulation. Suffice it to say that our stance was fully vindicated by the people of Bangladesh, who outright rejected the fraudulent election of January 5, 2014… More than half the total parliamentary seats was declared by the Election Commission to have been won “uncontested”, including those of the Speaker and the leader of the Opposition. Election for the remaining seats was a conspicuous sham with an abysmally low voter turnout, around 5 per cent according to reliable estimates.

Q:But after boycotting the parliamentary elections, why is the BNP participating in the upazila council elections?

A:The reasons are simple. First, our demand for elections under a non-party caretaker government is for the parliamentary elections, not for elections to the local bodies. Second, elections to local bodies are non-party though the individuals concerned seek a measure of support from political parties. Third, because local body elections are smaller in dimension, scrutiny is easier. Importantly, local elections are not game changing.

Q: What’s your next challenge? Are you in favour of a dialogue with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina?

A:The next big challenge, indeed, the paramount objective of the BNP and its future political programme, is to realise the aspirations of the people of Bangladesh to exercise their right to vote and to freely choose their own representatives. How long can Sheikh Hasina continue to ignore such a deeply rooted public demand and still claim to speak for democracy? She must respond to the people’s demand or take refuge in mounting autocracy.

Q: It seems unlikely that Sheikh Hasina will go for a re-poll before her five-year term ends. Have you lost your chance of ruling Bangladesh?

A:The BNP has consistently and positively responded to all domestic and international calls for dialogue in the face of continuous stalling and intransigence by the Awami League. BNP, like the people of Bangladesh, believes it is imperative to hold meaningful dialogues between the major political parties for free, fair, credible and inclusive elections.

I may point out that neither my party nor I believe in “ruling” Bangladesh. We believe in serving our country and people.

Q: In India many believe that you are not a “friend”. Why is your image so anti-India?

A:Our party and I personally believe in maintaining friendly relations with all countries, especially with our neighbours. We also believe that such relations should be based on the universally recognised principles of mutual benefit and respect.

As our closest neighbour, our relation with India is of added significance and relevance. I had reiterated this to the political leadership of India at every level during my visit to New Delhi in November 2012 at the invitation of the Indian government, when I was warmly received. My impression is that my assurances of friendship and mutually beneficial co-operation were deeply appreciated.

Q: Yet the UPA government has supported Sheikh Hasina…

A:India, which has a long and proud history of democracy, should stand on the side of the people of Bangladesh, as it did during our glorious war of liberation in 1971. By extending support to a government that is in office through a fraudulent election and one which has seen the disenfranchisement of the public… India may distance itself from the people of Bangladesh.

Q: How do you see India-Bangladesh ties if BJP’s Narendra Modi comes to power?

A:Relations between Bangladesh and India should not be contingent on an individual or any particular political party. It should be based on the need to address the interests of the people of the two countries and be responsive to their perceptions of each other. It is for the people of India to decide whom they choose to govern their country. We believe in working closely with the elected government for furthering our relations.

Q: The Hasina government alleges that your government has been harbouring Indian militants from the Northeast.

A:Sheikh Hasina’s remarks are baseless, false and clearly motivated. During my meeting with the Indian leadership in 2012, I had assured them that the territory of Bangladesh shall never be allowed to be used by anyone against the interests of India or for anything that could threaten India’s security. Bangladesh has never been nor will it ever be a safe haven for militants.

Q: But the Awami League party holds that the BNP and its key ally, the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami party, are friends of al Qaida, which has threatened to wage an intifada in Bangladesh.

A:No terrorist threat should be taken lightly, nor should these be used for narrow political gains. The blame game is self-defeating. Global terrorism has to be taken seriously and there should be concerted efforts and preparedness to combat this threat. Terrorism or militancy can have no place in our pluralist societies.

The BNP has been consistent in condemning and acting resolutely against terrorism in any form and manifestation. This is evident from the manner in which the BNP government in the past has acted against terrorists. Between 2005 and 2006, the BNP government arrested 1,177 terrorists and extremists.

During the time of the Awami League government between 1996 and 2001 Bangladesh witnessed the presence of new terrorist groups and attacks on cultural events.

There are differences between the political philosophies of the BNP and the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami. Our relation with the Jamaat is an electoral alliance. There is, however, a history of political alliances between the Jamaat and other major political parties. The Awami League, for example, maintained very close alliance with the Jamaat going back to the 1980s and 1990s. It was also the Awami League that signed a memorandum of understanding with the fundamentalist party, Bangladesh Khelafate Majlish, in 2006. That MoU was aimed at legalising religious fatwa.

Q: There is a popular movement for punishing war criminals. How true is the general perception that those undergoing life sentences will be released and rehabilitated by the BNP if it comes to power?

A:We believe that anyone who has committed crimes against humanity should be held accountable and brought before the realm of law. The BNP will try all those who have committed crimes against humanity in Bangladesh through a process that is transparent and one that meets international standards.

Q: Recently, a “telephonic” conversation between you and Sheikh Hasina went viral. Didn’t it highlight the ego clash between Bangladesh’s two top leaders?

A:The telephone conversation was a privileged communication between the leaders of the country’s top political parties. It should have been treated as such. The act of making it public by the government was inappropriate, motivated as well as a breach of trust.

Q: What will the BNP focus on now?

A:Let me end by saying that for Bangladesh democracy, rule of law, human rights and good governance are vital if we are to avoid chaos and political instability. A democratic, peaceful and a politically stable Bangladesh is not just in our interest — it is also in the interest of our region.

Source: Telegraph India