While Indian and Bangladesh have addressed major issues including cross-border terrorism and land boundary and maritime disputes in the last few decades, they have enormous opportunities for further cooperation with several areas requiring more attention -- such as water sharing, border killings and Rohingya refugee crisis. Indian High Commissioner Vikram Doraiswami speaks at length in an exclusive interview with The Daily Star's Porimol Palma.
TDS: Bangladesh celebrates its Golden Jubilee of Independence, as well as diplomatic relations with India, this year. How do you evaluate Bangladesh's progress and the diplomatic relations between the two countries?
Doraiswami: First and foremost, the Independence of Bangladesh is the story of the Bangladeshis who basically fought the war. We assisted in it, but we must always remember that we supported the desire of the Bangladeshi people to assert their own identity. Secondly, we have a relationship of 50 years. It was somewhat derailed after the assassination of Bangabandhu. With that direction of the relationship, it did not go as expected.
However, we have moved forward. There is recognition today in both countries and we believe broadly that it is in the fundamental national interests of both the countries to remain closest friends and partners. Our friendly relationship is by far the best thing that we can do to help our own countries grow. This people-centric friendship between the 170 million people of Bangladesh and 1.2 billion people in India is most important. That is the Bangladesh that we will always be friends with.
Lastly, evaluating these 50 years, your achievement in 50 years has been remarkable, particularly in the last decade. Economic development has been tremendous, socio-economic progress has been brilliant. Bangladesh has lifted so much of its population out of abject poverty. These are major achievements. Sometimes, it is hard to see the progress around you. Of course, Bangladeshi people will want more. We all want more. It is a normal instinct. I think there are good positives that help cement our relationship. We can do more trade, people to people connectivity -- all of those happen through progress.
TDS: Do you see any fault lines in the relationship between the two countries?
Doraiswami: No, I would not call them fault lines. I think sometimes people overstate the problems. There are issues -- we are neighbours, we share a 4,100km border. It is important to remember that it is not only your largest land border, but also our largest land border. At places, borders go through highly populated areas where people are fundamentally very similar -- sharing the same language, culture, and history.
So, there will always be some amount of friction and issues between any neighbors. The question is if those frictions are growing or not. I think over the last 10 or 15 years actually, the points of frictions have narrowed. They still exist and need to be addressed, but they are not obstacles to the growth of our relationship. So, I would call them points of attention. We need to pay attention to these issues to fix them.
TDS: The Teesta water sharing treaty has been pending for a decade. People are frustrated about it. Can we expect the deal anytime soon?
Doraiswami: Bangladeshi friends need to understand the complexity of our political system. The constitution puts certain power under states' hands. Those who are old can remember the Farakka Barrage Treaty. That required the government to bring West Bengal on board. We need to bring West Bengal and Sikkim on board [for the Teesta deal]. It is difficult for us to do even if the federal government wants. The government can't unilaterally do it -- this is the point we have been repeatedly saying. We understand Bangladesh's concern and we will do our best to address it, but it needs us to address the political discourse in India.
What we can do, however, in the interim is that we can work on some of our other rivers so there is a sense of progress on river water sharing. We have 52 other rivers on which we need to come up with arrangements. If we wait to do it one by one, God knows how long it will take. We can move with as many parallelly as we can. Towards that end, we had a technical-level meeting in early January. Good outcomes came out of that meeting. We now better understand the water data. A secretary-level meeting of the Joint River Commission will happen soon.
TDS: The Ganges Water Sharing Treaty is going to expire in 2026. Bangladesh is seeking a joint initiative, possibly a barrage, to best utilise the water coming to the Padma River. What's the progress on that front?
Doraiswami: Yes, we had discussed that, including the terms of reference on the joint study. So, that is moving forward now. It is important because we understand the priority you attach to the Padma River water. So, we should move forward faster.
TDS: Border killings has for long been a much-discussed issue between the two countries. How can it be brought to zero?
Doraiswami: Nobody wants to see people killed. But, there are some things that are not accurate in the discourse. First of all, it is not happening on one side only. There are Indian citizens who are also being killed on the border. There are BSF [Border Security Force] troops being maimed in the clashes with groups of smugglers. It is happening almost entirely between 10:00pm and 5:00am, which is not a tourist time. It's all happening on our side of the territory. Not every act of killing has been done by the BSF. There are organised criminal gangs on both sides of the border. People on both sides of the border are involved in illegal activities. Sometimes they are working together and sometimes they are working against each other. Not all the people killed either on the Indian or on the Bangladeshi side are the result of BSF using force. That's sometimes not recognised. The numbers sometimes put out are way excess of what the BSF says. Remember that the border fence, on an average, is 150 yards from the zero line. So, it is not possible for the BSF to cross some 300 yards and kill. Why would they do so? That is not their job, they are not a military force. They are a border security force. So, that means somebody's understanding is wrong.
To eliminate the problem, it is very important that there is far more coordination between the two border security forces. That can include joint patrolling and sharing intelligence. If you can prevent the people from [illegally] crossing the border, there is less of a chance that people get hurt. It is not only the border-guarding forces' job. As governments, we also need to find the ways of telling people not to do these things. People do that not because that is their nature, but because they are desperate… they want economic activity, income. So, we should find ways in investing money in border development, creating border haats, cross-border economic activity, so that people can trade easily with each other, particularly in the Bengal frontier. We can even look into local food processing zones, so that people are habituated to positive economic activity. If we can do that, we can take away the pressure on the border. It is really unfortunate because it is poor people who are being killed.
Finally, ensuring that we understand not all the violence on the border is one-sided. If you look at the last 10 years, the number of Indians who were unfortunately killed on the border are almost the same as the number of Bangladeshis. In 10 years until December 10 last year, a total of 132 Bangladeshis and 95 Indians were killed in BSF firing on the Indian side. During the period, 17 BSF personnel died and 1,110 BSF members were injured in confrontations with smugglers. It is not a good thing. I don't want anyone to be killed. But, the impression that Bangladeshis [alone] are being targeted and shot is not just true.
TDS: When can we see these recommendations implemented?
Doraiswami: We have been pushing for these. Our border security guards and home secretaries meet annually, and our home ministers meet every two years. These processes need to be embedded and instructions needed that these must be done. If we can do this, we can save lives.
TDS: Bangladesh is upset that India has not created enough pressure on Myanmar for Rohingya repatriation. How do you respond to this?
Doraiswami: We want to facilitate the solution. It is to ensure that since we are neighbours to both, both countries see our role as positive and that we are able to create the atmosphere that facilitates your own efforts to reach a solution. We are not intermediaries in this. We do understand the sensitivity of the issue for Bangladesh. It also affects us. People need to remember that we fully understand that it has direct and indirect impact on us, not just the inflow but that the impact on Bangladesh also has an impact on us. People need to understand that just because we are not publicly saying anything doesn't mean we haven't invested in finding a solution. There is a different way of doing it. I was dealing with that relationship also. Every one of us meeting the leadership of Myanmar has made the point of safe, speedy and sustainable repatriation of the displaced persons to Myanmar. The only difference is that we are not doing it publicly. It is more helpful to help create the atmosphere for the people to go back to Rakhine. We will never do anything that is not in the interest of Bangladesh and the long-term stay of one million displaced people is not in Bangladesh's interest. We genuinely want the problem to be solved. We will do what we can do to help find a reasonable solution.
TDS: We know that India is building houses in Rakhine. What else is India doing?
Doraiswami: We are facilitating larger economic development so that we can show the other communities of Rakhine that peace and stability have a positive impact. Our projects that are in Rakhine state are not just houses. There are socio-economic development projects in the three main districts where the problems happened. Those include building small bridges, community centres, and markets so that there is economic incentive for people to come -- not just houses. We have developed a port in Sittwe, which will create economic growth and jobs. We have also worked with Myanmar to create a sense of confidence for bringing people back and solving ethnic problems.
We might not have been able to do any of these if we were publicly vocal. So, somebody will also have to do this part so that there is a larger sense that a solution can be held, that it is reasonable to bring people back -- you have to find a solution. We have also shown up our own federal setup in India so that the peace process of various communities can happen. We think bringing the opportunity of a solution is a positive contribution that we can offer Myanmar.
TDS: Do you also talk about legal issues about the Rohingyas?
Doraiswami: We do discuss these issues. They say that they have a way forward that first of all, people need to go back and then move towards citizenship. We know that there are sensitivities in how they work. What we have been encouraging is that they should move forward. That's the conversation. We don't want to interject ourselves in the negotiation between Myanmar and the displaced people or Bangladesh. Nobody has asked us to do that.
TDS: What would your overall comment on the Bangladesh-India relationship be?
Doraiswami: This is the relationship that has the most material significance to the daily lives of ordinary people of our countries. Getting it right and having an approach that finds solutions rather than faults, we really need to work towards that end. Our region is one of the least connected regions of the world. See the benefits that have come to East Asia, to Southeast Asia from strong connectivity. Forget Europe. Just in our own neighbourhood in Asia, everybody was like us in the 1940s. We are missing the bus. Going ahead is everything for us.