Hasina can’t go back empty-handed, says former envoy Tariq Karim

Hasina can’t go back empty-handed, says former envoy Tariq Karim

Former Bangladesh envoy says the Teesta agreement is crucial for her govt.

As Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina arrives in India to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Shantiniketan, she must not be sent back “empty-handed,” says her former envoy to India, and former World Bank adviser on South Asian Integration, Tariq Karim, a leading expert on India-Bangladesh ties. Excerpts from interview:

What are the expectations from PM Hasina’s visit in Dhaka?

Sheikh Hasina is going to India to open the Bangla Bhawan, for which a decision was actually taken in 2010, and it has now been completed. So the question is why she is coming to Bengal at this time, given that this is also a crucial election year, and she faces a third term in office if she wins. Politics can be fickle, and people remember what you haven’t done rather than the good things you do. So her visit to India could also be used against her, with questions about why she has done so much for India if she has not received much in return. For Bangladesh, the most critical factor is water.

What if the Teesta agreement does not go forward during this visit?

It is clear that the real block for the Teesta agreement is that West Bengal has to sort out its problems internally with the Centre in India. If the Teesta doesn’t happen, Sheikh Hasina cannot just come for the Bangla Bhawan opening, convocation etc. and go back empty-handed, because politically she will have problems. There are still other things India can do to offset that. One is the upgradation of the Ganges water barrage, where we are awaiting an answer from India. The second is the Hasina-Singh agreement to change the narrative from sharing of waters, to managing the water basins, which is an idea we can take forward. We have shared history, geography, ecology, forestry, but our political problems overshadow all that again and again.

On the other big political issue likely to come up, the return of the Rohingya refugees to Myanmar, what can India offer? Recently, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Myanmar and called for the swift and sustainable return of Rohingya…will that help?

Conditions for Rohingya to remain in their homeland were made so terrible by the Junta that they had to flee. Personally I think Bangladesh will be stuck with the numbers that have fled, because Myanmar will not take them back without serious inducements from the international community, and an internal understanding that what was done was wrong. India has offered to build accommodation for the refugees when they return, but are they returning at all, and how soon? They are cramped into a tiny space with cyclones and landslides threatening their eco-system. We have a two-fold challenge, to ensure their security and safety, but also ensure conditions where their anger at the injustice done to them is not used to radicalise them.

How big a threat is radicalisation?

Refugee camps everywhere have been a festering ground for radicalism. When the Myanmar government cracked down in 2017, very few able-bodied adult men came across, but many women with adolescent children now live in the camps (at Cox’s Bazaar). These children will carry anger with them, and are open to being exploited. In the mid-2000s, the JMB, JMJB and other terror groups had recruited from Rohingya camps, being trained in the Chittagong hills, and I worry that history can repeat itself. We need to steer them from this course, and educate and employ them, and we hope India will help us in this effort.

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