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‘During Our Tenure, Pakistan Tried To Act Against Us To Instigate Terror’

Parul Chandra Dhaka, Bangladesh 22 December 2018

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who is hoping to win a third consecutive term in office in the upcoming parliamentary elections, says that her government if voted back to power, will continue to ensure that her country’s soil is not used to unleash any terror activities against neighbours like India.

“Our stand is very clear. We will not allow anybody to use our soil to launch a terrorist attack against a neighbouring country. This we say not merely as a matter of theory. No, we did it, proved it. And we want this to continue,” said Sheikh Hasina, who has been cracking down hard on Pakistan-linked terror outfits, who are seeking to target India, in her country.

Asked by SNI about her biggest achievement during the decade long rule of her government, the Awami League leader said that the fact that democracy has survived and thrived for a decade in Bangladesh was something that she is particularly proud of. “You (India) have had democracy continuously. You’re not like us. You have enjoyed a democratic system,” she said.

Drawing attention to the chequered political history of her country, which has seen democratic rule interspersed with military takeovers, Sheikh Hasina said, “Without continuous democracy, you cannot develop a country. After three years of our country’s liberation, my father was assassinated. There have been 19 coup d’etats thereafter. Emergency has been imposed time and again. We want democracy to continue.”

Asked about controversial Islamic preacher Zakir Naik who is facing charges of money laundering and hate speeches in India and is also seen as the man who inspired the perpetrators of the terror attack at the Holey Artisan Bakery cafe here, the Bangladesh prime minister responded, “We have no evidence that he was directly involved. Some of his speeches may have inspired some in the name of Islam.” She further noted that “Islam is a religion of peace and because of a few people, it is getting a bad name.”

On the contentious Teesta water sharing issue, the Bangladesh Prime Minister lamented the fact that so far India had been unable to deliver while her government had actively cooperated with New Delhi on tackling terror. “I am hopeful a day will come and we will resolve this problem,” she said.

The sharing of the Teesta waters remains an unresolved, emotive issue between Bangladesh and India due to resistance from West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi promising an “early solution” to the lingering dispute. “She (the West Bengal Chief Minister) promised us that she would solve this problem but maybe they have their reasons for not being able to fulfil it,” said Sheikh Hasina.

Stating that Bangladesh’s geographical position is such that it cannot hold water for the whole year, she said water needs to be released upstream for use downstream. With the country now planning to dredge all its rivers so that they can hold more water, even as the India-Bangladesh Joint Rivers Commission is discussing the matter, Sheikh Hasina said, “We’re hopeful that a day will come when they will realise that the problem has to be resolved.”

But that’s in the future. As of now, Sheikh Hasina is totally focused on the impending electoral battle, with polling slated for December 30. Unlike the 2014 polls when the Awami League’s arch rival, the pro-Pakistan Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led by Khaleda Zia boycotted the polls, this time it is back in the electoral fray making for a keen contest.

But amid all the hurly-burly of electioneering, Sheikh Hasina looked relaxed and unruffled as she fielded a volley of questions in the living room of her private residence in the Dhanmondi area of Dhaka. A painting of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman along with his elderly mother hung on one wall, while that of her parents adorned the opposite wall. Her father’s influence on her, politically and philosophically, is apparent. She mentioned the killing of her father, along with the wiping out of her entire family in 1975, more than once during the interaction.

As Sheikh Hasina spoke about the need to tackle terror, Pakistan was the unmentioned elephant in the room, given the bitterness that has imbued Dhaka-Islamabad ties during her tenure as the prime minister.

The BNP is contesting the elections in an alliance with the Jatiya Oikya Front, comprising several smaller parties. What has caused concern for the Sheikh Hasina government is the BNP’s decision to field as many as 35 persons belonging to the banned fundamentalist party, the Pakistan-leaning Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), as its candidates. The Sheikh Hasina government has maintained a tough stance against this Islamist outfit and many of its key leaders have been executed after conviction for war crimes committed during the 1971 war of liberation.

Asked about these nominations, the Bangladesh Prime Minister said, “The JeI is very much with the BNP. They’ve been working together for a long time and the people don’t accept this. It’s up to them as it’s their alliance, and they’ll decide who they will nominate.”

But she then went on to add, “We don’t want our soil to be used to launch any terrorist activity against our neighbours. We try and find out if there’s any camp. We take action and dismantle such camps.”

“I myself am a victim of terrorism. My father and family was killed,” said she, noting that she herself has faced terror attacks several times since her return to Bangladesh in 1981. Indicating her firm resolve to deal with terror, she said, “Terrorists are terrorists and they have no religion, no country, no borders.”

Pakistan, however, did come up for direct mention by the Awami League leader when she was asked about the Saarc process coming to a standstill. Stating that Bangladesh values cooperation with its neighbours especially regional cooperation, SheikhHasina added, “We also have some reservations. During our tenure, they (Pakistan) tried to act against us to instigate terror. You can see Pakistan’s condition now.”

“We have to find some way (to ensure) that one country does not interfere in another country’s internal affairs. It becomes a big problem,” she added.

Asked about the emotional chord she struck with Awami League supporters when she apologised for any mistakes she may have made during the manifesto release a few days ago, Sheikh Hasina said, “When you work, you cannot satisfy everybody. It’s a big party, there’s a Cabinet, people are working. We’re human beings and can commit mistakes. But it depends how people accept it.”

She added, “I feel I should be very open with all my people as I’m working for them. I want to work for them and want them to have a better life — that’s my main aim. I have no other ambition. I only want to build this country, have a poverty free, prosperous country.”

The Awami League leader also dwelt upon all the efforts she has made to ensure the Opposition took part in the electoral process this time, especially since this is the first time that elections in Bangladesh are not being held under a caretaker government.

Describing it as a political success, Sheikh Hasina said she tried to “talk, persuade and convince” the Opposition. “They thought that they can stop the elections, the main Opposition didn’t participate…But I always believe in people’s strength. People are with me, the last time too they were with me,” she said.

Emphasising that she wants the elections to be held in a peaceful manner, she said this will enable people to vote and ensure the continuance of the democratic process. Her message to the Opposition leaders was that “there will be a congenial atmosphere” so that they can participate in the elections and people can cast their vote freely.

“There were some other proposals from them and I said fine, we can discuss each and every proposal which is acceptable to all,” she added. While some of the Opposition proposals on holding elections were accepted by the government, others were rejected.

“People will decide who will get the votes,” said Sheikh Hasina, adding, “We hope to return.” Asked as to what are her goals in mind if she is re-elected that Bangladesh prime minister said that a lot of projects remained to be completed, among them the ambitious project to build a bridge over the treacherous Padma river. She also stated that looks forward to celebrating the 100th birth anniversary of her father ‘Bangabandhu’ in 2021 and the 50th anniversary of the birth of Bangladesh with pride.

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