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Mainstream, Vol XLVII No 11, February 28, 2009

Bangladesh: ’People Voted Freely Against Terror, Religious Bigotry’

Sheikh Hasina’s Wideranging Interview

Monday 2 March 2009


The Bangladesh scene has undergone a sea-change following the Awami League-led Mahajote’s historic victory at the hustings on December 29, 2008. In the following interview to the Dainik Statesman editor Manas Ghosh, who was The Statesman correspondent in Bangladesh shortly after East Pakistan’s emancipation from Pakistani domination, the Bangladesh PM, Sheikh Hasina, speaks on a wide variety of subjects ranging from her combination’s landslide victory to her priorities. She highlights the need for a Joint South Asian Task Force to counter terrorism in the region and strenghening ties with India. This interview, published in The Statesman, is being reproduced, with due acknowledgement, for the benefit of our readers.

Did you expect this historic landslide victory for your party and your Mahajote?

I did expect a very big victory margin, but that it would exceed three-fourths majority was unexpected. We knew that if elections were held freely and fairly and if our people got a chance to exercise their franchise without fear or favour, the country’s secular and democratic forces would emerge victorious. That has been proved in this election. Whenever elections have been held without rigging and voters have not been stopped from casting their votes freely, it has been seen that the Awami League has been voted to power. Before elections I kept saying that our people should be allowed to go to polling centres to cast their votes. Because I knew our people had never defeated the Awami League through the ballot.

As an Awami League leader how have you evaluated Mahajote’s victory in this poll?

Our people have given their verdict against terror, corruption and communalism. And this verdict has far-reaching implications. Because through this verdict our voters have conveyed to the people of the world at large and South Asia in particular a significance message. And that message is change. Change in attitude and the way we work.

In post-liberation Bangladesh your party won in the 1996 and 2008 parliamentary polls. Would you evaluate these two victories differently?

How can I do that? But I must admit that the role of both the Caretaker Government and the Election Commission in this poll was absolutely neutral. There was considerable international pressure that this election was conducted impartially and internationally accepted credible norms were followed. But the most redeeming feature of this poll was that our people favoured a secular and democratic system of governance. And this time this could happen because, unlike in the 2001 poll, the military and EC remained neutral. Which they were not in the 2001 poll.

Are you trying to say that there was no rigging in this election?

Our course, attempts were made. But people resisted that. A presiding officer and seven others were caught red-handed by people in Tangail’s Bhuapur area while stamping on the BNP’s poll symbol—paddy sheaf. People only handed them over to the police. In Chittagong a relation of one of our rival candidates was also caught red-handed for distributing Taka 41 lakhs among voters. Similar incidents happened elsewhere too but our voters were extremely watchful. This awareness among our voters has helped to strengthen our democracy. This time bogus voters could not have a field day because our electoral roll has photographs of voters alongside their names.

How would you sustain this spectacular popular verdict?

After this victory our responsibilities have grown manifold and assumed massive dimension. Our people have reposed faith in the pledges of change that we had mentioned in our election manifesto. This happened because our manifesto reflected the hopes and aspirations of our people. And the people’s expectation from our government is almost infinite. I have tried to address all these while forming my Council of Ministers. While making the Ministry I have given pride of place to the new-generation leaders. I have given key Ministries to our women leaders. Those who once had been in the background have now been brought to the forefront. Now I want them to perform and deliver results. They shall have to keep the promises that we made to our people during the poll.

Making women in charge of two key Ministries—Home and Foreign Affairs—has sent tongues wagging. Is male chauvinism responsible for this?

It is certainly so. Both Dipu Moni, who is in charge of the Foreign Affairs portfolio, and Sahara Khatun, in charge of Home, are equal to their tasks. They have a long political background. They have two young Ministers of State to help them. Dipu Moni is a doctor by profession. She has a Master’s degree in Public Health from John Hopkins University, besides a Law degree from London. Her advocacy is good. She is a no pushover. I have given a lot of thought while making my Council of Ministers. I drew up the ministerial list and prepared the poll manifesto while I was in prison.

Yet critics say she will be “chewed up” by the likes of Hillary Clinton and Pranab Mukherjee.

We shall see (she laughs profusely).

Your Ministry resembles more like an Awami League one than that of a Mahajote. Senior leaders of your Mahajote partners like Rashed Khan Menon and Hasanul Haq Inu have been left out of the Ministry. There is only one Minister from Ershad’s Jatiya Party. Will you expand your Ministry later?

I had asked both Menonsaheb and Inusaheb whether they would like to be included in my Ministry or contest the poll. Both were asked to choose either of the two. They opted to contest poll. I threw my party’s organisational might and other wherewithal to ensure their poll victory. Dilip Barua of Samyabadli Dal, another partner of our Mahajote, opted not to contest poll. So I had no problem in giving him a berth in my Cabinet. I kept my word.

But the Opposition might be encouraged to create a variety of problems because of an inexperienced Ministry.

I am aware of it. The BNP-Jamat together paralysed life all over Bangladesh by calling hartal on 308 days during my 1996-2001 rule. But this Opposition must realise that this time the overwhelmingly popular verdict is against the politics of corruption, extortion, terror and killing of all kinds. This thoughtless and irresponsible politics has been rejected by our voters. The Opposition has to bear this in mind because the massive way the voters, especially the young first-timers, women and those belonging to the minority communities, turned out on the polling day to exercise their franchise drove home the message that they were decidedly against terror and religious bigotry. They wanted to be liberated from this scourge. They ensured our landslide victory with this view in mind.

India also thinks that the Bangladeshi soil is being allowed to be used to launch terror attacks against it by Indian separatist and fundamentalist groups. They had been provided safe havens by the previous Khaleda regime.

Terror groups have no country of their own nor do they confine their operations within any specific geographical boundary. I want to hold out this assurance to everybody that I will not allow the Bangladeshi soil to be used for any kind of insurgency or separatist movement anywhere in the world. I followed this policy during my earlier stint as the Prime Minister.

You ensured the smashing of many camps of Indian insurgent groups and yet because of wheels within wheels in your administration many camps were surreptitiously run and they remained invisible.

I won’t allow that to happen again. Last time the officers who had been entrusted with the task of smashing the camps were targeted when Khaleda Zia came to power. Her government not only sacked one such officer from service but also persecuted him physically and psychologically so much that he has become a wreck.

You have proposed the formation of a Joint South Asian Task Force. Conceptually what does it mean?

Almost the whole of South Asia has fallen prey to terrorism and jingoism. This joint threat spells trouble for the entire region. All countries of the region have to cooperate and jointly fight these twin menace. Since terror groups know no boundaries no one country of the region can fight these menace single-handed. Moreover SAARC as a platform cannot be used for this purpose as bilatetral issues cannot be raised at this regional forum.

But how can Pakistan be a member of this Task Force since it is openly encouraging terrorism and jingoism in the region?

Of course, Pakistan has to be a member of this Task Force which may also include Afghanistan as well. All the regional countries have to be part of this Force. Pakistan has to take a decisive stance against terrorism and jingoism. It has no other course left for its survival. We all must realise that poverty is our region’s most serious problem. If we have to combat it, all of us have to join hands to snuff it out of the region. There is no other alternative strategy left to fight these twin menace.

Coming to Indo-Bangladesh relations, you have said your government will accord the highest priority to improve bilateral ties. Recently one of our Ministers—Jairam Ramesh—had visited Bangladesh and had proposed cooperation between the two countries in the energy sector, especially establishing power-grid connectivity between the two countries. India has the potential and the will to supply power to Bangladesh.

Look, it’s not even a week that we have taken over the reins of power. We are still in the process of figuring out things. But that both these two neighbours have to make progress through mutual cooperation is a settled fact.

When are you going to hand over ULFA leaders like Anup Chetia and Paresh Barua to India?

I am yet to find out the latest situation. Anup Chetia was caught in my earlier stint as the Prime Minister. I don’t know in which jail he is now lodged. It will take time to know all the details. When Chetia was caught, quite a few terror groups had sent me threatening letters. What is of utmost importance is that we shall have to identify the areas of cooperation first. I am convinced that once this is done nothing shall stand in the way of improving our ties further.

Pranabbabu will be visiting Bangladesh early next month. I want to meet him at an early date. Many things are yet to be sorted out. Despite the signing of the boundary agreement in 1974, it is yet to be ratified by the Indian Parliament. This is stalling the progress on the vexed issue of enclaves.

Besides signing the Gaga Waters Treaty with India your government had signed another landmark agreement—Peace Treaty to restore normalcy in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Your government also framed a legislation which would ensure the return of vested property.

Of course, we shall implement the agreement on Chittagong Hill Tracts. The Minister in charge of the CHT is now seized of the matter. The vested property matter too will be sorted out. Our people are keenly waiting for deliverance from this problem.

Are you going to restore the 1972 Constitution as the people in this election have overwhelmingly voted for building a secular Bangladesh?

We shall strive to make Bangladesh a secular country in the true sense of the term. Our govern-ment’s goal will be to establish the ideals of secularism in the country.

The 1972 Constitution had banned politics based on religion. This time, the Election Commission did a creditable job in this regard.

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