As concerns about Dhaka’s growing military ties with Beijing grow, Bangladesh High Commissioner to India Tariq Karim allays fears and says Dhaka will never allow its soil to be used against any anti-India activity. Speaking to NDTV’s Nitin Gokhale, Mr Karim said by bringing the war criminals to book Bangladesh is overcoming its original sin of not acting against those who committed heinous crimes against humanity.
Here’s the transcript of the interview:
NDTV: High Commissioner thank you very much for giving us this time and agreeing to speak with us. You know we are speaking at the backdrop of a great movement of people that is happening in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, at Shahbag Square. What is the genesis of this protest or movement whatever you want to call it?
Tariq Karim: Well first of all, it is a pleasure having you here… at the Bangladesh High Commission, it’s a pleasure to be talking to you. Yes, I would certainly like to try and give you my take of what is happening at Shahbag as you know it’s been called the new generation square, which is the literal translation of the Bangla term. I look at it more symbolically as the renaissance square. I call it the renaissance square because it is renaissance of the spirit of the liberation struggle that actually lead to our independence which we had to wrest at great cost to ourselves and you know these people, these young people… suddenly something triggered them off and came out… what triggered them off was one of the judgement of the war crime trials being held. As you are aware, Sheikh Hasina’s government in its election commitment had said that she would try bring the war criminals to justice. It’s been a long festering demand, sometimes vocal, sometimes subdued, and this was one of her election commitment as well as bringing to trial people accused of other heinous acts of terrorism. There was… has been a growing sense that unless you bring crime and criminality to trial and to justice, the culture of impurity which had grown in Bangladesh over the last 35 years plus would continue to take hold of the state itself. Now I have been questioned why now… how have these people come out? The only rational answer that I can give or find is that when the first judgement was passed there was not …
NDTV: It wasn’t a death sentence?
Tariq Karim: No it was. No the first judgement was a death sentence but the person was tried in absentia. He had fled to Pakistan, I believe and it was welcomed but it did not trigger off a mass outpouring . Before the second judgement was to have been passed, somebody from the (Jamaat), I forget who it was, had issued a statement that if the second judgement is passed , there will be a civil war or words to that effect.
NDTV: It was… like a warning.
Tariq Karim: Yeah and then finally when the second judgement was passed, it was life sentence and what triggered off I think was the fact that he came out and smiled and beamed at the television cameras and flashed the V sign. It was almost saying that you know our threat worked and you’ve got me in for life lets see how long I remain inside. That was…
And ..and that I think triggered off everyone to say that we can’t, he can’t thumb his nose at the justice system and get away with it…
NDTV: Right but the connectivity with the young people you know.. how did that come?
Tariq Karim: That was you see, nowadays young people are connected widely and there is a very wide network of connectivity… one person has a friend of ten or twenty people he shares it and you have the tool of… the mobile networks, the social networks being there and it just passed like wild fire, it spread like wild fire. You know I look back on a phenomenon like this where mass pourings have come out as a result of such social mass inter-connectedness and although what happened in China in 1989 was nothing like that. It was a spontaneous pouring out.
NDTV: And you were witness to it…
Tariq Karim: Yes, I was witness there, but the mobile phone was still not largely used in those days. In fact, it was not there. The first such outpouring I remember was in Seattle against the WTO in 1988-89. That was a result of this sort of networking and social connecting where people of similar ideas responded to somebody or the other saying we will not allow this to happen and they poured out. and similarly then after that you have seen this phenomenon growing whether it was in Iraq or other different issues or against you know the regimes so you know whether you call it rose revolution or the Tehrir Square or whatever. These are very similar phenomena and it has been facilitated by this availability of this tool of people connecting to each other.
NDTV: I can understand the new technology having facilitated this but I’m still intrigued and I would like you to explain this: what is the connect between this generation which is maybe a generation or a generation and a half after liberation war, it’s been almost 41-42 years after the liberation. What sort of gave them this idea to you know, come up and still get identified with that cause of liberation?
Tariq Karim: That’s a very good question and I’d like to try and answer it in some depth. I have in my own writings and lectures said that the biggest mistake or sin that Bangladesh committed was what I call the original sin – not bringing to justice the crimes against humanity which were on a scale unprecedented in the post-war era. In a sense, in terms of number of people killed and number of women raped and number of houses destroyed etc. The number of families affected by it was huge, because Bangladesh maybe a small country in terms of area but it’s huge in terms of population and because of combination of factors. At that time the international and regional situations did not want to see war crime trials happen, we were forced not to proceed with it. Now, I have a theory for this. The theory is just like in a legal system of any country, it is initially based on a legal court from which the statue or laws, as you know, put in place by the Constitution and through that the court adjudicates justice, alright? And each judgment passed is a precedence, it adds to the previous one, it builds up the body of law. Now imagine a reverse situation, a mirror-image situation where you permit a crime go unpunished. When you permit a crime to go unpunished, in a sense you are sanctioning that crime, alright? You are legitimising that crime. So any other crime that happens within the rubric or equal to it, the lawyers will argue that you have let that go, how can you punish this… and I think what we have witnessed since 1971 is that the biggest crimes that people can ever commit is the crime against humanity. Okay, am not going to quibble about numbers because people do it… couple of zeroes more or a couple or zeroes less does not diminish from the heinousness of that crime, alright. Then after that what happens you have the father of the nation, his entire family, his closest associates and his extended family, they were all wiped out by one act on 15th August 1975. What happens after that? The Constitution of Bangladesh is amended to indemnify those criminals who have gone out loudly and proclaimed in front of the international media that we have got rid of Mujib, we have done this, we have done that… and you can’t prosecute them. Not only then they are given, they are sent abroad, given sanctuary, diplomatic missions abroad and finally many of them become ambassadors. Now I call this a brazen thumbing of one’s nose at the law and justice system. After that the crime committed by any individual pales in insignificance. And that is how, over a period unfortunately, and this is our tragedy that a system of culture of impunity has becomes deeply ingrained and no society can go forward unless it rests on the bed rock of law and justice. Respect for law and respect for the justice system. If people do not have that the society cannot progress. Ultimately, chaos takes over.
NDTV: But that doesn’t still explain how the young people have identified with this?
Tariq Karim: Alright now, very few families or households in Bangladesh were not affected by what happened in 1971. Either directly or indirectly , either they lost some immediate member of their family or they lost a kin or they are aware that somebody had been killed in the neighborhood. Now, although after 1975 there was an attempt to re-write history and sweep it under…within families history of what happened remained as a sort of oral history which was passed on within the family. And that what happens is, it takes time. These are people who were either children, at the time of the liberation war or children of children who were there. And this oral history has remained across the swathe of society. It has come to, you know, to come to the point where it clicks and the trigger was that one sign and people then saying what is this. You know his basically thumbing his nose at the state and saying you know this legal system cannot hold me in.
NDTV: Does this cut across ideologies, party lines, political spectrum?
Tariq Karim: It does , unfortunately, it does because we have again what I have described in my own expositions of Bangladesh’s political history as the creation of political schizophrenia. Now when we emerged we were the only indigenous homogeneous nation state in South Asia. We had rejected religion as being the logic for formation of state or consolidation of the state. We had opted for secularism we have opted for democracy we opted for nationalism and we had opted for social justice. These were the four pillars of constitution. When we did not address the original sin everything that I see as a consequence. The constitution was changed after 1975 progressively until the two main pillars were taken off and the third one was sort of weakened. Alright. And those who were accused of war crimes in 1971 had fled but they were rehabilitated. You know the ameer of the Jamaat-e-Islami who was being looked for as a war criminal had escaped and gone underground or off to Pakistan. He was allowed to return, subsequently in the system of justice the law and the constitution were amended . He was also restored citizenship, his party was allowed to function again and people who had been looked upon by many as being either directly perpetrators or abettors of war crimes were rehabilitated, they assumed places of high political office. They became integrated with the political system and the economic system and prospered and that is where the split personality in the political pysche come and what has happened is that while on the one hand largely those who suffered because we neglected the original sin and had to keep it within themselves continued festering…it was a festering wound within our polity. Those who have been responsible directly or indirectly for war crimes continued to prosper and that is where the split personality comes in.
NDTV: So will you describe this as a completion of an unfinished revolution?
Tariq Karim: You have taken the words out of my mouth. This is exactly how I described it to a group yesterday that in sense the revolution which should have been completed, process should have been completed by father of the nation and had he not been assassinated and political order not been changed it would have been completed in due course. It was not allowed to be completed and therefore it’s an irony of history. I think it’s a lesson that you cannot commit a crime and get away with it, somewhere sometime it will catch up with you and that’s what is happening…
NDTV: Mr. Karim we were speaking about the current agitation and protests that were happening but going away from there.. how do you see and where do you see the India- Bangladesh relations at this point?
Tariq Karim: Well… you know while these agitations were going on or I would call it differently, while the re-awakening of the social phenomenon or Renaissance of the liberation spirit has risen and protests against this from the other side of the divided political psyche has come up to assert because for them it is an existential question. Alright the visit of Pranab Mukherjee marks the highest point in our relations. Today he is the head of state of India without whose help Bangladesh’s creation would have been much longer drawn out , much more pain and suffering with many more people killed. That’s not say that I believe we would have attained independence on our own in any case but the fight would have been very prolonged. And the cost for India would have kept rising but without the help that we received from India, whether it was political, or economic or humanitarian you know 100 million refugees from Bangladesh landed up in India for sustenance and refuge. Our rights of passage our whole nationhood would have been much more painful. So we owe a debt of gratitude which we have never forgotten and president Pranab Mukherjee’s visit was… essentially it was a state visit but it was to enable us to honour him. For the assistance that he had given personally in his personal capacity as well as a functionary of the state. We have so far honoured about 200 people. Even the next batch of honouries will be on 24th of March just two days ahead of our national day and there will be several people from Delhi going for that and these have been friends of Bangladesh with whom we have identified or in public perception who stand out for the help they have given either to the government, culture programmes or through fund raising or through political support or through civic body suppose ..it’s a wide range of that I think is the culmination, the high point so far, it doesn’t mean it stands there. I think in a sense Bangladesh-India relations today are almost back at the same point where we started off in 1971. We realise that our destinies are closely interwoven together. We cannot shut our eyes to each other and ignore what is happening in the other because that will be only at our own peril as globalization forces increase and put pressures, we have to work with globalisation to realise our full potential together. We cannot do it separate from each other. We have realised that and we have consciously worked towards that. We have I think in the last three and a half years, certainly since I’ve been here, worked consciously towards putting in place a broad platform on which we can fulfill and march forward together. Agreements have happened with India… No 1 security and that has happened with our own self interest. The same people who carry out acts of terrorism or destabilisation in India have also carried out acts of destabilisation in Bangladesh. They are as much our enemies, as they are enemies of any civilised society. Terrorism is terrorism, it cannot be anything else. We have also found that terrorists networks even thought hey come from different places the origins are different the goals are different tactically collaborate with each other, because they are bound together by one element that is their activities are against the state.
NDTV: I liked your term which you used previously that you have managed to reconfigure India-Bangladesh relations. While you have reconfigured them, there are still some wrinkles. I would like you to focus on them as well.
Tariq Karim: Well they are wrinkles which we hope will smoothen out soon. You know we have for example two neighbhours cannot leave in peace, am taking household neighbors not of the state. If they do not have good relations with each other there are you know disputes with each other. You find this in villages mainly the agriculture societies, disputes about where their boundary lies, where they demarcate their land. They still fight over every square inch of of their land. Similarly when Bangladesh was formed and that is originally East Pakistan formed during the Radcliffe award of 1947. There was a lot of baggage that we inherited. You have the peculiar phenomenon of the enclaves, the adversely possessed lands as well as the as demarcating the boundary which was drawn, that was disputed. The foundations of that framework was arrived at between the leaders Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and Indira Gandhi way back in 1974. But it could not be implemented because Sheikh Rehman, the father of the nation, was assassinated thereafter and everything was put into a freezer And it served success of regimes perhaps in Bangladesh to keep that festering. As long as you have that festering you have a causes belli to keep pointing fingers and say so-and-so has done this to us. We resolved that. We resolved that amicably, we resolved that in the spirit that we will not disturb populations that were there. We will not disturb economic activity which they had already entered into. Now because it is in a sense we are straightening the borders, you have to shift pillars. And it means that some territory adjustment will be made and for that the ratification has to be done under the Constitution so it is pending. Ours is a straight forward process and we have already done that
NDTV: Now India needs to do that..
Tariq Karim: India needs to do that… and you have a complex system so we understand but president Pranab Mukherjee when he was in Dhaka he assured that commitments made by India would be fulfilled. The second is we are bound together by rivers. The rivers are rivers of life. unfortunately over the last 60 years they have become rivers of contestation and dispute. We can still turn that around make them rivers of hope as George Verghese my good friend has said and rivers of connectivity. Teesta was something which was started couple of decades ago or more and this was one of the election promises. We will resolve it. I mean we have 54 rivers that we share with India only the Ganges dispute was resolved and that was.. I had a small role to play in that, in 1996 . On the Teesta also we have as far as Bangladesh is concerned, an agreement which was arrived at the senior most officials of the govt the secretaries of water resources. and the draft was initialled, we just put it off for signature that we would find the right moment and and right persons to sign it. So as far as we are concerned it’s an agreement in suspension, in suspended animation. When ever India will say to sign it, we will sign it
NDTV: But you are hopeful?
Tariq Karim: I am very hopeful. You know these assurances have been been given to us at the highest levels by the president himself, by the prime minister, by the external affairs minister, so we took those assurances at face value because we of course trust our friends.
NDTV: What next?
Tariq Karim: I think next is and this is something which Pranab Mukherjee himself proclaimed in Dhaka, our future is to be working together and not just working together bilaterally. Our future is also drawing in the immediate countries next to us for example as I said we are bound together by the rivers but the rivers have origins beyond our borders.The Ganges come and flows from Nepal and into Bangladesh so we two river basins, major river basins we have to contend with. The other is the Brahmaputra basin.The Brahmaputra basin originates from Tibet flows from China and then comes to Arunachal and then into Bangladesh. Now both countries have agreed that we will embark on sub-regional cooperation on these two river basins and in fact President Mukherjee gave this vision and said that we should start working because then that is our agenda for the future relationship and Bangladesh will be convening two meetings at technical level very soon in the next few weeks. Bangladesh, India, Bhutan and back to back Bangladesh, India and Nepal because these are two separate basins we don’t link them up and at some point of time the linkage will come because it’s not just management we have changed the rhetoric from water sharing to water management.
NDTV: Which is a very good thing to happen…
Tariq Karim: Yes, because the you have a different approach to it and terms of how to look at it. The water reserves are there…how do we manage it how do we conserve it where it can be conserved ..so that lean season flows are augmented by the stored water during the high season flows. In the process how do we tap the potential energy that is there. Brahmaputra basin would have potential energy generation of anywhere between 50-90,000 megawatts but we cannot tap it because we are not working together. Similarly, Ganga basin would also have different things. Ganga basin would probably be a little more complex because the river flows through six states before it enters Bengal…
NDTV: And not so much Brahmaputra…
Tariq Karim: …Not so much Brahmaputra. So it’ll be easier to approach that’s why consciously we said you have two back-to-back meetings, don’t mix up issues and each will go at it’s own pace… one will perhaps go much faster, one will go at a slower pace.
NDTV: That brings me to the India-China-Bangladesh equation. Let me ask you this because there is apprehension in security establishment and the strategic experts about growing you relationship between China and Bangladesh. How do you see that affecting Indo-Bangla ties?
Tariq Karim: We do have excellent relations with China built over the last 30 years or so. China has been a development partner in Bangladesh, it has participated in many projects ..there was also military cooperation between China and Bangladesh but as I have said this in India, our relations with anyone country in not at the expense of the friendship that we develop or likely to develop with any other country and if we develop friendship with one country and it doesn’t mean we are doing it to gang up against another country. I think the basic tenets of our foreign policy were laid down by our father of the nation who basically took a quote from Lincoln to say that our foreign policy is based on the principle of malice toward none and friendship for all. That is the ultimate goal. Alright and we have to live in peace and amity is this world. Having said that we have also said that very very categorically and at the highest levels on various occasions, we will not allow Bangladesh soil to be used by any group, any country or any force against us or any of our friends who are our neighbours and I think we cannot make anything more explicit. We have zero tolerance towards this…that is a mugs game existed… you know that was the paradigm which governed international relations so many decades ago. I think the progress with the passage of time, it has been shown that alliances are not in the best interest or benefit so we do not enter into any alliance against anybody or for anybody. We work in the interest of our national consolidation and with progress and development.
NDTV: Great, and on that note ambassador, thank you very much for your time and great insights.
Tariq Karim: It’s been a pleasure having you over.