The Asian Age (AA): Thanks for coming to The Asian Age. How would you evaluate the current status of India-Bangladesh relationship?
Samir Saran (SS): At the level of the two governments the relationship between India and Bangladesh is stronger than ever before. Bangladesh has very sound political engagement with India. However, the people-to-people relationship needs to be catalyzed and strengthened. We need to do more in terms of trade, connectivity, climate change and regional industrial clusters that create value for our people.
The region can learn from Bangladesh as far as inclusive growth, health, education and grassroots interventions are concerned. Can the two countries work together in showcasing solutions and experiences in these vital sectors for the benefit of others? India and Bangladesh also have an opportunity to play a leadership role in connecting the wider region — for example, South Asia with ASEAN — and harnessing the potential of the Indian Ocean Rim Association. Can we together shape the politics and economics of the Indo-Pacific in the coming decade?
AA: What is the condition of democracy in South Asia in your assessment?
SS: Democracy is under threat globally. Sections of the young populations and those that are marginalized or have lost out are disenchanted. We as individuals and communities need to do more to ensure its sustenance. We have to demand more of our leadership in these times.
Democracy also must not be viewed only from the perspective of electing leaders. It is also as much about building and sustaining institutions that serve all citizens and protect their rights.
Therefore, the quality of governance and equitable outcomes will also implicate the health of democracy. In my view democracy is the most pragmatic political arrangement for the people of South Asia. The diversity within the region can only sustainably aggregate under plural political systems.
AA: What is your opinion about the Kashmir conflict?
SS: The Jammu & Kashmir dispute is certainly a legacy of the partition of the sub-continent and also stems from a viewpoint that religion must be the sole determinant of political unions. India rejects this perspective and as a secular country it has successfully demonstrated over the last seven decades that syncretic and plural nations are viable and desirable. Pakistan, on the other hand, does not hold this view and has fanned organic unrest and incubated terrorist organizations that destabilize the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir and indeed the wider region.
Jammu & Kashmir as a conflict zone also suits the military leadership in Pakistan as it helps them control the society, politics and economics of their country. The Pakistani Army sequesters a huge amount of the country’s annual budget and diverts funds that could be used productively for the development of the country. All disputes must be resolved through dialogue and no country must ever bow down to terror which has become the favored instrument of the Pakistani state.
It is for Pakistan to halt cross-border terrorism and create the right conditions for any meaningful bilateral dialogue. Till that happens, India will exercise all options to protect its territorial integrity and national security interest.
AA: Please share with us your views on freedom of press.
SS: We cannot have a vibrant democracy and a fair society without a strong media. News and information cannot be censored in this Information Age when social media is a reality, nor can the circulation of fake news be entirely prevented. Engaging with and responding to emerging narratives and headlines is the only option. Media can play a role in promoting accountable governance and preserving democracy.
AA: We often see that communal violence breaks out in South Asian countries. What should South Asian countries do to preserve communal harmony?
SS: Preserving communal harmony is a vital challenge for our region. Globalization and technology have made it easy for the transmission of radical ideologies across the world. Radical religious groups adeptly use social networks to propagate their propositions.
Just law and order is not enough to fight communal forces. We need a new awareness, a new coalition of people and governments, and an international resolve to purge this menace. Political parties should desist from fanning hatred. Also, families have an important role to play in guiding the youth and the vulnerable.
AA: Bangladesh has recently held its eleventh parliamentary election. What is your appraisal of these polls?
SS: The process of electing the political leadership is crucial. All democracies must constantly strive to enhance this process and ensure that wider participation and vibrant politics are part of it. All societies and countries organically discover their own pathways and as a young nation Bangladesh is striving to do the same. The political leadership in India has already welcomed the democratic process that was followed in Bangladesh in the recent elections.
AA: Euro is the common currency for all the countries belonging to the European Union (EU). The member countries of EU also have visa free entry facilities for each other. For what reasons do you think the South Asian countries could not do so?
SS: Unfortunately the partition of 1947 has created rigid walls and boundaries between the South Asian countries. We are disappointingly one of the least integrated regions of the world. Ideally we must dispense with such rigidity and should work towards soft borders through sub-regional arrangements.
It is difficult, but not impossible. In the coming days we need to create robust physical infrastructure that connects us, create soft infrastructure that allows information and data to be shared across jurisdictions, and create a regional growth and development plan that responds to the aspirations of all. We share a common future and therefore we must coordinate our individual efforts with greater intensity.
AA: How can Bangladesh become more democratic? Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has rejected the results of the latest parliamentary polls. BNP Chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia has been inside jail for more than one year. How can Bangladeshi political parties overcome the existing divides with each other?
SS: Legacy battles between parties are not unique to Bangladesh. Like elsewhere, differences are not easy to reconcile. However, what national political parties can do is to create a consensus on a grand vision for the country even as they choose different paths to achieve that. They can also agree on creating, sustaining and strengthening institutions and processes that are important for the evolution of democracy.
AA: The opposition parties of India like Trinamool Congress, Congress and Communist Party of India have complained that dalits and religious minorities have been subjected to a great deal of torment under the present Indian government. What are your views on this?
SS: As per political theory, one of the founding principles of democracy is that while the majority will invariably elect governments, the prime responsibility of these governments is to protect the rights of the minorities. India has always adhered to this as an article of faith and any deviation has seen substantial intervention by the institutions and people that make up the Indian state.
AA: Rabindranath Tagore is equally loved and honored in India and Bangladesh. How can Bangladesh further strengthen its cultural bonds with India?
SS: Rabindranath Tagore is an icon in both countries. To honour his legacy it would be fitting if Bangladesh and India can work to create a cultural bridge that helps nurture more talent that transcends geographical borders. The present Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh Riva
Ganguly Das is someone who can do this. I believe she will play a significant role in the growth of cultural ties between Bangladesh and India. India and Bangladesh should provide more opportunities, scholarships and arenas to artists and youth in both countries to harness our common creative heritage and potentialities.
This interview originally appeared in Dailyasianage.