We have to eradicate terrorism jointly — Lt Gen (retd) HM Ershad A chat with former Bangladesh President and current President of Jatiya Party
It has indeed been a long innings in the political arena for the 81 year old Lt General (retd) Hussain Muhammed Ershad on the turf of Bangladesh politics dating back from 1952 and the momentous period of 1971, when the country was formed breaking away from Pakistan and as he said in the course of a conversation with this correspondent that “there is God, who guides our destiny and we should have total faith in God. If you have faith and trust in him, God will protect you”. Surely God has helped this general who as he said has gone “through so many ups and downs in life,” and yet has remained undeterred and now as he heads the Jatiya Party with about 31 MPs in Bangladesh Parliament, he has sure come a long way from a military dictator to a democrat and has shown that once a military dictator your not always so.
The Bangladesh leader, who was here to attend the golden jubilee celebrations of the National Defence College (NDC) having been an alumni of this prestigious institution, he spoke nostalgically of his days here and also on Indo-Bangladesh relations. He laid special emphasis on the need to settle once and for all by sitting across the table what he feels is “the most important issue now is water sharing” with the top-most priority being given to proposed Tipiamukh Dam to be constructed in Manipur. “Another issue is Tipiamukhi Dam and we are very much concerned about and we feel that (construction of the dam) would harm our interests and rivers would dry our and also harm our agriculture. I request the Indian government to consider seriously that nothing is done which harms our interest because we want to remain absolutely friendly without any bone of contention between us.”
The general who keeps himself physically fit and mentally alert at this age playing golf twice a week and a workout at the Gym five days has won the parliamentary elections three times after being toppled from the presidency. Although commonly termed as an autocratic military dictator, his popularity remained. The general who has the unique distinction of winning parliamentary elections from five different constituencies twice—in the elections of 1991 and 1996—was the first Bangladeshi politician to apologise publicly for all wrong doings of the past and ask for forgiveness.
On the prevailing Indo-Bangladesh relations, he said though it was indeed at its best but “still some areas remain unresolved. Some problems are there and the government is looking into it. There is always some sort of apprehension in the minds of Bangladeshis about India and we always thought Indians behaved like big brothers but that attitude has now changed. They now consider us as equal partners. It is very happy sign”.
But, clearly there is a undercurrent that there is an imperative need to resolve issues with focus on water sharing between the two countries for as he elaborated on the other issue concerning water sharing . “Teesta is one, where we have a barrage and India has also built a barrage. Teesta barrage actually irrigates two to three districts in the region so I feel that Indian government should try to resolve this issue as soon as possible. Sharing of waters should be done and this could be done by sitting across the table. We being the lower riparian state, we expect Indians will not do anything which will harm our interests. So far they have not,” he said.
Apart from sharing of river waters, the general who still remains absolutely fit and sharp spoke on a wide range of issues. With still a large number of cases pending against him filed at the time of the BNP rule of Prime Minister Begum Khalida Zia, which doesn’t appear to bother him and as he said he had no knowledge about their status. “I had about 40 cases filed against me by the BNP government. They put me in jail for six years. They wanted to destroy me, they wanted to destroy my party. But, God is very kind that I have not only come out of jail but my party (Jatiya Party) is now in Parliament as a coalition partner. We have more than 31 seats in Parliament and I am myself a member of parliament. This rarely happens to a military leader. I faced everything and now my party has taken root and I have become a big factor in Bangladesh politics,” said the general in his quite, but firm tone.
Concerned over the growing menace of terrorism as any leader in contemporary world would be and specially in the South Asian region, he felt that there was need to understand that “terrorists don’t follow any rules, nor do they follow any country’s government and they do it on their own. So, without blaming Pakistan, we should all help so that they can solve this problem themselves and we in the subcontinent remain friendly neighbours, all of us”.
However, the general, who was the founding member of SAARC, did not appear to be too happy about the present status of the organisation setup to enhance cooperation among seven South Asian countries though he was optimistic that things would improve in the region. As he said, “somehow or other it (SAARC) is not moving ahead as it should but still it is there. We have got our own internal problems. We have problems in Bangladesh like elections and than the two-year caretaker government.”
“Pakistan is facing trouble in tribal areas. There is problem of Taliban and al-Qaida. They are also in difficulties. So, I think gradually things will improve and SAARC will certainly move ahead.” On the prevailing Sino-Indian relations and China’s role in the region, he felt that “there are some irritants between China and India. But, nothing can be said to be impossible if you sit across the table and discuss all the issues because Asia is coming up as a giant, since so long West has been ruling us and West has been exploiting us and we don’t want to be exploited any more”.
However, he was appreciative of India emerging as a “economic power, a military power and a regional power. It is a matter of pride for all us,” and referred to the upcoming visit of American President Barack Obama to India in November at the head of a big delegation, which clearly showed the importance that US attached to its relations with India. As he summed up India’s emergence as an economic power, that “a prosperous India will be helpful to us. A prosperous India, a peaceful India will be only in our interests and help us to be stable in all fields”.
With so much controversy raging over the Women’s Reservation Bill in this country, there is indeed an example to be taken from Bangladesh for as the general said “the Election Commission has laid down the rule that every party must nominate 30 per cent of women candidates for elections.
Having been through the thick and thin of Bangladesh politics, he is now planning to write his memoirs and for this he has been collecting documents some of which he said was unfortunately lost in transition. “Many things happened to me in life which a normal human being doesn’t face. I am trying to recollect all these memories. I had some documents when I was arrested in 1990, all my things were shifted to another house. Even my certificates I lost. I am trying to collect them. I am trying to gather all these documents which I lost. I have started writing but it will take a little time but you know I will be able to do something.”
By Sri Krishna