30 April 2001

Dateline Dhaka: Ershad takes soft line towards Hasina, India

30 April 2001
The Times Of India

Dateline Dhaka
Ershad takes soft line towards Hasina, India

By Siddharth Varadarajan
The Times of India News Service

DHAKA: While the opposition here has done its best to take the Sheikh Hasina
government to task for the recent tension and armed clashes along the
Indo-Bangladesh border, the country's former military ruler, Gen H M Ershad,
- now a major politician in his own right - has chosen to soft-pedal the

In an exclusive interview with The Times of India, Ershad described the death
of BSF and Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) soldiers at Boraibari as ``very, very sad
and unfortunate. How can we forget that 3,000 Indian soldiers died fighting
for the freedom of this country? It is terrible that this clash had to

The former military ruler refused to attack either the Vajpayee or Hasina
government. ``I was very happy to see the very balanced statement by your
Prime Minister that there is no question of this incident hurting the close
relationship between our two countries,'' he said, adding that there had been
a little bit of a failure on both sides as neither New Delhi nor Dhaka had
anticipated that the unresolved border questions could flare up in this

As for the Indian supposition that the BDR might have acted on its own at
Padua, Ershad said that situations can always arise on the border where
commanders have to exercise judgment and initiative. ``The local commander
must have acted on his own so you can't blame the government.'' In any case,
he said, ``Our Prime Minister has said that we are sorry for what has
happened. That is enough. Everyone knows that the lives that were lost were
not because of the orders of the government.''

He also dismissed the notion that there is a faction of pro-Pakistani officers
in the Bangladeshi officers that might have acted to damage relations between
India and Bangladesh. ``I think that now, more than 95 per cent of our army
are freedom fighters. They fought for liberation. How can anyone say they are
close to some other country?''

Ershad, who was released recently after spending several years in prison for
corruption-related offences, is the head of the influential Jatiya Party.
Before it split into three, Jatiya had 32 seats in the current Parliament.
Now that he is out of prison as part of a complicated deal with the Hasina
government that is still awaiting the Supreme Courts imprimatur, Ershad is
expected to do well in the coming elections and could even emerge as a king
or rather, queen maker.

Though Jatiya had been allied with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party of Khaleda
Zia, Ershad severed his links and is now trying to lure away some of the
Islamist forces linked to the BNP as well. Fighting fit at 72, the retired
General is extremely popular in certain pockets such as the northern
districts near the border with India. He said his party would fight 300 seats
and decide about alliances depending on how well it performed.

Political analysts here are convinced, however, that Ershad has reached an
understanding with Sheikh Hasina and that there may well be some kind of ill
adjustments as well. Asked about the rumours to this effect, Ershad simply
smiled. You dont expect me to talk about such things, do you?

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