Dipu Moni, foreign minister of Bangladesh, certainly has a sense of humour. When her eminent lawyer husband, Tawfique Nawaz, was studying at Wadham College, Oxford, he bumped into Nirad C. Chaudhuri, a long-time resident of the city of dreaming spires.
Intrigued on meeting a Bangladeshi in Oxford, Niradbabu wanted to know what Tawfique did. The latter told the author he was an Oxford scholar.
Moni laughs as she recalls Niradbabu’s baffled reaction: “You don’t work in a restaurant?”
Anyone else would have taken offence at this stereotyping but Moni has a light touch and dismisses the incident as an amusing example of Niradbabu’s famed eccentricity. But then Dr Dipu Moni — she has a medical background — has witnessed Indian oddity on another occasion, too.
Just when it seemed that India and Bangladesh were going to amicably share the waters of the Teesta river, the proposed solution unravelled as Mamata Banerjee became the chief minister of West Bengal. “We thought the water issue was settled,” she says.
Moni expresses disappointment that Banerjee, who was supposed to have accompanied Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Dhaka last August for the formal signing of an interim agreement, pulled out at the last minute.
The Bengal chief minister’s view is that “we haven’t got enough water so how can we give you more”. Moni, on the other hand, believes the two sides should learn to share whatever there is.
On the face of it, Moni’s stance seems the more reasonable, possibly because she comes across as a dependable woman with whom one can do business. She suspects that Singh and Banerjee do not necessarily see eye to eye on Teesta but Moni does not want to get involved in India’s internal politics and centre-state relations.
That’s because Dhaka’s relations with New Delhi are at their “best at the moment”, says the first time member of Parliament, who was elected an Awami League MP from Chandpur in the general election in the closing days of 2008.
“Seven days later I was given the portfolio of minister of foreign affairs,” she says, speaking over lunch in London. For the last three years and four months she has been “working very closely” with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Listening to Moni talk about how the Hasina government has managed to bring some of the extremist elements in Bangladesh under a degree of control, it seems it might be sensible for India in general and West Bengal in particular to try and help the progressive and liberal forces in the neighbouring state.
It is hard not to be sympathetic to Moni. During the last election, “our Opposition played with my name — they said I was Hindu. That area (Chandpur) being a very conservative area, I had to go everywhere and say, ‘I am not a Hindu, I am a Muslim and even if I were a Hindu I definitely deserved the right to contest the election and get your votes. Everybody — whatever their religion — fought for this country.’ People liked and accepted that.”
Moni won with “a huge swing”.
It was her father, M.A. Wadud, a student-leader-turned-journalist and political activist, who named her Dipu Moni. “It is very unusual for a Bengali Muslim girl. People thought this was a nickname but for him this was my name — Dipu Moni.”
At 13, when she was in Class IX and needed to be registered for the school certificate examination, her teachers wanted her name to be changed by her father to something more obviously Muslim. “So my teachers came to my house and asked him for my name to be changed to something formal, something a bit Arabic or Persian — ‘she is going to be teased by everyone’. My father was very adamant and said, ‘No, I think she can handle it. There may be other Dipu Monis but she is going to become a doctor so she will be Dr Dipu Moni. I don’t think there will be another Dr Dipu Moni and she will be in politics and everybody would know her by her name.’”
Moni, who grew up in a household milling with writers, journalists, politicians and poets, recalls that she always wanted to be in politics. “Soon after Pakistan was born, Bengalis realised that this was not the kind of independence they wanted. I was four or five during the 1969 movement,” she says, referring to the developments that preceded the Bangladesh war. “That made a huge impression on a little girl.”
After school, she studied medicine at the Dhaka Medical College, followed by a specialised course in public health at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, US, and another at Harvard on negotiations and conflict resolution. She also took a few years off while her son, Tawquir Rashaad, and daughter, Tani Deepavali Nawaz, were growing up.
Being foreign minister does not leave time for leisure activities. “But I still read anything I can get hold of — my children tease me that I read everything I see around me, even the newspaper ads or the number plates of cars,” she laughs.
Among Bangladeshi origin writers, she has a high opinion of Tahmina Aman, author of A Golden Age. Moni hasn’t read her second novel, The Good Muslim. “She writes really well, I love her writing style — maybe in her first book there are some factual errors. For her it’s all she had heard from others; other than that I think it’s a beautiful book.”
If she were marooned on the proverbial desert island, she says she would take Tagore’s collection of poems. “I love poetry. Name one Bengali who has never tried to write a poem. So I have tried, yes. Maybe (I would also take) one or two biographies.”
What about the high-maintenance Taslima Nasrin, forever turning up in Calcutta and demanding the right to be controversial?
Moni makes it clear she is expressing “a very personal opinion” — and not that of the foreign minister of Bangladesh. “As a Bengali reader I don’t consider her to be one of the major writers in Bangla. It is the provocation in her writing that attracts most of the attention. I don’t think of her as a major writer in the Bengali language either as a novelist or as a poet. I don’t think she is a major writer to demand so much attention.”
What Moni does approve of is the “co-operation” going on between Bangladesh and West Bengal in making films.
As minister, she’d have little time for watching films, though. Her busy schedule keeps her from her kitchen too, though Moni stresses that she’s not a bad cook. “For illish maach you have to come to Dhaka and go with me to Chandpur, my constituency — the place for illish maach.”
Moni, who is enjoying a buffet lunch at the Bombay Brasserie, does not have airs and graces. Though the waiters are willing to bring the food to her, she gets up and queues with everyone else (“that way I can choose what I want”). In her orange jamdani sari, she comes across as a very pleasant Bengali woman. But she is not to be underestimated.
As a very senior member of her government she has to deal with big issues — such as extremism both inside Bangladesh and among sections of second and third generation Bangladeshis in the UK. She says that funds raised in the UK by certain mosques and institutions in the name of charity “end up in the wrong hands” in Bangladesh. She would certainly like to work with the British government in tackling the root causes of radicalisation among the young.
It quickly becomes apparent that both the Indian and West Bengal governments have an interest in working with someone like her. As Moni herself concedes, extremism has been curbed in Bangladesh but not extinguished.
“We have made it clear from the very beginning that terrorism and extremism must not have any space within our country and will not be tolerated,” says Moni. “So there is this zero tolerance policy on this issue. And we have done quite well actually.”
On the Teesta water issue, however, the stalemate continues.
“I have met the chief minister of Bengal and I have shared our thoughts with her. I said — it is not my water or your water; it is nothing to do with me giving someone something that belongs to me — this water, from the very source to where it reaches the ocean, wherever it goes through, everyone in those areas has a right to that water. And even the water itself has its own rights. All the living and non-living things in it have their rights. These are rights and shared rights.”
Clearly, it’s an issue that she feels strongly about. “If we have smaller amounts of water we share that smaller amount. If we have one ghara (pot) of water we will share that one ghara of water. We can also work on how to augment it, how to keep the rivers going. Rivers will not be there forever. We had 700 rivers at one point in time. Now we have (only) 200. I hope that things work out. We also have our internal constituencies and water becomes a major issue.”
Moni quotes the Indian Prime Minister to drive home her point. “As Dr Manmohan Singh keeps saying, our destinies are intertwined,” she says. “The cost of non-cooperation is just too high.”