Script: Dr SMRUTI S PATTANAIK, Strategic Analyst on South Asia
2021 marks fifty years of Bangladesh’s liberation as well as fifty years of establishment of diplomatic ties between India and Bangladesh. The eventful year of 1971 changed the South Asian region in several ways by not just the redrawing of the maps; but Bangladesh’s emergence under the leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman also demonstrated that among the variety of primordial identities that define a nation-state, religion cannot be the only basis which can be promoted at the cost of language and culture. No language and culture is less or secondary to another. India along with the “Mukti Bahini” played a significant role in the war of liberation in which 3 million people perished.
Indo-Bangla bilateral relations have deepened over time and have really taken off in the last few years under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s leadership. The ties have emerged as a role model of bilateral relations in the region. India is also celebrating “Mujib Barsho” (year), to commemorate the birthday of the founding father of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. It is important to recall what he said about India- Bangladesh bilateral relations “geography of the region provided a natural basis for co-operation”. Indian External Affair Minister, Dr. S Jaishankar’s recent visit to Bangladesh attests to the historical, political and cultural reality of this.
One of the remarkable factors is that there is significant institutionalization of bilateral relations at various levels. Talks regularly take place at the level of Foreign Secretaries, Home Secretaries, Joint River Commission, joint management and patrol of the more than 4000 kilometres of the porous border, joint anti-terror exercise and, joint patrolling of the coast.
The settlement of land boundary and maritime boundaries have in fact opened up new vistas in cross border cooperation and have encouraged the two countries to initiate coastal shipping, and invest in exploring the opportunities thrown up by the ‘blue economy’.
Dr. Jaishankar called on the Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and held discussions with her. He also co-chaired the Joint Consultative Commission (JCC) with his Bangladeshi counterpart A K Abdul Momen and reviewed the entire gamut of bilateral relations.
Both the countries are working hard with conviction and interest to restore the connectivity that existed prior to 1965. Several connectivity projects in the fields of power, energy, railways, road and transport, health and technical education, information technology cooperation, shipping and solar-based connectivity. India has provided soft loan and grant totalling around $10 billion, the highest LoC that India has granted to any country in the world. The two countries have in September 2020, have constituted a “high-level monitoring committee” to regularly review the implementation of projects under three lines of credit (LoC) that India has extended. This committee is headed by the Secretary of Bangladesh’s Economic Relations Division and the Indian High Commissioner in Dhaka. Similarly, it issues the largest number of visas to Bangladeshis which reflects the people to people ties.
This visit of the External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar was also to prepare the ground for the forthcoming visit of Prime Minister Modi to celebrate 50 years of Bangladesh’s independence on 26th March. Dr Jaishankar assured Bangladesh that India remains committed to reaching an agreement on the Teesta River. The Water Secretaries of the two countries would be meeting soon on this issue. There are 54 common rivers the two countries share. The Water Secretaries are discussing a framework agreement on seven trans-boundary rivers i.e. Manu, Muhuri, Khowai, Gumti, Dharla, Feni and Dudhkumar Taking into account the incidents of firings in the border, the External Affairs Minister regretting the lives lost said the two countries need to cooperate in the spirit of “no crime, no death”. India is a leading partner of Bangladesh and not surprisingly Dr Jaishankar described the relationship as a truly “360-degree partnership” and that “there is no domain today that is left untouched”. Sheikh Mujib had said in 1972, ‘the relations between New Delhi and Dhaka would remain ‘enduring and eternal’ (Otut aar Okhoy).