India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla was on a two day visit to Dhaka. He carried Prime Minister Modi’s message for Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The Indian Foreign Secretary was personally received by her. He is the first foreign dignitary that she has received after many months given the outbreak of COVID19 pandemic. Bilateral exchanges between New Delhi and Dhaka in the last few months were conducted through virtual meetings. Given the fact that South Asian economies are severely affected by the pandemic, the visit assumes significance. The Indian Foreign Secretary also met with Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen, State Minister for Foreign Affairs Shahriar Alam and Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen during his visit.
During the hour long meeting between Indian Foreign Secretary and Bangladesh Prime Minister, both the countries discussed the ways and means to restart the existing connectivity network, cooperate and update each other on the development on COVID19 vaccine and jointly conclude the ongoing “Mujib Borsho” celebrations. They also discussed shaping up the post COVID19 strategy for overcoming economic challenges that the two countries are facing. India also proposed to restart the Joint Consultative Council which is at the level of Foreign Minister that oversees various Indian funded projects in Bangladesh and discusses various bilateral issues between the two countries. India has proposed a virtual meeting to restart the process since they last met in February 2019. India has also proposed to create an ‘air bubble’ between the two countries to facilitate the visits of businessmen, government officials and those seeking medical treatment in India. It needs to be mentioned here that Bangladesh topped the list of the countries whose citizens come for medical treatment in India. Bangladesh also discussed the scope for trials of the Indian vaccine for coronavirus in Bangladesh. Dhaka is discussing this matter with other countries of the world in its effort to fight the pandemic.
In July, India took several steps to normalise trade relations with Bangladesh which has been affected by COVID19. After more than two-months of closure due to the coronavirus pandemic, cross-border trade between the two countries resumed in June. India handed over 10 diesel locomotives to Bangladesh under its grant assistance programme. There were many firsts in India Bangladesh relations in the month of July; the first trial voyage of a container ship from Kolkata to Agartala and Karimganj via the Chittagong port, since its stoppage, 55 years ago; carrying a large cargo of steel bars and pulses was conducted. The first “time-tabled” and electronically sealed rake of 50 operated from Guntur (in Andhra Pradesh) to Benapole in Bangladesh carrying chillies and fabrics. Parcel vans and containers have now been added to the existing modes of transportation.
One of Dhaka’s major concerns has been the presence of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Time and gain Dhaka has brought this to India’s attention and has emphasised the larger regional security implications due the presence of these displaced people. Dhaka has requested India to use her good offices for impressing upon Myanmar to take back the Rohingya refugees. India has been supportive of Dhaka’s effort and has underlined through various statements that Myanmar needs to take back the Rohingyas. New Delhi also supports an early and safe repatriation of Rohingyas with dignity. To facilitate their return, India gifted 250 prefabricated houses which were built as part of an agreement with Myanmar. India also supplied aid to the Rohingyas living in Bangladeshi refugee camps under operation “Insaniyat”.
It is not surprising that the relationship has been defined as ‘shonali adhyay’ (golden age) by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and is held as a ‘role model in the region’ by External Affairs Minister Dr. S Jaishankar. This sentiment has been reciprocated too by Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen who defined Bangladesh’s ties with India are historic, rock-solid and as blood relations. The Indian Foreign Secretary’s visit to Bangladesh during the COVID19 situation only underlines the strength of the bilateral ties.
Script: Dr Smruti S Pattanaik, Research Fellow, IDSA