As Bangladesh turns fifty, India learns to count on its friendly neighbour
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
THE INDISSOLUBLE LINKS India and Bangladesh have held fast to in the past half-century were reinforced recently through the broadminded approach the governments of the two countries took to dealing with the communal troubles in Comilla. When religious fanatics pounced on Hindu temples and puja mandaps in Bangladesh in mid-October, it was pragmatism resting on shared values that the two countries were quick to demonstrate immediately when the violence erupted.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina lost little time in condemning the actions of the bigots and serving the warning that severe steps would be taken against the elements involved in the violence. It was a move which was taken into due consideration by the Indian authorities in New Delhi. Arindam Bagchi, speaking for the Indian Government, while noting that the attacks on the Hindu puja mandaps and temples were disturbing, let it be known that Delhi was in communication with Dhaka over the crisis. Bagchi went on to add that the Bangladesh government had “promptly” dealt with the miscreants.
The communal attacks also had Bangladeshi ministers come down heavily on those behind them. Obaidul Quader, minister for roads and bridges, as also general secretary of the ruling Awami League, was quick to hold fundamentalists unhappy about the close ties between Dhaka and Delhi responsible for the mayhem. For his part, the country’s home minister, Asaduzzaman Khan, promised to hunt down those involved in the making of the crisis. Hasanul Haq Inu, a former information minister in Hasina’s government, sought to reassure Indians and by extension nations beyond that the troubles were an aberration. As he put it, “it is not a general phenomenon in Bangladesh. Communal violence…does not generally take place in the country.”
The calm but assertive position adopted by the Bangladesh authorities and the understanding of the position by the Indian Government were a clear pointer to the firm ground on which Delhi-Dhaka ties have been based in the 50 years since the Indian Army and Bangladesh’s Mukti Bahini compelled the genocidal Pakistan army to surrender in December 1971. To be sure, there have been impediments which have sometimes scratched the surface of the relationship, notably in the aftermath of the assassination of Bangladesh’s founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and most of his family in August 1975, followed by the murder in prison in November of the year of four prominent politicians instrumental in the formation of Bangladesh’s wartime government in 1971. The emergence of military rule in Bangladesh, successively under General Ziaur Rahman and General Hussain Muhammad Ershad, was not a happy augury for Bangladeshis.
Where relations with India were concerned, issues such as those related to the enclaves of Talpatty and Angorpata, coupled with the Zia regime’s moves to take the Farakka problem to the United Nations in the late 1970s, quite complicated the ties between the two nations. Besides, there was a growing and disturbing sense in the 21 years which had elapsed between the fall of Mujibur Rahman’s government and the electoral victory of the Awami League led by his daughter Sheikh Hasina that Bangladesh was inching towards closer ties with Pakistan to the detriment of the core principles on which its foundations were based. Add to that the attempt by elements of the Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD), a political party formed by erstwhile student followers of Mujib, to kidnap Samar Sen, the Indian high commissioner in Dhaka, in November 1975. The JSD leadership was subsequently to pay a heavy price for such adventurism.
As the people of Bangladesh prepare to celebrate a half-century of their independent nationhood, as the people of India remember a great military triumph they achieved 50 years ago, it makes sense to argue that rarely have two nations had the opportunity to reap the benefits of cooperation forged in the crucible of war. Indian leaders—Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi—have, through their visits to Dhaka, reinforced the links between the two countries
All such incidents notwithstanding, though, diplomatic and political ties between India and Bangladesh have been on an even keel. It all began with the stupendous degree of military and moral support the Indian Government, led by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, provided to Bangladesh’s people during their War of Liberation in 1971. With as many as 10,000,000 Bengalis taking refuge in West Bengal, Assam and Tripura during the war, it was a huge burden Indians felt and yet it was in a spirit of comradeship that Indians across the spectrum provided all-out assistance to Bangladeshis in the latter’s hour of peril. Bangladesh’s people have consistently appreciated the Indian role during the war and historians have duly and diligently noted the sacrifices made by Indian soldiers in the liberation of the country. Indian diplomatic efforts throughout 1971 in defence of Bangladesh’s interests remain a significant chapter in not only Bangladesh’s historical narrative but also of India-Bangladesh relations. The withdrawal of Indian troops from Bangladesh in March 1972, followed by the initialling of a 25-year treaty of friendship and cooperation by Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, along with a Land Boundary Agreement, remain testimony to the traditional ties of friendship, despite some hiccups, the two nations have been locked in.
As the people of Bangladesh prepare to celebrate a half-century of their independent nationhood, as the people of India remember a great military triumph they achieved 50 years ago, it makes sense to argue that rarely have two nations had the opportunity to reap the benefits of cooperation forged in the crucible of war. Indian leaders—Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi—have, through their visits to Dhaka, reinforced the links between the two countries. In a similar manner, Sheikh Hasina’s visits to India and her clearly productive meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi have dispelled the notion that a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Government in Delhi and an Awami League government in Dhaka would not, indeed could not, be in lockstep with each other. What one now has is a basic truth, which is that between Dhaka and Delhi realpolitik has been the determinant of diplomacy. That cooperation between sovereign states is not dependent on the programmes of political parties but is a matter of policy between governments has been a principle reinforced by Modi and Hasina and their administrations. It is notable that the Land Boundary Agreement reached by Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Mujib in the early 1970s was ratified by the Indian Parliament following the return of BJP to power in 2014 under Modi.
The calm but assertive position adopted by the Bangladesh authorities after the recent communal violence and the understanding of the position by the Indian government were a clear pointer to the firm ground on which Delhi-Dhaka ties have been based in the 50 years since the Indian Army and Bangladesh’s Mukti Bahini compelled the genocidal Pakistan army to surrender in December 1971
But, of course, that is not to suggest that everything has been smooth in the relationship. Bangladeshis remain prickly on the issue of sharing the waters of the Teesta river. Back in 2011, as then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh prepared to head a strong team to Dhaka (in which team new West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee would be a significant player), it was expected that a deal on the Teesta was about to be signed. But Banerjee’s eleventh-hour decision not to go to Dhaka put paid to such expectations. In the years since, Bangladesh has regularly emphasised the necessity of a deal on the Teesta, for the good reason that it would result in a more harmonious relationship between West Bengal and Bangladesh, both of which are dependent on the waters of the river. The Hasina government, which faces fresh general elections in late 2023, is keen that the BJP government in Delhi convince the Trinamool government in Kolkata about the necessity of a solution to the issue. Bangladesh certainly comprehends the constitutional nature of India’s federalism, but it also needs to persuade itself into believing that the existing bonds of Dhaka-Delhi ties will sooner rather than later overcome the impediment that is Teesta. The onus lies on India and specifically Kolkata.
Bilateral relations have in these past many years been underscored by deals in cross-border terrorism too. The two nations have cooperated fully in exercising greater control over their frontiers in order to tackle all manner of terrorism. That said, they have adopted stringent measures towards cracking down on smuggling, both of goods and people. In recent times, women trafficked to India by people smugglers have been located, identified and handed over to Bangladesh. At the same time, the Indian authorities have gone after the elements responsible for such despicable acts. The issue of Bangladeshis killed by India’s Border Security Force (BSF) has of late been handled judiciously by the two governments. For India, the need is to ensure that shootings are the last resort. For Bangladesh, especially its Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB), the clear responsibility is one of checking infiltration across the long porous frontier into India.
AT ANOTHER LEVEL, Delhi and Dhaka have cooperated in educational exchange programmes. Over the years, very large numbers of young Bangladeshis have undertaken academic programmes at various educational institutions in India while Indian students, albeit on a relatively small scale, have gone for higher education in Bangladesh.
The Delhi Public School, with its branch in Dhaka, has been a healthy addition to English-medium education in the Bangladesh capital. Bangladeshi scholars have over the decades pursued higher education, notably MPhil and PhD programmes, at universities in Kolkata and Delhi.
Santiniketan has been a pathway to higher stages of musical accomplishment for artists from Bangladesh. Cooperation in matters of defence has been a defining aspect of India-Bangladesh relations, a factor that owes its origins to the strong links the two countries forged at the height of the Bangladesh war 50 years ago.
On the 50th anniversary celebrations of Bangladesh’s emergence as a sovereign nation-state, it is altogether fitting and proper that Dhaka and Delhi will move towards a further consolidation of their ties. A hint of the progress that could be achieved in the times ahead comes through Indian Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal’s emphasis on the forthcoming first meeting of the India-Bangladesh CEO Forum. Additionally, the two countries have remained busy finalising the details of the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA). Such a step certainly reinforces the economic collaboration the two nations have fostered over the past half-century.
Trade has been a major component of Dhaka-Delhi links, given that Bangladesh happens to be India’s major trading partner in South Asia to the tune of $10 billion. Bilateral cooperation has fundamentally had the two countries engaged in as many as five crucial areas, namely, technology, connectivity, entrepreneurship, health and tourism. Besides, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has been another area where Bangladesh’s relations with India have added new value to the basket of cooperation. India has made available to Bangladesh as many as 10,000,000 doses of Covid vaccines. Add to that India’s concessional credit lines to the tune of $8 billion and what you have is one more instance of the strength inherent in the ties between the two countries.
Bangladesh happens to be India’s major trading partner in South Asia to the tune of $10 billion. Bilateral cooperation has involved as many as five crucial areas: technology, connectivity, entrepreneurship, health and tourism. India has made available to Bangladesh as many as 10,000,000 doses of Covid vaccines. Add to that Delhi’s
concessional credit line of $8 billion to Dhaka
Friendship between Bangladesh and India has, besides being based on the wartime commonality of approach to the issues of the day, often straddled the personal. A good number of Indian luminaries—politicians, writers, artists, academics—have down the years waxed nostalgic about their roots in Bangladesh. The ancestral home of the celebrated actor Suchitra Sen is today well preserved in Pabna. The late Jyoti Basu was a regular visitor to Bangladesh and always considered as their own by Bangladesh’s people. The late President Pranab Mukherjee is a deeply respected figure in Bangladesh, given his memorable visits to the country.
Amartya Sen is a revered personality. In these past many months, despite her stance vis-à-vis Teesta, Mamata Banerjee’s politics has been observed with fascination in Bangladesh. Indian artists have always found a home, from that perspective of heritage, in Bangladesh.
In a long-ago December, a half-century ago to be precise, Indira Gandhi informed India’s Parliament on the day Bangladesh stood liberated: “Dhaka is today the free capital of a free country.”
It is this free capital of the free nation of Bangladesh which will welcome President Ram Nath Kovind when he arrives to share the joy attendant on liberty, on behalf of the Indian people, with the people of Bangladesh. That will be a renewed assertion of freedom, indeed a renewal of the bonds which have consistently reinforced relations between India and Bangladesh on the basis of sovereign equality, mutual respect and an identical expression of sentiments on some of the more intractable issues confronting the world.