Dr. Dhrubajyoti Bhattacharjee
In continuation with the golden jubilee celebrations of the Liberation War of 1971 and of India-Bangladesh diplomatic relations and 100 years of the birth anniversary of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, the Indian government is taking special steps in strengthening the bilateral relations between the twonations. Indian Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi has been invited as the Chief Guest in Bangladesh’s Independence Day celebrations on March 26, 2021. This will be his first visit to a foreign country after the outbreak of the pandemic last year.
India honours the sacrifice laid down by the people of Bangladesh during the liberation war of 1971. Bongobondu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman had stated “Pakistani bahini ek koti manushke bhitey mati thekey bitarito korechhilo. Ei manushkey ashroy diye, onno diye, pashey dariyechhe Bharot Shorkar” (Pakistani Army had uprooted one crore people from their motherland. The Indian government gave them place to stay, food to eat, giving them support.) The Indian government has recently decided to confer the Gandhi Peace prize 2020 to Bongobondhu Sheikh Mujib. The award carries an amount of Rs. 1 crore, a citation, a plaque andan exquisite traditional handicraft/ handloom item, which would be assumedly handed over during the forthcoming Prime Ministerial visit.
Prime Minister Modi has stated that Bangabandhu was a champion of human rights and freedom, and is a hero to Indians as well. He also said that the legacy and inspiration of Bangabandhu has made the heritage of both countries more comprehensive and deep-rooted, and that the path shown by Bangabandhu has laid a strong foundation for the partnership, progress and prosperity of both countries over the last decade.
As a precursor to the visit, both India’s Foreign Secretary and the External Affairs Minister made visits to Dhaka for building up on the Indian Prime Ministerial visit to Bangladesh. There are expectations of the inauguration and promise of more train networks along with road, air and energy connectivity between India and Bangladesh.
While inaugurating the Maitri Bridge on March 9, 2021, PM Modi stated that such infrastructural development was opening up more gateways for Northeast India with the rest of India through Bangladesh. The proposal of opening train connectivity between Siliguri and Dhaka would also facilitate movement of people in the region. However, it needs to be noted that there has been no immediate proposal of issuance of Bangladeshi visa facility in Siliguri, which might seem to be a hurdle. If someone proposes to travel to Dhaka from Siliguri, s/he will have to travel to Kolkata for the issuance of such visa.
With regard to challenges in border patrolling, which in the past has seen exchange of fire between Bangladesh and India leading to death ofcivilians living in the border areas, External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar stated that “Every death is regrettable but we also have to ask ourselves why is there a problem, and the problem is because of crime. So our shared objective should be a no crime-no death border and I am sure if we can get it right, we can address this problem effectively.”
India is also constructing the India-Bangladesh Friendship Pipeline from Siliguri to Parbatipur in Bangladesh for supply of high speed diesel. There is also financial investments in building shallow water blocks intended for drilling of natural gas in Bangladesh. India is also exploring pathways for supplying LNG through cross-border pipelines as well as building LNG terminals in Bangladesh.
The Indian Foreign Secretary has made it clear that how India along with Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar can turn into an energy hub, enhancing cooperation in hydrocarbons by diversifying in the value chain of the oil and gas sector. There is also discussion in creating an integrated and shared energy grid in the region that would not only facilitate strengthening existing energy cooperation between nations, but would also cater to proper distribution of energy to the region. He stated “energy connectivity is one of the most dynamic sectors of cooperation in our relationship with Bangladesh. Our cooperation in hydrocarbons' sector is diversifying into the entire value chain of oil and gas sector.”
While there is also ongoing discussion between Foreign Secretaries, Power Secretaries, Home Secretaries, Police Chiefs, BSF-BGB and defence visits, there are also proposed discussions between commerce, water resources and shipping ministries. Building and strengthening transit of cargo not only within Bangladesh, but the creation and strengthening of road, train and inland waterways to access the states inthe North-eastern states of Indiawould significantlyenhance the trade volume.
Vaccines havealso played an important factor in strengthening relations between the two nations, when India provided 2 million vaccines to Bangladesh.While developing trade facility in the ports of Chittagong and Mongla, there might be talks in providing transit for Nepal and Bhutan for accessing the ports in Bangladesh, which would further port options for the landlocked countries, which till date has been using the Kolkata and Vizag ports only. Getting access to the ports of Mongla and Chittagong would also enhance trade and investment in the states of Northeast India.
India also looks forward to a larger role of Bangladesh in the Indo-Pacific regiondue to its geo-strategic location. It seeks to engage in defence cooperation and also promote free and rule based maritime order not only in the Bay of Bengal region, but also in the Indo-Pacific. External Affairs Minister Jaishankar had stated “if we can get connectivity right between India and Bangladesh, I can tell you the geo-economics of the region will change. The Bay of Bengal will look very different.”
While the Bapu–Bangabandhu digital museum runs successfully, both the countries will be looking forward in strengthening more people to people contacts through cultural and literary exchanges, strengthening tourism within the two countries, as well as learning from the strengths that the two countries possess. There might be talks during the Prime Ministerial visit in the implementation of agreements that have been agreed upon but haveyet to be implemented.
Dr. Dhrubajyoti Bhattacharjee
Sr. Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi