It was June 19, 1999. Middle of the Kargil war. That was when former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Bangladesh — his only visit to Dhaka — and met then Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Talking to Hasina, he had strongly ruled out external mediation, and asserted that Pakistan must vacate the areas of incursion in Kargil. A strong Vajpayee, a poet, an articulate and one who stood up for Bangladesh — that’s how Bangladesh remembers him today.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi — whose soft, smiling face billboard is on the tarmac of the Hazrat Shahjalal airport Thursday afternoon — will receive the Award of Liberation War Honour on behalf of Vajpayee — when he visits Dhaka on June 6 and 7. Soldiers from Bangladesh army, air force and navy were seen rehearsing the ceremonial guard of honour for Modi under the Thursday afternoon sun.
“It will be my privilege to receive the Award of Liberation War Honour on behalf of Atal ji. Atal ji, as Foreign Minister and as PM, placed great emphasis on strong ties with Bangladesh and had visited Bangladesh in 1999,” he said on Facebook, Thursday.
Shahriar Kabir, who has researched extensively on the Indian contribution to the Bangladesh Liberation war told The Indian Express, “Vajpayee, who was then an MP from Jan Sangh, had been vocal in lending support to the liberation war in the 1970s and had also campaigned for recognition of Bangladesh as a separate country. We spotted his name in a newspaper report which covered the debate in the Indian parliament then and then dug up the records.”
Kabir, who is part of the Bangladesh government’s national-level committee on bestowing the honour to “foreign friends”, said, “That is what Modi needs to build on — the legacy of Vajpayee.”
Modi — with Hasina and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee by her side — willl flag off bus services on Kolkata-Dhaka-Agartala and Dhaka-Shillong Guwahati routes on Saturday.
And slowly, India is putting the word “transit” — out of the Indo-Bangladesh lexicon — and bringing in “connectivity” into the discourse. Modi himself used the word, “connectivity” and people-to-people ties as he talked about the bus services.
“The word transit has a negative connotation in Bangladesh. People see it as infringing on their sovereignty. So, we decided to call it connectivity — which has a far more mutually beneficial connotation,” a Bangladesh diplomat told The Indian Express.
Dhaka, which had for the last four years resisted the “connectivity” until the Land Boundary Agreement was passed in the Indian Parliament, is now happily by the Indian side.
New Delhi, which is keen to connect north-eastern India with rest of the country, has finally got Dhaka’s approval to ferry its people through its land.
Fresh from the success of passing of the Land Boundary Agreement in the Parliament, diplomats from India and Bangladesh are hoping to get a number of agreements signed during the visit — at least 15, a diplomat said. These will cover railway, road and economic development projects, apart from shipping and on setting up a Special Economic Zone in Bangladesh.