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Thursday, April 15, 2021

Goodwill is only the beginning. Much rides on the Indo-Bangladesh friendship

PM Modi’s two-day visit is likely to be a helpful curtain-raiser for many contentious political and economic negotiations.

Written by Ashikur Rahman |
Updated: March 27, 2021 8:36:54 am
Prime Minister Narendra Modi receives a bouquet of flowers from Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Friday, March 26, 2021. (Twitter @narendramodi)

On March 26, Bangladesh celebrated its 50th year of independence. Such a moment in history is profound for every nation, especially when it is born out of the embryo of perpetual discrimination, economic exploitation and political genocide. The resilience of Bangladesh and Bengalis against powerful adversaries is a testament to what is possible when human beings collectively refuse to submit to injustice. And like every story of the struggle for freedom and emancipation, ours too came with a heavy sacrifice. Millions died. A nation was ravaged by a brutal war.

That is why when Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman — father of the newly-independent nation of Bangladesh — returned from Pakistan via London and Delhi on January 10, 1972, he could not stop his tears. And, how could he?

The sight of a free nation could not hide the deep reflections of both hurt and joy in every eye he looked at. Mujib’s teary speech that day projected his pain, joy and gratefulness — both towards the people of Bangladesh and India — given the historic role India played in supporting the cause of our freedom.

Thus, it is only fitting that Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India will be visiting Mujib’s resting place in Tungipara in the district of Gopalganj on March 27. This visit is meant not only to pay respects to the man whose unfettered commitment to his people culminated in the birth of a sovereign nation, but to celebrate a special friendship that is carved out of shared values concerning the centrality of human freedom in the global political order.

Prime Minister Modi, through his visit to Mujib’s mausoleum, will also become the first Indian premier to ever visit the birthplace of Bangladesh’s finest son. Upon his arrival, Modi is expected to hold bilateral talks with the Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina — the eldest daughter of Mujib and President of the ruling Bangladesh Awami League — to take this special friendship between the two nations forward.

This nurturing of the unique bilateral bond is critical because bilateral ties between Bangladesh and India did not always have a smooth ride as the trust moulding this partnership was thoroughly severed after the assassination of Bangabandhu along with his family on August 15, 1975. That cruel coup d’état not only instigated a change of political leadership in Dhaka but it re-introduced Bangladesh to the forces that it wanted to escape through its liberation — military rule and the Islamisation of the political arena.

Furthermore, the re-establishment of military rule, and the anti-Indian political and Islamic forces at the core of the Bangladeshi political space after 1975 meant that India was no longer seen as a political ally. This perilous relationship reached rock bottom when the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jamaat-e-Islami’s alliance formed the government between 2001 and 2006. This regime was often blamed for sponsoring insurgency activities against the Northeastern states of India.

Consequently, Prime Minister Hasina’s ongoing 12-year-old government is often rightly credited for restoring the historic ties that Bangladesh had with India as it decisively neutralised all prominent national security threats to India by pursuing a zero-tolerance strategy against all forms of terrorism.

Hasina has also been successful in overseeing the economic transformation of Bangladesh by showing a mature policy commitment to macroeconomic stability, the expansion of social security and the execution of mega infrastructure projects. In fact, most recently, the IMF’s economic projection points out that the per capita income of Bangladesh is expected to remain at par with India till 2025 — a feat unimaginable in 1972 when development pundits ruled out Bangladesh as a “basket case”.

This also means that Bangladesh and India have a lot at stake. As both nations expect to grow economically over the foreseeable future, there is a lot to gain from well-structured economic and political cooperation. And if win-win economic and political avenues are pursued effectively, then there is little doubt that both countries will make their economic presence felt in the region.

Of course, this needs trust and continuous nurturing of the special friendship between the two nations. That is why Modi’s two-day visit from March 26 to 27 raises expectations as it happens to come against the backdrop of a successful vaccine diplomacy initiative that has allowed Bangladesh to access Oxford’s AstraZeneca vaccine. Its symbolic importance is likely to be a helpful curtain-raiser for many contentious political and economic negotiations, such as the much-anticipated water-sharing agreements concerning the river Teesta, frequent border disputes, the presence of non-tariff barriers, and the effective execution of the lines of credit that Bangladesh has received from India.

Of course, it is unlikely this two-day visit will resolve or make serious headway in addressing all these pending issues. However, the goodwill that this visit will generate can only make us hopeful that the historic ties shared by the two countries will reach a new high. Political cooperation between countries, in the final analysis, can only deliver when it is founded on trust and continuous engagement that culminates in respect for each other.

This article first appeared in the print edition on March 27, 2021 under the title ‘High stakes, shared values’. Rahman is a Senior Economist at the Policy Research Institute of Bangladesh.

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