By Harihar Swarup
At the invitation of Prime Seikh Hasina, Minister Narendra Modi visited Bangladesh from 26 to 27 to participate in the 50th –anniversary celebrations of Independence of Bangladesh to attend the beginning of the year-long celebration in March 2020 which had to be deferred due to the Covid pandemic. This was also birth centenary of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman. In the preceeding days, Prime Ministers and Presidents of Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Srilanka came to Dacca to convey their good wishes to Bangladesh. Congratulatory messages were received from many, including Joe Biden, Vladimar Putin, Boris Johnson and Imran Khan. Curiously, Chinese President Xi Jinping did not figure.
During his visit, PM Modi visited Tungipara to pay his respect to the Mazar of Sheikh Mujib, a gesture which was appreciated, particularly, as he is the first Indian prime minister to do so. PM Hasina and her sister Rehana were at Tungipara to greet the Indian Prime Minister. PM Modi also visited two Hindu temples in the countryside. This was seen as connected to the ongoing election in West Bengal.
Even though the visit was to participate in the anniversary celebration, it acquired the contours of an official visit with talks at the delegation level and a joint statement. While the joint statement does not have the visionary aspect of some of the past, this could well be interpreted positively. A ‘bread and butter’ statement should indicate that the two countries have evolved and are actively engaged and keen to discuss and remove obstacle as they appear.
In this context, it has to be noted with regret that issues related to water resources remained unattended. Besides, the major issue of the Teesta, the joint statement finds no mention of the lack of movement by one side or other with regard to Feni, Kushiyara etc. Water related issues are rarely, if ever, resolved by ministers of water resource development. Unfortunately, these apparently minor issues have a habit of flaring up and affecting bi-lateral relations. The Indian Prime Minister’s comment that India is committed to a reasonable solution to sharing all river waters bypassing the essential need for the development of water resources, which, in turn, requires multi-state collaboration. An instance of inexcusable laxity would seem to be in not even commencing the technical survey of Ganga barrage, which is supposed to maximize the benefit of the Farakka agreement to Bangladesh. Political will, besides, there also needs to be accountability at the official and technical levels for surveys not moving from one joint statement to the next.
One very positive reflection in the discussions, hopefully indicative of the road travelled, Bangladesh’s suggestion of India providing, additional road connectivity to Nepal and rail to Bhutan. This should be provided without reservation by India, keeping at bay the ever –suspicious security agencies. Bangladesh has also expressed an interest in being involved in road link between India and Myanmar and Thailand. Until not too long ago, Dhaka had been wary of such connectivities.
It is important that, on India’s part things progressed rapidly. Bangladesh has sought a detailed proposal from India on its request to be provided connectivity between Guwahati and Chittagong, as also transit between Mahendragarh in Meghalaya to Hili in West Bengal. One of the lingering effects of the division of an independent landmass into suspicious national entities has been lack of development in all the areas concerned. A moment may have arrived when in some form, the promise of SAARC or BBIN may reach fulfillment. Free connectivity could change the lives of the people in most significant way.
A recent World Bank study has projected exceptional growth in trade in Bangladesh if there is free trade and liberal connectivity. . In this context, it is heartening to note that there have been positive discussions between the two countries in arriving at a CEP. As far as can be recalled, the offer of an FTA on lines similar to India’s FTA with Sri Lanka had been made in Decca many years ago at either official or track-II level but has not found acceptance. Meanwhile, export figures from Bangladesh reveal that following India’s offer of duty-free access to a number of items, exports have increased substantially.
PM Hasina’s offer of the airports of Chittagong, Sylhet and Saidpur in Northern Bangladesh to neighbouring area is extremely significant with a host of positive consequences for the region. It would be up to India to ensure that the offer is followed up by both countries in terms of necessary infrastructure being put in place.
One might recall that during Sheikh Hasina’s visit in October 2019, her statements had clearly, if politely, indicated her dismay at some political developments in India. Possibly, as a reaction to Indian statements connected to the CIA, some ministerial visits from Bangladesh had been cancelled. These concerns have not gone away, and have been reflected in the demonstrations against the Indian Prime Minister‘s recent visit, leading to several deaths. While some reassurances have presumably been conveyed to Dacca, it would remain important to remember that our internal politics, statements and, indeed, and treatment of minorities, would influence our neighbours at many levels and consequently, our relation with them. (IPA Service)