The highest Bangladesh award — the Bangladesh Swadhinata Sammanona (Bangladesh Freedom Honour ) — conferred on the late Indira Gandhi for her outstanding contributions to Bangladesh's Liberation War, was received by her daughter-in-law Sonia Gandhi here on Monday.

Bangladesh President Zillur Rahman presented the award, the highest honour for any foreign national after 40 years of Bangladesh's independence from Pakistan.

Ms. Sonia Gandhi recalled the fond memories of her mother-in law during the tumultuous days of 1971, when the great Indian leader took a firm, principled stand to side with the oppressed people of then East Pakistan. She concluded her speech saying: “Joy Bangla, Joy Bangladesh-India Friendship.”

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was present with her Cabinet colleagues at the ceremony at the President's House, Bangabhaban.

The award included a 200 tola gold medal and a citation which read: “Ms. Indira Gandhi stood by the side of the people of Bangladesh from the beginning of the Liberation War despite various adversities. She provided shelter to about one crore Bangladeshi refugees. She provided courage in the Liberation War by facing different diplomatic hurdles. She played a great role in freeing Bangabandhu from Pakistani jail. Her contribution to Bangladesh's Liberation War will be remembered forever.”

The citation was read out by Cabinet Secretary Abdul Aziz.

Ms. Sonia Gandhi was given a red carpet welcome on her arrival at the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport on Sunday.

The Congress president was here at the invitation of Ms. Sheikh Hasina.

At another event, Ms. Gandhi stressed the need for increased awareness about autism and urged public figures to champion the cause of people with disabilities.

Speaking as chief guest at the South Asian Autism conference, she highlighted advocacy, research and training as immediate priorities in this field.

“It is unfortunate that in South Asian societies the disabled do not get the empathy they deserve,” she said.

Ms. Gandhi also said that limited public awareness continued to prevail in the region because autistic people did not always appear disabled in the conventional sense, and developing countries needed to adopt proven interventions to improve the situation.

After mentioning some of the contributions of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation in improving the diagnosis and treatment of autism through training paediatricians, she urged civil society to play a vital role in shaping opinion and providing quality care and services.

Addressing the conference, Ms. Hasina stressed the need for establishing the rights of challenged people in the developing countries. “It is necessary to create social and legal frameworks and infrastructures to mitigate the sufferings of the challenged people, protect their rights, and promote their cause.”

Earlier in the day, the Congress president paid tribute to the Bangladesh's Liberation War martyrs placing floral wreaths at the National Memorial in Savar. She also called on Ms. Hasina and other leaders.

Global research and advocacy forum Autism Speaks, in collaboration with the government of Bangladesh, the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University (BSMMU) and World Health Organisation (WHO), organised the two-day conference.

Sri Lankan First Lady Shiranthi Rajapaksa and Ilham Hussain, wife of Mohamed Waheed Hassan, the Vice-President of Maldives, were special guests.

Ms. Rajapaksa, Ms. Hussain, Zangling Drukpa, Bhutan Health Minister, and A.F.M. Ruhal Haque, Bangladesh Health Minister, spoke on the occasion.

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