Bangladesh on Sunday rolled out the red carpet for President Pranab Mukherjee who arrived in Dhaka on Sunday on a three-day state visit to boost bilateral ties amidst a general strike by fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami to protest the conviction of its three top leaders for 1971 war crimes.
In an apparent fall-out of the domestic political standoff over war crimes trial and consequent violence, opposition leader and BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia cancelled her meeting with Mr. Mukherjee that was scheduled for Monday, casting a shadow on the President’s maiden foreign visit since taking over the highest constitutional post seven months ago.
BNP, which called a countrywide shutdown on Tuesday, the concluding day of Mukherjee’s visit, cited no reason officially to call off Zia’s meeting with the President. BNP was understood to have conveyed her inability to meet Mukherjee a couple of days ago.
Interestingly, Ms. Khaleda had met Mr. Mukherjee in New Delhi in November last year on the concluding day of her nine-day visit to India.
As Mukherjee began his visit, at least 14 people, including three women and a policeman, were killed fresh violence rocked the first day of the strike called by Jamaat in four districts of Bogra, Joypurhat, Jhenaidah and Rajshahi districts.
Mr. Mukherjee, who arrived in Dhaka on an Air India One flight, was received by Bangladesh President Mohammad Zillur Rahman at the VVIP lounge of Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport. A galaxy of senior ministers of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s cabinet were also present.
Mr. Mukherjee was given a ceremonial reception at the airport including a 21-gun salute, after which he inspected the guard of honour by the three services of Bangladesh defence forces.
The visit by Mr. Mukherjee and his wife Suvra Mukherjee is invested with a lot of symbolism and takes place in the backdrop of spiralling violence by Jamaat-e-Islami, whose three top leaders have been convicted by international war crimes tribunal of genocide, rape and crimes against humanity during Bangladesh’s liberation war in 1971.
Soon after his arrival, Mr. Mukherjee flew by a chopper to the national memorial at Savar, near Dhaka, and paid floral tributes to those who laid down their lives for the liberation of Bangladesh.
In his remarks in the Visitors’ Book at Savar, Mukherjee wrote “the National Martyrs’ Memorial symbolises Bangladesh’s struggle for justice, emancipation and independence“.
“It reminds us of the valiant sacrifices made by innumerable men, women and children who fought for their homeland -- Sonar Bangla,” wrote Mr. Mukherjee.
By itself, Mr. Mukherjee’s visit to Savar would pass off as the usual curtain-raiser to any foreign dignitary visit to Bangladesh but its significance in the present circumstances, when there is renewed focus on the spirit and values symbolised by Bangladesh liberation war.
Sayedee, Jammat Vice President, was the third man to be convicted by the domestic war crimes tribunal for setting afire 25 houses in a Hindu village, and abetting the killing of two persons, including a Hindu.
It is in this backdrop that the visit by the President rides high on symbolism especially when Mr. Mukherjee receives Bangladesh’s highest award from his Bangladeshi counterpart Zillur Rahman on March 4 for his contribution to the independence of the country.
The visit takes place at a time when the trial of the Islamists for the crimes they committed during the liberation war of Bangladesh triggered a popular upsurge at Shahbagh Square against religious fundamentalism in the neighbouring country. New Delhi has already voiced its support for the agitation.
On the concluding day of his tour, he will go to Bhadrabila village in Narail district of Bangladesh to visit the ancestral house of his in-laws.
He will also visit Shelaidah in Kusthia district where the family estate of Rabindranath Tagore is located and where the poet had written many of his memorable poems, short stories and essays.
Ahead of the visit, Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai has said Mukherjee’s visit “is not designed to engage in political negotiations. What the President will convey to the top Bangladesh leadership is the Indian government’s commitment to take bilateral relations to a higher level and to resolve unresolved issues”.