Recent rounds of bilateral interaction have marked a paradigm shift in India-Bangladesh relations.
The recent visit to Dhaka by Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Indian National Congress and leader of the ruling United Progressive Alliance, came in the backdrop of intense rounds of Dhaka-New Delhi interaction in recent months. These developments hold the prospect of a new era in bilateral relations in the period since 1971 when Bangladesh was born.
Ms Gandhi's July 24-25 visit, ahead of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's scheduled visit to Bangladesh on September 6 and 7, came as a reassertion of the historical links between the neighbours. The visit was also seen as a fresh opportunity to spur regional connectivity in terms of trade, tackling terrorism and promoting people-to-people links, that can be brought to bear on the politics of the region as a whole.
It was Ms Gandhi's first visit to Dhaka, and it lasted 24 hours. She praised Bangladesh's success in tackling crucial issues such as the fertility rate, proportion of underweight children, immunisation, number of mean years of schooling, child and infant mortality rates, and life expectancy, and remarked that “Bangladesh is ahead of India” in all these areas.
Ms Gandhi saw in the Dhaka visit an opportunity to renew bonds of friendship, and reaffirm India's “special affection and enduring respect for Bangladesh.” During their interaction, both Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Ms Gandhi felt that concerted efforts would be needed to tackle terrorism and militancy in the interest of ensuring a stable and secure South Asian future.
Ahead of Ms Gandhi's visit, External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna had visited Dhaka, followed by a visit by Home Minister P. Chidambaram. These high-level visits perhaps gave a preview of what the two neighbours need to address during Dr. Singh's visit. It has been stated officially that, besides resolving outstanding issues, a much-awaited deal on the sharing of the waters of the Teesta river, a settlement of the demarcation of the 6.5-mile-long land boundary that has remained unresolved for over three-and-a-half decades, and the exchange of land under adverse possession that has caused intermittent border tensions, could be expected. There are also positive hints of concessions from India on the trade front to help ease the balance of trade.
Bangladesh's business community has welcomed an agreement signed during Mr. Krishna's visit — which followed Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao's trip to Dhaka — on the protection and promotion of investments on both sides.
Mr. Krishna put forward a vision of a relationship that would tie the two countries in a relationship “deep into the future.” That vision, he stated, was documented in the Joint Communiqué adopted during Sheikh Hasina's visit to New Delhi in January 2010, and is now being implemented to achieve a paradigm shift in bilateral relations.
One issue that has not been discussed pertains to the demarcation of the maritime boundary, over which Bangladesh has gone to the Tribunal on the Law of the Seas. This, too, is expected to be addressed soon.
Mr. Chidambaram's July 29-30 visit saw an important deal being signed on border management. He was optimistic in his statement at a joint media conference after his talks with the host Home Minister, Shahara Khatoon. He believed that the India-Bangladesh relationship has been passing through a very promising phase in recent times with both sides embarking on a number of forward-looking, pragmatic and mutually beneficial initiatives. Mr. Chidambaram was categorical in saying that the Bangladesh Prime Minister's visit to India last year had given “a new direction to the course of our relationship.” He added that the two Prime Ministers had “a common vision for the future of cooperation.” A significant announcement that Mr. Chidambaram made in Dhaka was that his government had issued orders to the Border Security Force not to shoot unarmed civilians even if they were found crossing the porous border illegally.
Understandably, Ms Gandhi was in Dhaka not on a political tour. She attended the South Asian Autism Conference, and received the Bangladesh Swadhinata Sammanona, or the Bangladesh Freedom Award, on behalf of late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, for her outstanding stewardship during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971.
It is apparent that the neighbours have undertaken a new journey since 2010. They have been taking effective anti-terrorism measures, and have entered into a crucial deal to allow Indian goods to be trans-shipped to India's land-locked northeastern region. India has been using Bangladesh's waterways for a long time as transit paths for goods. There was no objection to that. However, the issue of road transit is being opposed by a section of politicians and their sympathisers, in a politically driven manner. With a common border of over 4,000 miles, both countries must focus on the humanitarian priorities, looking beyond colonial shadows. Bangladesh cannot remain an island, and the transit issue should be seen in economic terms — along with good neighbourly attitudes.
India and Bangladesh have a number of longstanding issues pending, some of them inherited from the time of Partition. Those issues need to be addressed urgently. Dhaka has already met one of India's foremost security concerns by saying ‘no' to its northeastern insurgents. The political leadership of the two neighbours, who seem to be bold and progressive in their approach, should prudently utilise the prevailing goodwill, during the best such phase since 1971, to carry the mutual trust further forward, looking beyond mistrust and the colonial shadows.
In the changing situation, Nepal has started enjoying transit facilities through Bangladesh and the Indian territory. Bhutan, another landlocked country, will get the same facility soon. However, there are formidable challenges in Bangladesh when it comes to granting transit facilities to India. Its opponents have demanded the scrapping of not only the transit deal but also all other accords signed with India over the past year.
The right-wing Opposition parties, including their allies in the political Islamist forums — some of whom had opposed Bangladesh's independence from Pakistan — are coming together. They allege that granting transit facilities would only serve New Delhi's interests. They have taken up the issue as a political one. The issue may be debated from an economic perspective. Its outright rejection reflects a narrow political mindset. This mindset needs to be discarded.
There is another point with regard to transit: northeastern India, specifically Tripura, Meghalaya and Assam, sheltered millions of refugees during Bangladesh's Liberation War. Tripura alone, with a population of 1.5 million in 1971, sheltered more than its own population. The entire northeastern India was the hub of the freedom struggle. The Mukti Bahini got training and logistic support to fight the Pakistan Army. Therefore, Bangladesh has to reciprocate. Surely, that will be a civilised response to friends.
The political leader of India's ruling coalition was “deeply touched” at the way Bangladesh honoured Indira Gandhi. President Zillur Rahman, who was a close associate of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh's founding father, termed Indira “a beacon of hope,” saying she had inspired millions of people both in Bangladesh and India to fight against oppression and injustice.
Sheikh Hasina described Indira Gandhi as “a true and great friend.” She added: “At the call of the Bangabandhu, she withdrew Indian soldiers within three months of the independence of Bangladesh. That was a unique and rare gesture of Mrs. Indira Gandhi.” She paid homage to the Indian soldiers who were martyred in the Bangladesh War.
Many observers would say that Ms Gandhi's first visit to Bangladesh has encouraged not only the government, perhaps even the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the main Opposition, to some extent. The party, which was thrice in power, has officially expressed the hope that Ms Gandhi's visit would strengthen Bangladesh-India relations and help resolve the long-standing disputes.
Pakistan's new Foreign Minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, whose remarks in New Delhi seemed to represent a new generational awakening, also understandably aroused a new hope with regard to peace talks with India. There can be a new beginning in Pakistan's relations with Bangladesh, too. And this will not be difficult to achieve if Pakistan's leadership accepts the historic realities, apologises for the genocide and rape committed on unarmed civilians by its troops in 1971, puts the perpetrators on trial, and addresses a few more outstanding issues. Durable peace and lasting good neighbourliness are essential in South Asia.
(The writer is a Dhaka-based journalist and author. He is at email@example.com)