Bangladesh and India have a lot to remember and celebrate together. A monument coming up in Tripura symbolises the shared historical engagement.
Tripura, which shares an 856-km border with Bangladesh, is building a huge war memorial and friendship park to memorialise the heroes of the Bangladesh Liberation War. Work on the Bharat-Bangladesh Moitree Udyan in a border hamlet in southern Tripura was inaugurated by Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni on November 11.
The “friendship park” in Chottakhola has been planned in memory of the freedom fighters and Indian soldiers who died 39 years ago in the course of the struggle for Bangladesh's independence from Pakistan. The freedom fighters had their fortified base camps and launched guerrilla attacks on the Pakistan Army from Chottakhola.
The memorial project, for which the Tripura government deserves full marks, will cost an estimated Rs. 2.3 crore. Situated about 130 km from the State capital of Agartala, it will have a statue of Bangladesh's Founding Father, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Set in a verdant 20-hectare area dotted by seven hillocks and a serpentine lake, the Moitree Udayan will have a 52-foot-tall tower that will be visible from some parts of Bangladesh. It will have a museum and a library to preserve documents from those historic days when Bangladesh and India stood in unison to defend a just cause.
In many ways, the Foreign Minister's visit marked a unique occasion. The maiden trip by Ms Moni to the State was meant not only to recall the historic events but also to try and boost cross-border trade with the northeastern States.
Picturesque Agartala served as the virtual ‘war headquarters' of the 1971 Liberation War that led to the birth of independent Bangladesh, the former East Pakistan. For over 1.5 million refugees, Tripura was a dear sanctuary during that phase. Ms Moni's visit to Agartala, where Bangladesh's government-in-exile was formed on April 10, 1971, came some 39 years after the war. The Mujibnagar government led the war. The government-in-exile was formally sworn in at Meherpur on April 17, 1971.
Tripura was then the desperate destination of thousands of men, women and children, all of whom fled their homes as genocidal elements of the Pakistan Army and local goons carried out mass rape, large-scale murder and arson. Tripura sheltered over 1.5 million Bangladesh refugees, a number that exceeded its own population. Tripura, therefore, occupies a special place for Bangladesh.
Bangladeshi refugees entered West Bengal, Meghalaya and Assam in thousands throughout the nine-month-long war. The hapless people who wanted their lives saved and their women and girls protected from the marauders, were all over Tripura in particular, straining the State's infrastructure and resources. From Belonia to Sabroom to Dharmanagar, it was a sea of distressed humanity. This writer was a witness to it: there was not a single school, college or government or semi-government office which was not filled with refugees.
The 1971 war for Independence was essentially a national war. Relentless lightning actions of the guerrilla fighters eroded the moral and physical strength of the Pakistani Army. While India played a significant role in supporting the war, the Indian Army directly intervened only after an India-Bangladesh Joint Command was formed in the first week of December 1971 as Pakistan launched an attack on the western front. India lost an estimated 17,000 servicemen.
The war culminated in a shared war against a common enemy that had disregarded democratic ideals, perpetrated mass murder and indiscriminate violations upon unarmed civilians.
The “friendship park” in Chottakhola should be seen as a testament of historic ties. It will tell future generations the truth: that the two countries stood in unison in the time of need to defend justice and humanity. The Tripura government led by Chief Minister Manik Sarkar deserves laurels for making the unique project a reality. It is going to be a gift to the future generations of both the countries.
Ms Moni's trip to Tripura served also to further Bangladesh's trade and commerce with the northeastern States, many of which share borders with Bangladesh. Bangladesh and the northeastern Indian region are contiguous geographically, but the potential for trans-border trade remains under-utilised.
During some phases, India-Bangladesh relations have not been as smooth as would have been logically expected. Colonial mindsets and the ghosts of 1947 continued to bedevil the growth. Only recently has a major change occurred: the two neighbours have agreed to cooperate on many vital issues, and taken up major initiatives.
In March 2010, Dhaka and New Delhi reached a deal to allow Indian goods to be transshipped to Tripura and other northeastern States. Dhaka has allowed India to use the Chittagong port. It has granted access to its Mongla and Ashuganj ports also to ferry heavy machinery and other goods from the rest of India to the northeastern States.
Transit is an issue that has been debated over the years. However, given the political dimensions involved, a breakthrough remained elusive until recently. Taking a bold step, the Sheikh Hasina government acted in a positive manner. Dhaka took into account some basic factors in making up its mind. Bangladesh cannot remain an island, and it stands to benefit immensely from extending facilities to India. According to the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), an independent think-tank, Bangladesh will stand to gain $2.3 billion over a period of 30 years by extending transit facilities to India, Nepal and Bhutan.
The two countries have some longstanding issues that deserve early solutions. It is to be hoped that Dhaka and New Delhi will utilise the prevailing goodwill to carry the spirit of mutual trust forward.
The two countries recently agreed to exchange their enclaves and territories that are in adverse possession. This was a longstanding irritant. People in the 111 Indian enclaves inside Bangladesh and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves in India have suffered much since 1947. There is also a need to mend differences over sharing of river waters and to demarcate the entire land boundary.
For the Sheikh Hasina government, any greater level of cooperation and connect with India, particularly in the matter of transit facilities, is a politically sensitive issue. There are formidable opponents waiting to cash in on such issues politically. The main Opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and its allies, including the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami, have demanded the scrapping of all deals signed recently with India, including those relating to transit facilities. They allege that the government is only serving India's interests. The vociferous reactions from Khaleda Zia, the Opposition boss, against the transit deals reflect an old political mindset.
Ms Zia's insistence on scrapping the deals with India might have amply reflected her party's own agenda, but it will do little to promote bilateral cooperation. And many people believe that linking the country's sovereignty and independence with the issue of transit is to stretch the political rhetoric to an unacceptable degree.
Street politics is on the boil again. Bangladesh witnessed a violence-marred, nationwide hartal sponsored by the Opposition parties on November 14. The BNP called the hartal after Ms Zia was made to vacate her house in Dhaka's cantonment area on November 13 following a court order. She alleged that she was evicted forcibly by the government. However, the authorities have strongly refuted the charge. The house was leased to her by the military authorities, in addition to another government house in a posh area, in Gulshan, after her husband, General Ziaur Rahman, was killed in 1981.
However, the ruling party, which has a massive parliamentary strength, believes that the street agitation is a motivated one mainly aimed to achieve three objectives: to destabilise the government, frustrate the ongoing trial of the war criminals, and create obstacles to the deals signed with India recently. And it is bracing to cope with the challenge.
(The writer, based in Dhaka, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Keywords: India-Bangladesh ties