The India-Bangladesh relations got a major boost with Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla’s visit to Dhaka last month (18-19 August). It was Shringla’s maiden overseas visit after the travel restrictions were imposed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The visit is seen as being fruitful. Shringla was the first foreign emissary Prime Minister Hasina met after the outbreak of the Covid-19.
During his two-day visit, the Indian Foreign Secretary called on the top leadership of Bangladesh, including Foreign Minister A K Abdul Momen and his counterpart Masud Bin Momen. He also had a virtual interaction with the Chief of Bangladesh Army.
In his interactions, Shringla discussed various issues of mutual interest, including development partnership, cooperation in tackling Covid-19 challenges and vaccine-development, etc. A major highlight of the visit was his handing over of a special message of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Prime Minister Hasina. She appreciated Modi’s efforts in sending his special representative with a massage on how the two countries could take the relationship forward.
The visit attracted wide media attention since it coincided with the rising tension between India and China that has resulted in a rigorous power-game by Beijing to deepen its influence in India’s neighbourhood. The Chinese game of seeking to influence India’s neighbours has been visible in Bangladesh too, through measures like enhancing the list of products for duty-free access into its markets and providing massive loans for development projects.
The local media described the visit as India’s effort to win back Bangladesh, one of its trusted friends in the neighbourhood. The authenticity of the claims made in the media needs detailed analysis before drawing any conclusion as the two countries view their relationship independent of any influence of a third country. Recently, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) had expressed displeasure over the repeated comparison of its relationship with Bangladesh with that of China.
An analysis of the agenda of the visit showcases two different strands of India’s engagement in Bangladesh, which have been overlooked in the popular discourses on the bilateral relationship. These relate to the humanitarian approach which has been the foundation of the bilateral relationship, and at the same time celebrating shared heritage and culture which binds the two countries.
India’s relationship with Bangladesh precedes strategic considerations. The torture of Bangladeshi people by the Pakistani army and the subsequent influx of refugees was a major driver for India’s support for the country’s Liberation War in 1971. Post-liberation also, India has been prompt in providing humanitarian assistance to Bangladesh, either for dealing with natural disasters like cyclone or health emergencies like the Covid-19. Besides, health tourism forms a major component of the bilateral relationship.
During the visit, the India Foreign Secretary also discussed the celebrations of two major events — the birth centenary of ‘Bangabandhu’ Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (Mujib Borsho), the leader of Bangladesh independence movement, and the golden jubilee of Bangladesh’s independence.
The Bangabandhu has been credited with pioneering the bilateral relationship, and the celebration of his birth centenary jointly by the two countries will add a new dimension to the relationship. Similarly, the golden jubilee of Bangladesh’s independence is a moment that demands joint commemoration by Bangladesh and India.
Bangladesh rode to its victory due to the efforts of its freedom fighters and the India Army. The Indian Army fought side by side with the Bangladeshi freedom fighters in 1971. Given the importance of these events, India’s top diplomat discussing these momentous occasions resulted in a feeling of commonness between the two countries.
Delivering on promises
Nevertheless, to benefit from the positives achieved from the visit, India should work on delivering the promises made to Bangladesh. Fast-tracking development projects in Bangladesh will be a significant step forward. Also, India’s help in the repatriation of the Rohingya refugeess to Rakhine in Myanmar will be encouraging. From 2017, the Rohingya refugees are residing in Bangladesh after they fled their homes in Rakhine to escape the atrocities of the Myanmar security forces in retaliation of an attack on their camps by an armed group from the community.
Cooperation between India and Bangladesh will not only help the development of the two countries but also contribute to the prosperity of South Asia. Regular interaction between the top leaderships and the officials will help in strengthening the relations.
The visit showcased the importance India gives to Bangladesh and added a new momentum to the relationship, which for some time has been limited to virtual interactions.