On this day, 50 years ago in 1971, Bangladesh was born and East Pakistan became history. That day, the entire population of Bangabandhu’s dream country was in the street, celebrating their new identity, and they were accompanied by the Indian Armed Forces. That day, India and Bangladesh started a new journey to be together in friendship and prosper together. The famous picture of the Pakistan Army’s surrender to the Indian Army adorns the walls of many offices and houses in both countries. It’s not just a picture – it’s an emotion that shows how India and the people of Bangladesh came together against Pakistan.
A War for Identity
This year, both countries are jointly celebrating Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s birth anniversary, along with the golden jubilee of Bangladesh‘s existence, marked by various celebrations. One of the most prominent among them is the participation of the Bangladesh Armed Force Contingent in India’s Republic Day celebration in January 2021, which marched along Rajpath to showcase the strong bond between the two countries. In a similar way, even the Indian Armed Forces contingent participated in various events in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh also hosted India’s top leadership this year. During the Bangabandhu birth anniversary, our Prime Minister visited Bangladesh in March this year, and now our President is in Dhaka to participate in the celebrations on 16 December along with the people of Bangladesh. These two visits are strong enough to prove the bond the two countries share. India’s independence leaders, such as Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Mahatma Gandhi, are very well-known and respected in Bangladesh. And similarly, Bangabandhu’s determination to protect his countrymen is also widely acknowledged by Indians.
The Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, along with the India-Pakistan war, is one of the most difficult wars fought by the two neighbours in the subcontinent. In the western sector, the war was fought to prove one’s superiority. But the war in the Eastern sector had a different motive and outcome – it was to save the identity and to safeguard the interest of East Pakistan’s Bengali people. Hence, the Liberation war will always be special for Bangladesh and India.
History states that the people of Bangladesh suffered twice, once during the Partition of India and later during the Liberation war. But today, after 50 years, Bangladesh is making headlines globally through its progress and prosperity.
As per World Bank records, Bangladesh’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for 2020 stands at $355 billion, which is higher than its neighbours, including India and Myanmar.
India and Bangladesh share a common bond, be it in terms of culture, tradition, rivers, or even food habits and tastes. The connection between the two neighbours is very strong. One of the most glaring examples is that both country’s national anthems were written by none other than ‘Gurudev’ Rabindranath Tagore. The spirit with which the border issues have been resolved with respect to enclaves is another aspect for the global community to note.
Northeast is Key
After 1971, there was no looking back. India supported Bangladesh in every step and is to date standing with it as an elder sibling. The current definition of trade and commerce might look different from what it was in the ‘70s, but even today, India and Bangladesh share a very strong commerce bond. India’s Foreign Secretary recently said that Bangladesh is India’s largest trade partner in South Asia, and mentioned that the bilateral trade between the two countries grew at a rate of 14%, from $9.46 billion in 2019 to $10.78 billion in 2021, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. Indian government records state that in the Financial Year 2019-20, India’s exports to Bangladesh were $8.2 billion and imports were $1.26 billion.
In addition to that, India and Bangladesh are largely connected through air and road, and in future, waterways are also in the pipeline. There are various projects in which the two countries are cooperating together. Prominent among them is the BBIN initiative, river management and trade through waterways, power management, and border security management. Bangladesh is also one of the most favourable options for India to connect to its Northeastern region. Be it air or water, it has to cross Bangladesh in order to reach the Northeast.
Hence, Bangladesh can play a very important role in India’s plan for developing the Northeast. India’s Act East Policy can be instrumental in the development of India’s trade relations with Bangladesh, as this could become one of the gateways for it to increase its boundaries of the trade corridor.
Like Members of the Same Family
Relations between India’s Northeast and Bangladesh are not new. In fact, Bangladesh shares many similarities with this part of India, as historically, they were one. As a result, even during the colonial era, the northeast had a very strong trade connection with East Bengal, or Bangladesh. Today, there are many projects by both India and Bangladesh that are based in Northeast India. Bangladesh helped with improving the security situation in the region by providing many of the northeast militant outfit leaders to India. With the new Inland waterway protocols, India and Bangladesh are jointly working on strengthening riverways and waterways, and are also exploring the possibilities of railway tracks and roadways, wherever possible. Northeastern states, especially Assam and Tripura, can benefit, as both share a border area of 1,119 km in total with Bangladesh and can be developed for border trade and border haats.
But there are a few aspects where both the countries have to work. The mutual cooperation, love and respect that India and Bangladesh enjoyed in 1971 is slowly eroding. Both the countries would have to work to sustain these shared sentiments, keeping aside the political benefits.
India and Bangladesh are like members of the same family who share different visions and ideas but always remain together in the journey. India is also on its path to celebrating its 75th Independence anniversary in 2022. It could be worthy to see what the next decade brings for both amid an emerging global economy and geopolitics.
(Subimal Bhattacharjee is a commentator on cyber and security issues around northeast India. He can be reached @subimal on Twitter. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)