India-Bangladesh: Why Modi’s Visit is ‘Well-Timed’ & What it Means

PM Modi’s first foreign visit amid COVID — to Bangladesh — is a policy signal indicating firm support to PM Hasina.

5 min read
Image of Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina (L) and PM Modi (R) used for representational purposes.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will wing his way to Dhaka on 26 March, the day Bangladesh celebrates its Independence Day. On this day in 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, Bangladesh’s towering leader and revered as ‘Bangabandhu’ (Friend of Bengal), electrified the people with the declaration of independence in Dhaka.

This momentous decision triggered the nine-month long brutal War of Liberation, during which the Pakistani Army and its collaborators unleashed a genocide, ultimately killing, raping and maiming around 3 million people and driving over 10 million people into India to seek refuge in the states surrounding Bangladesh.

Highlighting this gruesome episode via exhibitions and the setting up of the Genocide Museum in Bangladesh, as has been planned, will remind the younger generation in both countries about the brutal credentials of the Pakistani Army which retains its iron grip on power, behind the facade of a civilian government.

Political Controversy Over Bangladesh’s Declaration of Independence

A political controversy about the declaration of independence has persisted in Bangladesh. On 27 March 1971, another declaration of independence on behalf of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman was read out over radio by Major Ziaur Rahman, then a sector commander. This has led to a political controversy on who first made the declaration of independence.

This dispute is one of the causes of the bitter cleavage between the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League (AL) and the Khaleda Begum-led Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

The BNP was founded by Ziaur Rahman, having usurped power as a military dictator in 1977, after the brutal assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and the members of his family on 15 August 1975 by rogue army personnel. Since then, the BNP has propagated the narrative that Zia must be credited with the declaration of independence, a stand vehemently opposed by the AL.

Significance of Modi’s 26 March 2021 Bangladesh Visit

There is a very special significance to this forthcoming visit by PM Modi. 2021 is Bangladesh’s 50th year of independence, its 50th year of establishing diplomatic relations with India, and also the centenary year of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s birth.

These three events form the basis of nationwide celebration in Bangladesh as ‘Mujib Borsho’ (The Year of Mujib).

PM Modi’s visit comes after his last visit in 2015, and he will attend as the guest of honour at the national celebrations that have been planned. PM Modi’s first foreign visit to Bangladesh, at a time when the COVID pandemic is still claiming more victims in certain parts of India, is a policy signal indicating firm support to Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, and the people of her friendly neighbouring country.

India-Bangladesh Connectivity: A Pillar of Bilateral Ties

The two leaders had last held a summit meeting on 17 December 2020 and inter alia re-opened the Haldibari-Chilahati rail link connecting north West Bengal and north Bangladesh. In early March 2021, the two PMs opened the Maitri bridge connecting Sabroom in Tripura and Ramgarh in Bangladesh. Both were virtual events. The Maitri Bridge will provide better connectivity to Chittagong port which is around 100 kms from Agartala.

The existing bilateral agreement, facilitating trans-shipment of goods to the northeastern Indian states, via Chittagong and Mongla ports, will reduce both time and transportation costs for goods, thus helping traders and consumers in the eastern region.

Connectivity has emerged as a major pillar of bilateral ties, underlining the importance of mulit-modal transportation infrastructure to foster greater trade, investment and movement of people. Bangladesh has come on board the tri-lateral highway project between India, Myanmar and Thailand.

Both India and Bangladesh are on the same page regarding the importance of connectivity to foster economic integration and building regional and global value chains.

Bilateral connectivity has included cyberspace, with the internet link between Cox’s Bazaar’s undersea cable gateway and Agartala. Connectivity infrastructure is expected to give a huge boost to GDP growth in both countries, with Bangladesh growing at a higher rate, as compared to India.

Today, India & Bangladesh are Stakeholders in Mutual Economic Development

Though Bangladesh has been a Less Developed Country (LDC) so far, her economic performance has been lauded globally, and it is on track to be re-designated in 2026, as a developing country, like India.

As India’s largest trading partner, the most important development partner and the highest contributor to India’s foreign tourist/visitor traffic, both countries have become stakeholders in mutual economic development, economic recovery is now the first priority along with fighting the COVID pandemic.

High Level Of India-Bangladesh Trust

The high level of trust and friendship owe much to the political leadership in both countries. India’s gesture to provide the first lot of free COVID vaccines to Bangladesh was a clear signal of India’s priority in the neighbourhood.

There is no doubt that PM Sheikh Hasina, in power since 2008, has been singularly helpful in aiding India in the security domain, by eliminating safe refuge on Bangladesh territory to northeastern Indian insurgent groups and handing over insurgent leaders to India.

With other important issues like the territorial and maritime boundary sorted out, the two countries have been able to focus on important sectors of bilateral cooperation like connectivity, people-to-people contacts, trade, investment and development cooperation.

Several new routes have been activated along waterways. More passenger trains have been introduced and containers are being transported by rail across borders. This is an important trade facilitator, as containers reduce the cost of transportation.

Importance of Climate Change for India-Bangladesh

New routes along the many trans-border rivers and ‘innocent passage’ routes for barges on the Ganga have been identified. The dredging of the waterway routes is of utmost importance to facilitate riverine traffic. The operationalisation of the BBIN Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA), even without Bhutan, will help integrate road transportation among the participating countries. The India-specific Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in Bangladesh will help in creating regional manufacturing value chains.

Climate Change has taken centre-stage in bilateral ties. Recent bilateral agreements in sectors like agriculture, solid waste disposal, conservation of elephants indicate the shift in priority to issues under Climate Change adaptation and mitigation. Climate Change has already impacted both countries adversely, and this sector will demand more attention of policy-makers in both countries.

The Sunderbans, a UNESCO-recognised world heritage zone, is crying out for joint cooperation. Despite bilateral agreement, bureaucratic silos and differing regulations seem to have taken precedence over the overarching objective of joint cooperation on the Sunderbans.

PM Modi’s ‘Temple-Run’ in Bangladesh

PM Modi will take a detour outside Dhaka and visit the famous Jashoreshwari Kali Temple in Satkhira and the Matua temple at Orakandhi. Some commentators have linked these visits to the forthcoming election in West Bengal, because many refugees, mostly Hindus who fled during Partition, the 1965 war, the 1971 war and later, during the BNP-JeI (Jamaat-e-Islami) coalition government from 2002-2006 when Hindus were subjected to widespread persecution are settled in the state.

Two or three agreements may be signed during the visit. A Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) are the need of the hour to boost bilateral trade upwards from around USD 9-10 billion.

India-Bangladesh Challenges Need Sensitive Handling

India’s ties with Bangladesh rest on a strong foundation and historical bonds with PM Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League remain durable. No relationship is entirely trouble-free, least of all between neighbouring countries in South Asia. Constant nurturing is the key to managing bilateral ties.

Several challenges remain — river water-sharing, border management, migration, terrorism and religious radicalism are issues that will demand monitoring and resolution.

New challenges like the Rohingya refugees and the China factor are long-term issues that will demand sensitive handling and mutual accommodation.

(The author is a former High Commissioner to Bangladesh and former Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs; currently he is a Visiting Fellow at ORF, Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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