The Modi visit, as well as previous high-level visits on both sides, have without any shadow of doubt made these two neighbours secure a bilateral partnership that can potentially lead to a larger regional role with greater possibilities, writes Sreeradha Datta for South Asia Monitor
The two days of bilateral bonhomie in Dhaka to celebrate Bangladesh’s 50 years and 100 years of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the nation's founder, as also 50 years of diplomatic ties between India and Bangladesh, was very significant as it was also Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first trip abroad in over a year in his swanky new Air India One Boeing777.
Being invited as a guest of honour to celebrate the golden jubilee of Bangladesh’s Independence was indeed a special occasion. Undoubtedly, India and Bangladesh are not mere neighbours sharing the largest land border but hold a special a place for each other. The definitive role India played to support Bangladesh’s Liberation War, house the ten million refugees who fled the Pakistani genocide and its subsequent role as developmental partners have lent the bilateral ties a distinct flavour and depth that is unprecedented for the South Asian region.
Apart from several events to mark the celebrations that Modi attended, he prayed at the ancient Jashoreshwari Kali temple, one of the 51 Shaktipeeths according to Indian puranic tradition, and Orakandi temples in southwestern Shatkhira where he interacted with representatives of the Matua community - a Vaishnavite Hindu Scheduled-Caste sect spread across both Bangladesh and West Bengal in India - and pledged a multipurpose shelter for those affected by ravages of weather and improvement of primary schools for their children. He is also the first foreign leader to visit the Bangabandhu Mausoleum at Tungipara apart from paying his respect to the National Martyrs' memorial at Savar, north-west of Dhaka. Modi also met with the ruling Grand Alliance coalition leaders as well as the opposition delegation led by Raushan Ershad - widow of former president Hussain Muhammad Ershad - of the Jatiya Party. However, there was conspicuous absence of any representation from former prime minister Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the main opposition party.
Growing bilateral partnership
The Modi visit, as well as previous high-level visits on both sides, have without any shadow of doubt made these two neighbours secure a bilateral partnership that can potentially lead to a larger regional role with greater possibilities. Bilateral ties now cover not only political, social and cultural, trade and connectivity, defence and strategic and, more recently, public health, introduced during the recent pandemic. Energy ties and cross border transport connectivity has been the new mantra and with five of the previous six railway lines being restored the two neighbours are ensuring that this region will soon enjoy seamless cross border movement similar to what existed in the pre-1965 period. Many of the transport connectivity projects are in various stages of implementation and once the hard infrastructures are in place, the software will ensure smooth cargo and passenger movement in the region. The pandemic has also led to inland waterways being effectively used by both sides.
Thus Bangladesh is a key partner in India’s Neighbourhood First policy as well in India’s Act East Policy and the fact that India’s Northeast is seeing major developmental momentum was possible because of the crucial transit passage that was accorded to India by Bangladesh to access its northeastern region. The four border 'haats' (markets) in Meghalaya and Tripura have given way to a new dynamism in the borders and the experience has been both commercially and emotionally rewarding. There has been suggestions for many more to be set up on the borders. Bangladesh has become a gateway to India implementing its various policies and projects in its northeastern flanks and eastern neighbourhood.
According to Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh Vikram Doraiswamy, the foundation of India-Bangladesh ties are good and it is time to build the superstructure. He suggests that the visit was very much focused on putting the relationship clearly front and centre of the position from where it started.
Choices to be made
While there is much to celebrate and the two sides also signed five MOUs before Modi returned, the news of the death of five Islamist group members in Bangladesh during violent demonstrations against Modi’s visit at a few places across the country reflects the other political reality that exists. Protests and violence were also reported out outside the famous Baitul Mokarram mosque in Dhaka. While Modi has reiterated that both India and Bangladesh want to see peace, stability and love in the world, there are a few issues that do not square up between these two sides.
It is no secret that Indian Home Minister Amit Shah, who is known to be close to Modi, has often referred to Bangladeshi migrants in India in disparaging terms. And controversies surrounding the ruling governments National Register of Citizen and Citizen Amendment Act does send mixed signals to a large section of the population in Bangladesh and India, especially in the northeastern region. While the need to pander to domestic constituencies cuts both ways, as the Awami League government in Bangladesh turns to a more strident Islamic Hefazat group for political support and the Bharatiya Janata Party falls back on its Hindutva philosophy to gain core votes, leaders on both sides need to understand that subscribing to narrow domestic agenda has severe limitations to unfolding a larger regional dream together. The leaders need to make their choices before a black-swan moment changes the bilateral dynamics.
(The author is Centre Head, Neighbourhood Studies and Senior Fellow, Vivekanda International Foundation. New Delhi and Non-Resident Senior Fellow, ISAS-NUS. Singapore. The views are personal)
 ‘Foundation Of India-Bangladesh Ties Good, Time To Build Super Structure: Vikram Doraiswami’, India Narrative, 26 March 2021 at https://www.indianarrative.com/opinion-news/foundation-of-india-bangladesh-ties-good-time-to-build-super-structure-vikram-doraiswami-76572.html