As Bangladesh celebrates 50 years of independence, India resets focus to restore ‘Golden Chapter’

As Bangladesh celebrates 50 years of independence, India resets focus to restore ‘Golden Chapter’

This story first appeared in ETV Bharat

While sharing the fifth-longest border in the contemporary world, India and Bangladesh have very close socio-cultural, linguistic, and economic linkages that are the outcome of a common historical legacy and geographical proximity. It is these linkages that are being strengthened such that physical boundaries become almost irrelevant while natural, socio-economic, historical and geographical connectivities regain primacy and place ties between the two countries within the “Sonar Adhyay” or golden chapter/ era, writes Senior journalist Nilova Roy Chaudhury.

Hyderabad: It is fitting that the Indian Prime Minister will be visiting Bangladesh as a guest of honour at national celebrations to commemorate the golden jubilee of the creation of Bangladesh. After all, 50 years ago, India midwifed the birth of that nation, helping it to sever its cord with Pakistan and, indeed, challenge the foundation of the two-nation theory. India was among the first countries to recognise Bangladesh as a sovereign state, on December 6, 1971.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will, during his two-day state visit on March 26 and 27, 2021, join the main Independence Day celebrations in Dhaka. He will also honour the Father of that nation, ‘Bangabandhu’ Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, whose birth centenary, observed as ‘Mujib borsho,’ coincides with these celebrations, and celebrate 50 years of Bangladesh-India diplomatic relations.

World leaders visiting Dhaka for these celebrations, which have been subdued due to the prevailing Covid-19 pandemic, would visit the Bangladesh national memorial to pay homage to the martyrs of the 1971 Liberation War, watch special military parades, join state banquets and visit the ‘Bangabandhu’ Museum.

“But the Indian premier will also visit ‘Bangabandhu’ shrine at (his village home) in Tungipara and two Hindu temples outside Dhaka,” the Bangladesh government spokesman said. These include the ‘Jessoreshwari’ Kali temple located in Satkhira, near the country’s border with West Bengal, currently readying for its elections to the state legislature. The ancient temple has, since 1971, performed religious rituals on Tuesday and Saturday, when Modi will visit the shrine.

India shares its longest border, of 4,096.7 kilometres, with Bangladesh, and has resolved both its land and maritime boundary issues with it. In fact, the Land Boundary Agreement, in abeyance since 1974, was finally approved just ahead of Modi’s earlier visit to Bangladesh, in 2015.

While sharing the fifth longest border in the contemporary world, India and Bangladesh have very close socio-cultural, linguistic, and economic linkages that are the outcome of a common historical legacy and geographical proximity. It is these linkages that are being strengthened such that physical boundaries become almost irrelevant while natural, socio-economic, historical and geographical connectivities regain primacy and place ties between the two countries within the “Sonar Adhyay” or golden chapter/ era.

It is also these linkages and commonalities that have seen India-Bangladesh bilateral relations experience major highs and lows over the last 50 years, nearly coinciding with the ebb and flow of the politics in this most densely populated eastern region of South Asia. Mostly, the problem has stemmed from the sharing of river waters, from the Ganga, the Padma and the Teesta, among 54 shared rivers which form the lifeline of the people on both sides, and from the marshy swamplands along the border which allow people to easily cross over to the other side, mostly to earn a livelihood and get better opportunities.

What certain political parties would term as major immigration, of Bangladeshis into India, has now been stopped and Bangladesh, once infamously referred to by former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as a “basket case,” has emerged as an economic powerhouse, averaging over 8% GDP and looking to power growth in the entire region. A great deal of the credit for getting Bangladesh out from the least developed country status towards a middle-income economy must go to the Bangladesh Premier Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, who has led the government there continuously since 2009.

It is no secret that the way the ‘Sonar Adhyay’ of India-Bangladesh relations, which blossomed over the five years after the Maritime and Land Boundary Agreements were resolved and fostered by Hasina and Modi, almost unravelled in the past year, again because of politics.

It has taken very hard work, on the part of the Indian government particularly, to undertake the damage control required to undo the very negative perceptions of the Indian state after the 2019 national elections in India. The Indian Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the derogatory terminology against Bangladeshis saw a near freeze in bilateral relations. Infusing a communal flavour into a highly emotionally charged cultural relationship did not gone down well with Bangladesh. That an economic relationship of over US$10 billion per annum, the largest within SAARC, could not curb Indian majoritarian tendencies, swung the focus away from India.

The core issues of rebuilding connectivity, and faith, have seen a major effort by India to deliver on its manifold commitments to Bangladesh. The enhancement of manifold cultural linkages, including the Bangabandhu – Bapu (Mahatma Gandhi) exhibition, jointly showcasing the Fathers of the Indian and Bangladeshi republics, will be a key aspect of Modi’s visit, India’s Foreign Secretary Harshvardhan Shringla said.

During his visit earlier this month, India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar described India’s strategic ties with Bangladesh as a truly “360-degree partnership,” which includes a strong defence and security component and increasing economic heft. Bangladesh is central to India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy and increasingly relevant to the country’s ‘Act East Policy’.

India has also ensured that Bangladesh is the largest recipient of India-made vaccines against the Covid-19 pandemic. Several observers have said that the pandemic actually came as a saviour of bilateral ties.

Recent infrastructure projects fulfilled include the 1.9-km Maitri Setu (friendship bridge) built over the Feni river that flows between Sabroom in Tripura and Ramgarh in Bangladesh and reopening railway lines, which will help ensure seamless connectivity and economic convenience. These Indian connectivity projects, part of assistance programmes which India provided, along with a Line of Credit, are beginning to undo the political damage. The virtual summit the two prime ministers held on December 17, 2020, saw a considerable thaw in bilateral ties.

“Fifty years ago, in 1971, India opened up its border for Bangladesh’s people to support their freedom struggle. Today, we are building a prosperous region together,” Sheikh Hasina recently said.

Modi’s visit, his first outside India since the pandemic struck, will work to cement that sentiment, in both form and substance.

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About Nilova Roy Chaudhury

Nilova Roy Chaudhury is Editor of India Review & Analysis, a journal of Society for Policy Studies, and writes on Indian foreign policy. She is a Visiting Faculty member with Symbiosis School of International Studies. Roy Chaudhury was Chief Editor of Indian Review of Global Affairs, an online, independent foreign affairs magazine and Consulting Editor with Asia Pacific Communications Associates (APCA). An M Phil from Delhi University, New Delhi-based Roy Chaudhury began as a Researcher/Reporter with The Washington Post. She has been Staff Correspondent with AP, Special Representative with The Statesman and Deputy Foreign Editor with the Hindustan Times.