The national anthems of the two countries were written by Rabindranath Tagore, the great Bengali poet.
This article is part of the series — India–Bangladesh Relations @50: Commemorating Bilateral Ties.
Bangladesh’s emergence, after ending the 23 years of Pakistani exploitation, was the result of a unique uprising of the Bengali people who fought a heroic war for national independence in 1971. India stood solidly behind Bangladesh throughout the nine-month-long war and even recognised the new state on 6 December 1971, nine days before the war ended with the unconditional surrender of the 93,000 Pakistani troops in Dhaka on 16 December 1971, to the joint military command of the two countries. Therefore, the relationship between the two countries is not merely a diplomatic one, but comes attached with a unique bond as India’s Mitro Bahini fought shoulder-to-shoulder with the Bangladeshi forces, Mukti Bahini, and embraced martyrdom.
The unprecedented atrocities committed by the marauding Pakistani Army in 1971 led to a mass exodus to India, where an estimated 10 million people took refuge for nine months. India, under Indira Gandhi, opened its eastern borders allowing streams of refugees to take shelter. When the elected representatives of the former East Pakistan formed a government in exile, India helped settle the wartime government, and finally got involved in the war when faced attack from West Pakistan on its western borders. However, the diplomatic ties were further formalised when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited the newly formed country on 17 March 1972, days after Indian troops were withdrawn from Bangladeshi soil.
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of Bangladesh, had laid the foundation of relations with India, based on geopolitical reality and upholding the secular national spirit that had influenced the people to break away from Pakistan. But his assassination within three and a half years of independence abruptly reversed the course of history; the older spirit of the Partition (1947) of British India reemerged. It was only after the Awami League came to power in 1996 that bilateral ties began improving.
There was another pause in relations when the Begum Khaleda Zia-led BNP-Jamaat coalition was in power. Since the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League took over the reins of power in 2009, relations have started improving. The two countries share a 4,096.7 kilometre border, which is porous and also the longest border that India shares with any of its neighbours. In the past 12 years since 2009, the two countries have forged a remarkable understanding and have set up scores of institutional mechanisms in the areas of security, trade and commerce, power and energy, transport and connectivity, science and technology, defence, rivers and maritime affairs, etc. One of the notable achievements, amongst others, is the implementation of the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) and the exchange of enclaves and the signing of their strip maps. The peaceful settlement of the maritime boundary arbitration has also paved the way for the economic development of the Bay of Bengal. All these have broadened multi-sectoral cooperation, which was almost unthinkable in the past. However, the political critics of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina have been critical of some of these developments, arguing that most of them worked in India’s favour.
There are many areas where the two countries have made remarkable progress during the last decade. Bilateral trade has grown steadily. Indian investments have largely increased. Bangladesh is now the largest recipient of line of credit (LOC) funds from India. India’s exports to Bangladesh in 2018–19 stood at US$ 9.21 billion and imports from Bangladesh for the same period stood at US$ 1.22 billion.
Undoubtedly, cooperation in the power sector has become one of the hallmarks of bilateral relations. Bangladesh is importing 1,160 Megawatts of power from India to meet its demand, including exporting internet bandwidth to the state. Bangladesh is also giving drinking water from the Feni River to Tripura. While road connectivity is being restored, new rail links are being planned. There are regular train services between Kolkata and Dhaka, and buses run from Dhaka to Shillong, Agartala and Kolkata. Very recently, another old rail link of Chilahati-Haldibari was reopened. During Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s current visit, Hasina and Modi are expected to inaugurate Shwadhinata Sarak, which will connect India with Mujibnagar, where Bangladesh’s wartime government took oath in 1971. The Prime Ministers of both the countries will also inaugurate the Dhaka–New Jalpaiguri passenger train and Bapu–Bangabandhu Digital Museum — a memorial for the Indians martyrs who died during the 1971 Bangladesh War. These will add further impetus to relations between the two countries.
The two countries have also forged defence collaboration. Bangladesh’s tri-service contingent joined India’s 2021 Republic Day parade. Bangladesh has also cooperated with India in sorting out security issues in the Northeast. Dhaka also took the remarkable step of granting a trans-shipment facility to India to transport goods to the Northeastern states through its territory. The use of the Chattogram and Mongla ports for India has been agreed upon. Clearly, the intention of forging and maintaining friendly ties has been visible on both sides. Bangladesh has pleaded for access to Nepal and Bhutan’s power through India, pushed for materialisation of the Bangladesh-India-Nepal Motor Vehicle Agreement, and also sought to join the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral highway to improve its connectivity with Southeast Asia.
It is noteworthy that the national anthems of the two countries were written by Rabindranath Tagore, the great Bengali poet. However, due to a long porous border, the problems are many. These have to be mitigated justly and in a timely manner. It may be also noted that the recent Indian policies that include enacting of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and plans to implement the National Register of Citizens (NRC) has triggered fear over an impending exodus of people from Assam to Bangladesh.
In the interest of sustainable cooperation, it is important to take effective steps to resolve pending issues like sharing of common river waters and bringing down border killing to zero as such incidents vitiates public minds. The policymakers should also expedite signing of the treaty for sharing of the waters of the Teesta, the river so vital for northern Bangladesh’s irrigation as it still remains a long-pending issue.
Notably, the India–Bangladesh relationship has, so far, faced many obstacles from broadly three categories of adversaries: First, the traditional foes who pursue the communal ideals of 1947’s communal division of British India; second, the anti-Bangladesh elements, who were defeated in the 1971 War by the Mukti Bahini and Mitro Bahini and who reorganised their followers to strike back the spirit of 1971; third, the political Islamists, who would never like to see the relations stabilised. There is another important point to be noted: If Indian national politics is directed in line with a particular religious belief, the Bangladesh religious extremists will naturally try to benefit out of the scenario.
As India and Bangladesh are celebrating the 50th anniversary of their diplomatic relations, the two countries, bonded by nature, history and culture, should be bold enough to go for new areas of cooperation and connectivity, as it is the key apparatus to change the fate of the region. And that connectivity should not be in terms of land, road, and waterways alone, it must be of culture and people-to-people connections as well. The two countries’ political leaders must look beyond the borders, and forge a progressive partnership for a peaceful, prosperous, and progressive region.
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Haroon Habib is a 1971 Liberation War veteran writerRead More +