Fifty years of India-Bangladesh ‘Maitri Bandhan’ (bond of friendship) has become a role model of bilateral relationships between two neighbours. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit Dhaka on a two-day visit (26-27 March) to commemorate this ‘maitri’ and Mujib Borsho, the birth centenary of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. This trusted and indispensable partnership is a key to the progress, prosperity and stability in the Bay of Bengal region and India’s eastern neighbourhood.
Culture, connectivity and commerce
India and Bangladesh share civilisational and cultural ties. Bangladesh national anthem Amar Sonar Bangla and India’s national anthem Jana Gana Mana were both composed by Rabindranath Tagore who is revered and loved by the people of both countries. While looking after his family estate in Shilaidaha, now in Kushtia district in Bangladesh, he met Gagan Harkara and Lalon Fakir who greatly influenced him. This legacy of cross-pollination of culture between the two countries has created a vibrant exchange of movies, music and food. Indian movies and TV serials have a massive viewership in Bangladesh. And Bangladesh actors like Jaya Ahsan have acted in critically acclaimed Indian movies like Bisorjon and Ek Je Chhilo Raja.
Gourmets eagerly await the monsoons when the fish Padma hilsa arrives in India. While in Bangladesh, tandoori chicken and masala dosas are relished with equal gusto.
Both countries are connected by railway, roads and air. In 2008 a railway link between Kolkata and Dhaka was revived after a gap of 43 years with the Maitri Express.
Both countries are striving to establish pre-1965 connectivity subsequently restoring other lines like Gede (India) and Darshana (Bangladesh), between Petrapole (India) and Benapole (Bangladesh), Singhabad (India) and Rohanpur (Bangladesh). Prime minister Modi and prime minister Sheikh Hasina opened the Haldibari-Chilahati rail link opened after a gap of 55 years which will help deepen people to people connect. The air bubble connection between the two countries will prove a relief to people who visit India for medical treatment.
The opening of ‘Maitri Shetu’ over the Feni river connecting the Sabroom district in Tripura with Ramgarh in Bangladesh underscores India’s neighbourhood first policy but also provides a connection to landlocked northeastern states with Chittagong port. It’s a win-win situation for both countries for trade and commerce. Bilateral trade between the two countries has grown steadily over the last decade, making Bangladesh India’s biggest trade partner in South Asia.
Forging a new bond
Under the leaderships of Modi and Hasina, relations between the two countries have made rapid strides in recent years. At a time when Bangladesh is commemorating the golden jubilee of its independence and the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Delhi and Dhaka, many things have changed in the last fifty years. Following a genocide, after Bangladesh won independence from Pakistan, it was ravaged by famine and Henry Kissinger snidely referred to it as a ‘basket case’. Today Bangladesh is among the world fastest-growing economies.
Though the immense potential of trade and commerce still needs to be tapped, (currently trade with Bangladesh is just 1 per cent of India’s trade and a mere 10 per cent of Bangladesh’s trade), a gradual unshackling of barriers and improvement in connectivity between the two countries is creating new opportunities. Timely implementation of agreements and projects will tremendously boost both economies.
One of the pressing challenges of our time is wanton and reckless destruction of nature. India and Bangladesh are home to the world’s largest mangrove forest Sundarbans. It is home to irreplaceable flora and fauna and provides livelihoods to millions. The forest acts as a physical bio-shield against the ravaging cyclones that threaten low lying coastal areas of both countries. It is the need of the hour to develop a comprehensive policy between two governments to protect the Sundarbans from deforestation and poachers.
The difficult terrain and porous border in the Sundarbans has attracted human traffickers and criminals to smuggle humans, arms and drugs through the forest. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies in both countries need to develop better coordination and sharing of intelligence to curb this menace.
India and Bangladesh share 54 common rivers. Water sharing and pollution of trans-boundary rivers are the issues that need to be resolved soon and amicably. Active economic and security cooperation is very much in the mutual interest of both countries, even where it is asymmetric. The two governments must accept this proposition and work towards implementing it.
Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy is an Adjunct Senior Associate Fellow, Asian Confluence and and Kingshuk Saha
Chaturvedy is a Bangalore based researcher