Fifty years ago, Bangladesh and India were brothers in arms facing the genocidal onslaught of the Pakistan army. For nine months during 1971, beginning 26 March of that year, the people of Bangladesh faced one of the most savage, cruel and bestial attacks the world has ever seen, from an army and a government that was supposed to be their own. In the 1971 Liberation War, three million citizens of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) lost their lives, and 200,000 women were raped. In the face of this onslaught, more than 10 million refugees from East Pakistan crossed into India. The Indian government extended every possible assistance to the refugees and to those fighting the Liberation War for the independence of their homeland, Bangladesh, under the leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his government-in-exile. On 16 December 1971, the Pakistan army surrendered to the Joint Command of India and Bangladesh. Every Indian rejoiced at the birth of Bangladesh as an independent nation, even as we mourned and honoured those who had laid down their lives as martyrs in this great cause.
Five decades later, on 26 March 2021, prime minister Narendra Modi will be the Chief Guest at the Golden Jubilee celebrations of the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent nation. This is equally the Golden Jubilee of Bangladesh-India diplomatic relations, and the culmination of Mujib Borsho, the birth centenary celebrations of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Every Indian feels honoured at the respect accorded to our prime minister. Bangladesh-India friendship has endured, widened, deepened and scaled new heights in the last seven years. Prime minister Modi describes friendship with Bangladesh as the “key pillar of India’s neighbourhood first foreign policy”. Prime minister Sheikh Hasina describes India as “our true friend”. In Bangladesh India bilateral, sub-regional and regional cooperation, no domain is left untouched. This is “truly a 360 degree partnership”, to quote India’s foreign minister S Jaishankar. The key elements that make the Bangladesh India relationship a success are mutual trust, mutual respect and mutual benefit. Prime minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Dhaka celebrates this friendship.
Bangladesh-India friendship has survived and overcome serious reversals under the two bouts of military dictatorship that followed the dastardly assassination, in August 1975, of the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. History books were re-written, indemnity was given to murderers, the Bangladesh-India joint struggle forgotten. It is to the full credit of prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s determination, perseverance and commitment to the nation and the values of nationalism, democracy, social justice and secularism upheld by her esteemed father, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, that this process has now not only been halted but significantly reversed. Under PM Sheikh Hasina’s leadership, the War Crimes Tribunal was constituted and its judgments implemented, Indian soldiers and others who contributed to the success of the Liberation War have been honoured, and the internal focus restored on peace, prosperity and inclusive economic development for one and all. Children in Bangladesh today learn about their history as it happened.
Prime minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Dhaka also celebrates Bangladesh’s well-rounded success. Bangladesh can be justifiably proud of the enormous strides and tremendous achievements to its credit over these 50 years, especially in the last decade or so. Bangladesh is no longer a Least Developed Country (LDC), as it has successfully met all the three eligibility criteria for graduating out of this category: per capita gross national income, human assets index, and economic and environmental vulnerability index. Under the leadership of prime minister Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh has set its sights firmly on achieving higher middle-income status by 2031 and developed country status by 2041. On gender issues, especially on reducing the yawning gap between men and women in the economic, political, health and education fields, Bangladesh has taken huge strides ahead since its separation from Pakistan. In the most recent assessment, Bangladesh is ranked at 50 in a field of 153 nations, the highest among all South Asian countries, where Pakistan is at 151 (Global Gender Gap Report 2020, published by the World Economic Forum, Geneva).
There are several reasons why connectivity and infrastructure development projects form the bedrock of the Bangladesh India cooperation. Seamless connectivity was the norm in our region before the 1965 War when the Government of Pakistan unilaterally disrupted this millennia-old tradition. Today, prime minister Sheikh Hasina and prime minister Narendra Modi have been steadily restoring these broken rail, road and waterway links, in recognition of the geostrategic value of integrating the economies of the BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal) region with those of Southeast Asia. BIMSTEC, too, is a particularly effective effort in this direction. The World Bank Special Report released on 9 March 2021 estimates that the benefits and potential of uninterrupted transport connectivity between India and Bangladesh could add nearly seventeen per cent to the GDP of Bangladesh and eight per cent to the GDP of India. In this context, it has been particularly encouraging to see, in recent weeks, the completion of the Maitri Setu (Friendship Bridge) over the Feni river between Sabroom (India) and Ramgarh (Bangladesh), the start of Bangladesh food product exports to India through the riverine route, and the impending start of the Dhaka-New Jalpaiguri (near Siliguri) train service. In every way, connectivity through multimodal infrastructure is the engine of growth for rapid, sustainable and competitive development.
It is a befitting testimony to the strength, spirit and substance of Bangladesh and India’s all-encompassing cooperation that both countries decided to jointly celebrate Mujib Borsho, the Golden Jubilee of the Liberation War, and the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Bangladesh and India, through a year-long elaborate programme of joint celebrations that extends beyond our borders to select third countries. The carefully planned events have strong popular appeal, ensuring maximum outreach within each country, spreading the message of goodwill, friendship and shared historical values that characterize the bilateral relations between our two countries.
The Bangabandhu-Bapu Digital Exhibition brings together the life and legacy of two iconic twentieth century leaders, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Mahatma Gandhi, who led their respective nations to freedom and liberation from despotic rule. The exhibition will be jointly inaugurated by the Prime Ministers of Bangladesh and India in Dhaka, before it travels to other cities in Bangladesh, to the United Nations, New York, and finally to Kolkata. It is an interactive, technology-based exhibition with 21 walls of information and over 100 points of digital engagement, curated in Bengali, Hindi and English. The exhibition begins with the only known photograph of Bangabandhu and Mahatma Gandhi in the same frame, taken at a political meeting in Calcutta on 13 August 1947. In his book “The Unfinished Memoirs”, Bangabandhu has admiringly described Bapu as a ‘magician’ in bringing together peoples from different communities and religions. The exhibition has been curated by Birad Yajnik (India) in collaboration with the National Archives of Bangladesh, the Liberation War Museum, the Bangabandhu National Museum, the Bangabandhu Memorial Museum, and 1971: Genocide-Torture Archive Museum Trust. This is an exhibition that will fire the imagination of the young and all those who are interested in the history of our region.
Bangladesh and India are jointly producing a feature film, the biopic on the life and legacy of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The film, which started production in January 2021 (delayed by almost a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic) is being directed by India’s leading film director, Shyam Bengal, with a star cast drawn from both countries.
Among the shared events already concluded is the 66 day cycle rally (Maitri rally) organised by India’s Border Security Force (BSF) all along the land boundary of Bangladesh and India, from Panitar in North 24 Parganas district, West Bengal, through the states of Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura, ending at Silkare in Mizoram, on 17 March 2021, Bangabandhu’s 101st birth anniversary. Throughout the cycle rally, covering well over 3,000 kilometers, the participants were welcomed by and interacted with their counterparts from the BGB (Border Guards Bangladesh), with local residents and school students.
For the first time ever, in January 2021, a 122-member tri-service contingent from the Bangladesh Armed Forces participated in India’s 73rd Republic Day Parade in New Delhi. Also for the first time, two Indian naval ships, INS Kulish and INS Sumedha visited Mongla port from 8 to 10 March 2021. This is only a small sample of the events underway during this very special celebratory year for Bangladesh-India friendship.
The genuineness of India’s focus on good neighbourly relations was visible during the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite the enormous requirements for vaccinating India’s population of 1.37 billion, the government of India launched the Vaccine Maitri (Vaccine Friendship) campaign under which vaccine shipments have been sent to over 70 countries. India offered every assistance to our friends and neighbours in South Asia, whether through PPEs, masks, medical training for doctors, and finally the vaccines being manufactured in India. India has gifted 2 million (20 lakh) doses of the vaccine to the people of Bangladesh (the largest to any single country), over and above the commercial arrangements made by Bangladesh to secure the vaccine from India.
Prime minister Modi’s visit to Dhaka will provide the opportunity for comprehensive, in-depth discussions with prime minister Sheikh Hasina, reviewing all aspects of the bilateral relationship, and exchanging views on regional and international issues. This will build upon the positive outcome and decisions, including signing of seven MOUs and inauguration of two bilateral development partnership projects, that brought our leaders together in their Virtual Summit meeting just over three months ago, on 17 December 2020. The frequency of summit-level discussions allows both sides to speed up progress on implementing agreed decisions. It also facilitates continuation of the dialogue, seeking meaningful, solution-seeking outcomes on any unresolved issues, as indeed happened in the case of the Land Boundary Agreement, including exchange of enclaves. In every respect, Bangladesh-India friendship and cooperation has emerged as the template, the model of success for South Asia and the rest of the world.
* Veena Sikri is a former High Commissioner of India to Bangladesh.