Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla arrived in the capital yesterday on a sudden visit and conveyed a message to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina that Delhi has special relations with Dhaka and it will continue to be its development partner.
He called on the prime minister at her official residence the Gono Bhaban around 7:30pm and discussed post-Covid-19 economic recovery and assistance, officials said.
"India has special and close relations with Bangladesh. Therefore, the foreign secretary has come to meet the prime minister with this message in an unofficial visit even during this pandemic," Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh Riva Ganguly Das said at a short media briefing at Hotel Shonargaon last night.
Indian officials said Hasina appreciated the visit, adding she was happy that Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent a top official to convey the message.
Shringla landed in Dhaka in a special flight of the Indian Air Force at 11:30am. He met the PM at the Gono Bhaban around 7:30pm, although the meeting was scheduled to begin at 3:00pm. It lasted for about an hour.
Earlier, Indian media reported that Shringla would carry a personal message from Modi to Hasina.
The visit, which was officially announced only after Shringla's arrival, is meant to warm up Indo-Bangla relations, amid New Delhi's concerns that China is expanding its footprints in Bangladesh, diplomatic sources said.
An Indian diplomat said it was an "unofficial" visit by Foreign Secretary Shringla, who is a former Indian high commissioner to Bangladesh. After joining as the Indian foreign secretary in January, he came to Dhaka in early March this year ahead of Modi's scheduled visit to Dhaka to attend the inaugural of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's birth centenary. Modi, however, could not come due to the pandemic.
Earlier in the day, Indian High Commission in Dhaka in a short statement said Shringla would "discuss and take forward cooperation on matters of mutual interest."
"Our PM could not come and we cannot stop all our visits due to the pandemic. So, Secretary Shringla came for a visit. This shows the depth of our relations," an Indian diplomat said.
This is the first visit by a high-level Indian official to Dhaka since the Covid-19 pandemic began in mid-March. Shringla is also expected to meet Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen, State Minister for Foreign Affairs Shahriar Alam and Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen today.
Our correspondent in New Delhi reports that Shringla's visit to Dhaka comes after a high-level meeting PM Modi had with External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Shringla last week where they discussed the state of India's relations with Bangladesh and Nepal.
Meanwhile, an official at the Indian High Commission said India was looking at a roadmap for long-term relations with Bangladesh.
On the Hasina-Shringla meeting, the official said India proposed an air travel bubble meaning that flights will operate only between India and Bangladesh during the pandemic for medical patients and businesses.
Another official said they also discussed a possible virtual meeting of the Joint Consultative Commission, a foreign minister level meeting of the two countries.
Besides, Hasina appreciated the introduction of 10 Indian locomotives for transport of goods during the pandemic, the official said.
The meeting also touched upon the connectivity and cooperation in post-Covid-19 economic recovery, assistance, including therapeutic and in vaccine, celebration of Mujib Borsho and the 50th year anniversary of Bangladesh's independence and Bangladesh-India diplomatic relations next year, said officials.
The Indian officials could not say how India would have cooperation over vaccine.
Meanwhile, Indian newspaper, The Hindu, yesterday reported that Shringla's visit comes when China is likely to provide nearly $1 billion assistance to Bangladesh for an irrigation project on the Teesta, which has been at the centre of a water-sharing negotiation with India.
In a letter to the Economic Relations Division (ERD) last month, Bangladesh's water resources ministry sought a $983.27 million loan from China to implement a "Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration Project".
The new project is adopted after years of wait for a water-sharing deal with India. Bangladesh and India failed to sign the Teesta water-sharing agreement due to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's last-minute opposition during the then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Dhaka in 2011. Even today, the issue remains unresolved and India continues to assure of striking the deal.
There was, however, no confirmation of Shringla's talk with the PM on the Teesta issue.
Diplomatic sources say certain developments have raised concerns in India recently.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan's phone call to Hasina and Pakistan High Commissioner Imran Ahmed Siddiqui's meeting with Foreign Minister Momen when Indo-China relations deteriorated could have reportedly irked India, said the sources.
At least 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a clash between Indian and Chinese forces in Galwan Valley in mid-June. Besides, analysts said, China has come closer to Bangladesh during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In June, a Chinese medical team visited Bangladesh and then the Bangladesh Medical Research Council approved a Chinese company's Covid-19 vaccine's clinical trial. However, no final decision by the Bangladesh government has been taken yet, with medical experts suspecting geopolitical factors working behind it.
Bangladesh and India maintain a very close relationship – one that Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen termed as "blood relationship" in reference to Indian's assistance during the Liberation War of Bangladesh.
Bangladesh will explore all the avenues to get quick access to Covid-19 vaccine and choose one which will be safer and useful for Bangladesh, said Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen, UNB reported.
"As part of discussions with others, we'll discuss the issue to the vaccine with India. We should have all options and we'll head for that one which will be safer and useful for us," he told reporters at his ministry yesterday.
Masud said Bangladesh would discuss with India whether there is any scope for trial of the vaccine here.
The foreign secretary also mentioned countries like China, Russia, the USA, and the UK.
He said he would hold a meeting with visiting Indian foreign secretary tomorrow to discuss ways to further improve the relations between Bangladesh and India.
Mentioning India's engagement in developing Covid-19 vaccine, the foreign secretary said, "We can update each other on the issue."