A centenary, a golden jubilee and a vision for South Asia
The presence of no less than five South Asian heads of states and governments in Dhaka to celebrate the twin events of the centenary of the birth of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the golden jubilee of the independence of Bangladesh was the most visible manifestation of the global respect for this great man and the journey of the nation he founded. It was also a most graphic recognition of the march of Bangladesh since its painful birth five decades ago. The series of video messages from global leaders like US President Joe Biden, Canada's Justin Trudeau, Pope Francis, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Britain's Boris Johnson and China's Xi Jinping, Congress Leader Sonia Gandhi, Pakistan's Imran Khan and others in between, added further flavour to the 10 day long celebrations and gave the events a global character. That the arrangements were conducted seamlessly in the midst of a resurgent corona pandemic without compromising on either the ceremonials or the health protocols, is a major credit to the government of Bangladesh. Staggering the arrival and departure of the high level guests was part of that.
Bangladesh has maintained close relations with The Maldives, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and India, bilaterally, regionally and on the international stage since the very beginning. Signing of a series of instruments between Bangladesh and the governments of Maldives, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan, some in the form of MOUs and others more as promissory notes, will serve to further strengthen the bilateral ties between Bangladesh and these countries in the areas of connectivity, trade, tourism and people to people contact.
With India, of course, there is the major historical context of the relations; India having played a direct and a decisive role in our Liberation War in 1971, where Indian soldiers fought and sacrificed their lives for our freedom. The presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the 50th anniversary of the Independence Day of Bangladesh itself mirrored the special nature of that relationship.
The visit of the Indian prime minister has understandably drawn the biggest attention among political and diplomatic observers and the media on both sides of the border. The last time the two leaders interacted was virtually back in December last year as part of the observance of the Victory Day, a moment in history the two countries proudly share.
Highly reputed Indian political analyst and journalist C Raja Mohan, in an article in the Indian Express on the eve of the visit described the bilateral ties between Bangladesh and India as one of a "Steady improvement". He cautioned at the same time, "Delhi will be unwise to take the relationship with Bangladesh for granted".
One couldn't agree with Mr Raja Mohan more; indeed, the basket of positives has grown exponentially, the timely supply of Covid-19 vaccines from India is the latest addition. But there is still much more that needs to be done, bilaterally and in the context of the dawn of a multi-polar Asia. Dr Sreeradha Datta, of the Delhi based Think Tank Vivekanada International Foundation, and one who knows Bangladesh well, believes that among other things, geo-strategic interests make India and Bangladesh politically vital to each other. While briefing the media in Delhi the day before the visit, Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, a former High Commissioner to Bangladesh, described the relations between Bangladesh and India as being one of "comprehensive strategic partnership". This is welcome news. The contours of such a partnership, however, can indeed be broad and have major connotations.
Visits of Indian leaders, especially the prime minister, to Bangladesh, gives rise to expectations among the people on this side of the border for a visible forward movement on unresolved issues, especially on sharing of the waters of common rivers. One also expects delivery on past commitments on reducing the instances of deaths of Bangladeshis in some of the border areas to zero. On the former, the reactivation of the Joint Rivers Commission at the Secretary's level to work towards a basin wide approach looks promising. The latter remains a work in progress, given the divergent interpretations of the causes of the deaths. Assurances are welcome but it is the delivery that makes the difference.
On the whole, the optics during the visit were good. In addition to handing over the "Gandhi Peace Prize" awarded to Bangabandhu, Prime Minister Modi in his speech at the official event was superlative in paying his tribute to Bangabandhu and was in glorious praise for all those who had made the supreme sacrifice from both sides of the border for the freedom of Bangladesh. Prime Minister Narendra Modi became the first foreign leader to visit Bangabandhu's Mausoleum in Tungipara to pay respect to the Father of the Nation. He also talked of a shared prosperous future for all.
At the official talks between the two sides, a list of MOUs were inked covering multiple areas, significant of which was establishment of a framework of cooperation to address trade remedial measures and another on disaster management, resilience and mitigation. Connectivity was further enhanced with the launching of the Mitali Express connecting Dhaka with Jalpaiguri. Another 1.2 million doses of Covishield vaccines were formally handed over. Some other decisions were taken to commemorate the history of Bangladesh's Liberation War. The Bangladesh side said discussions on the sensitive issues of water sharing, including an agreement on Teesta, was also discussed but there was no concrete outcome. But then, none was expected.
Looking at the entirety of the 10 days of observance of the two historic events in the physical and virtual presence of regional and global leaders and the sound bites coming out of it, its potential ramifications for Bangladesh as a country and for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself, warrants close study. Needless to say, the events have given Bangladesh huge visibility on the world stage. For Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, it has created for her the stature of a consequential regional leader. The sense of her call "upon the political leaders and policymakers of South Asia to work hand in hand to build a peaceful and prosperous South Asia" signalled that. The prime minister re-iterated this at the end of the ceremonial programme of the Independence Day itself in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, significantly, calling on all for a "pledge to forget all the divisions, work for the development of people and establish a prosperous South Asia", calling on India as the largest country in the region to play a leading role in building a stable and politically and economically vibrant South Asia. The not so veiled messages in these statements were not lost to the discerning ears. She was addressing all those who turned up at the historic events and also those who could not. Prime Minister Modi in his response echoed the sentiments albeit, in a more nuanced language.
At the virtual meeting with her Indian counterpart in December last year, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in reference to the new challenges thrown up by the coronavirus pandemic, floated the idea of setting up a SAARC Medical and Public Health Research Institute. On the 50th anniversary of the independence of Bangladesh, she seems to have taken that a step further by calling for a more inclusive institutionalised regional cooperation, with emphasis on "forgetting past divisions". It may not be wrong to presume that the prime minister has set a vision for a regional role for Bangladesh and for herself as a strong advocate for meaningful regional cooperation in South Asia. If the events of the last 10 days are any indication, Bangladesh and Sheikh Hasina are perhaps best placed to move that process forward.
Shamsher M Chowdhury, BB is the former Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh.