Imagining a different South Asia with Bangabandhu
On a dark morning in August 1975, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family members were brutally assassinated. His killers wanted to reverse the gains of Bangladesh's independence, for which Bangabandhu had led a heroic struggle. They also wanted to strike a mortal blow to Bangabandhu's dream of building a cooperative, peaceful and harmonious subcontinent.
Bangabandhu's life was a story of struggle. Faced with oppression and brutality, he stood unflinching. Bangamata Sheikh Fazilatunnesa was his source of strength. However, we learn from his Unfinished Memoirs that even she was once moved to point out the risks and pain that his repeated incarcerations brought to his family. Bangabandhu's reply was simple—that he had "no other choice".
Despite this unflinching commitment to his cause, and despite all the persecutions he suffered, Bangabandhu retained a generosity of spirit that is a mark of true greatness. His progressive belief in fairness, equality and inclusiveness is captured in the words he wrote in the 1950s, "I know at least this much: no one should be murdered because he holds views different from mine."
It was this rare combination of deep-seated belief in his own ideals, and yet the openness of mind to accept a different opinion, that made Bangabandhu one of the greatest statesmen of our times. It endeared Bangabandhu to the people of India as well. In him, we saw a tall leader whose vision went beyond the narrow confines of physical borders and social divisions. That is why we join our Bangladeshi sisters and brothers in celebrating Bangabandhu's memory in this very special Mujib Borsho.
As we look back on Bangabandhu's life and struggle, I ask myself, what could our subcontinent have looked like, had this modern-day giant not been assassinated?
It is a hard question to answer: after all, who can predict what might have been. But looking at the four years of his tenure at the helm of an independent Bangladesh, we can make an educated guess.
It is a safe bet that with Bangabandhu at the helm, Bangladesh and our region would have evolved along a very different trajectory.
A sovereign, self-confident Bangladesh, at peace with its neighbours, bearing friendship to all and malice towards none, was rising fast from the ashes of a painful war.
If this had continued, perhaps India and Bangladesh could have achieved many decades ago some of the accomplishments that we were able to reach only recently.
For instance, India and Bangladesh were able to finally overcome the complications of history through the 2015 Land Boundary Agreement. It was a historic moment in the history of modern nation-states. But had Bangabandhu been at the helm longer, this achievement may have come much earlier. Had that happened, our cooperation would have reached a different orbit all together, enabling development, economic growth and shared security.
This may seem unrealistic, but one only has to look at examples elsewhere. Europe was marred by centuries of conflict, but achieved incredible success in bringing its people together to partake in a prosperous and shared future. Somewhat similar is the achievement of ASEAN.
I am sure that with his visionary world-view, Bangabandhu would have dared to dream something even bigger for our subcontinent. With the spirit of the Liberation War energising us, and with Bangabandhu as the guiding star, this region, at least the Bay of Bengal area, might have been in a different reality now.
We could have built a closely integrated economic region, with deeply interlinked value-chains spanning food processing to light industry, electronics and technology products to advanced materials. We could have created inter-governmental structures to maximise the economic, scientific and strategic benefits of a community of hundreds of millions of people. We could have set up mechanisms to share meteorological, maritime and geological data among ourselves and with our other neighbouring countries, saving our region from the impacts of natural disasters.
We could have joined our maritime capacities—from fisheries to offshore mineral resource exploration—to propel rapid economic growth in and around the world's biggest Bay: the Bay of Bengal. We could have developed a vast multimodal connectivity network of roads, navigable rivers and riverports, railways, ports, container yards and airports, seamlessly integrated and coordinated through a Bay of Bengal transportation and logistics council. This could have allowed goods to move quickly and seamlessly, even multiple times during the production process, across IT-enabled and highly modernised borders.
Most of all, imagine a scenario wherein our people could study, work, and do business effortlessly across this subcontinent—the world's largest pool of young people joining their energies to create wealth, innovation and drive new technologies. This would have been the most natural vaccine against the toxic infusion of radicalism, violent extremism and hatred in our societies.
This is the Shonali Adhyaya that we may have been living in had it not been for that tragic Friday morning of August 1975. The assassination of the Father of Bangladesh deprived the region of the destiny that could and should have been ours to share.
And yet today, it is possible in this dawn of a new and rising Bangladesh to believe that this future is once again within our grasp. With growing income and prosperity, Bangladesh is progressively realising the dream of Bangabandhu, under the able leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. It is time to once again chart a bold ambition for our partnership, as Bangabandhu would have done. With the spirit and enterprise of our people as our Bhagya Vidhata, the dispenser of our shared destiny, such a future is closer than ever.
Our exciting recent journey gives me hope. In a spirit of good neighbourliness, we have resolved complex issues amicably. Our land and maritime boundaries stand settled. We have substantial cooperation covering almost all aspects of human endeavour. Our trade has reached historic levels, aiding economic activities in each other's countries. Our people-to-people exchanges remain robust as ever.
We have also made good progress in the area of connectivity. Cargo from Bangladesh can move to Nepal and Bhutan through India. We are in the process of implementing a similar arrangement for Indian cargo to reach India's North Eastern States through Bangladesh. We are making concerted efforts to operationalise our inland waterways, which will allow Bangladesh barges to reach all the way to Varanasi and Sahibganj in India. Last year, we also commenced cargo and parcel services via railways, a move which has directly benefited the consumers and producers in both countries. Further, India has amended its regulations to encourage cross-border trade in power, which will benefit countries in the region.
In this historic commemorative year, we look forward to the completion of important connectivity projects like the India-Bangladesh Friendship Pipeline and the Akhaura-Agartala rail link. As our connectivity improves, our business will increase, our partnership will deepen, and we will open new vistas of cooperation. I firmly believe that we are once again striving towards a destiny that the Liberation of Bangladesh had once augured for our region.
India will remain Bangladesh's partner as we jointly march towards the golden future for which Bangabandhu, and millions of patriotic Bangladeshis, and indeed thousands of Indians, gave their all.
As I visit Dhaka for the honour of participating in Bangladesh's National Day celebrations, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and I will recommit ourselves to this vision set out by Bangabandhu. I also look forward to paying my respects to Bangabandhu at his Samadhi.
Joy Bangla, Jai Hind. May the spirit of Bangabandhu inspire our friendship forever.
Narendra Modi is the Prime Minister of the Republic of India, who is currently visiting Bangladesh.