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Modi, Hasina put a stamp to a new era of India-Bangladesh ties

A new era of India-Bangladesh ties is emerging as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bangladesh counterpart Sheikh Hasina held the much awaited summit on December 17, signing a host of MoUs and inaugurating the Haldibari-Chilahati railway links connecting the two countries after 55 years.

Modi, who said that Bangladesh has been his focus from the time he took charge in 2014, is now keen to give a spin to the relationship. Until now a majority of Bangladeshis perceived India as a dominant partner in the relationship especially with a skewed trade deficit in favour of New Delhi and other economic dynamics.

Analysts said that New Delhi has been able to pass the all-important message to the people of Bangladesh that India is eager to reset relations based on equality and “not one upmanship.”

Modi in his meeting with Hasina, held virtually, underscored the importance of Neighbours’ First policy as the two launched a Bangabandhu-Bapu digital exhibition to celebrate the life and legacies of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Mahatma Gandhi, both considered Father of the Nation in their respective countries.

Many analysts said that the timing of the meeting was symbolic as it took place just a day after the Victory Day celebrated on December 16 — the day when Bangladesh attained victory over Pakistani forces in the 1971 Liberation War.

Noting that the meeting will add a new momentum to the relationship, the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), said that it was a reminder of the common heritage shared by the two countries. Notably, India lent its boots during the Bangladeshi struggle for independence.

Part resolution of the land boundary issue was a major outcome of the meeting. In a breakthrough and what could be a stern message to West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, the two Prime Ministers also discussed the issue related to sharing of the Teesta water.

Even as a water sharing deal was signed by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in September 2011, it was scrapped by Banerjee who said that this would lead to water shortage in her state.

<strong>Times and sentiments changing</strong>

Despite hiccups arising in the bilateral relations between the two countries over the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens, experts said that many Bangladeshis have started shedding the misgivings resulting from these issues.

Ishfaq Ilahi Choudhury, (retired) Air Commodore told IndiaNarrative in an exclusive interview said that “the two governments should concentrate in improving relations.” He added that that several Indian companies have invested in Bangladesh and internal politics should be kept aside at this juncture.

“Bangladeshis have started treating Indians as true partners in business and economic well-being even as trade related issues remain. They also realise that their country is strategically
located and plays an important role in providing connectivity to India with the south-east Asian countries,” director at Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Policy Research and International Studies, Shakti Sinha said.

Sinha, a former bureaucrat, also noted that the leadership of both countries has risen to this occasion notwithstanding the domestic politics and the scars of CAA and NRC have healed considerably.

The rehabilitation of the Rohingyas, a Muslim ethnic minority group, who fled persecution in Myanmar leading to a humanitarian crisis will also have to be handled delicately by India, for which Modi and his team would need an out-of the box solution without damaging relations with Myanmar especially as China is making quick inroads in the region.

“Bangladesh mindset has changed considerably, many people unlike earlier times have started changing and they understand the nuances of New Delhi-Dhaka ties, they realise that the two neighbours will have to work closely to push development in their respective countries,” a senior executive at a multinational company who looks after both India and Bangladesh said.

Late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who played a key role in Bangladesh liberation, has been considered the architect of the New Delhi-Dhaka relations so far. “Things are changing now and the current generation of Bangladeshis is not aware of Mrs Gandhi. The dominant figure today is Prime Minister Modi,” another analyst said.

Next year, Modi is set to participate in the March 26 celebrations marking the country’s 50th independence day.

Despite ups and downs and rising radicalism in Bangladesh, Indians are welcome in the country.

“There should be equal rights for all people, irrespective of their religion, race, caste and ethnic community. We want to ensure this and we certainly will. It's our goal,” the Daily Star quoted Hasina as saying. Hasina in her meeting with Modi also reiterated that India remains a true friend of Bangladesh.

The ORF study pointed out that given the commonalities and bonds the two countries share, there will be a plethora of issues like any two neighbours.

“There will be problems for both countries in the domestic front but the role of the leaders here comes into play and both prime ministers have shown that maturity to deal effectively with the situation,” Sinha added..