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Shonali Adhaya: India–Bangladesh relations cruise into a golden era

India and Bangladesh share warm and friendly ties, which are regarded as a textbook example of good neighbourly relationship. Recently, however, a campaign has been launched questioning the special ties between the two neighbours, who share deep cultural bonds, a vibrant economic relationship and a shared vision of structural integration.

This crude attempt to drive a wedge between the two sibling nations can be traced to an article in <em>Bhorer Kagoj</em>—a Dhaka-based Bangla newspaper. The far-fetched plot to divide India and Bangladesh takes the cue from a 15-minute phone call that Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, had made to his Bangladeshi counterpart, Sheikh Hasina. The conversation was followed by the laughable media claim—that the telecon initiated by Khan marks a major shift in Pakistan’s ties with Bangladesh, that too at India’s expense.

To set the record state, it is important to nail some undisputable facts. First, during the call, Bangladesh, once again, rejected Islamabad’s line on the Kashmir issue, which was raised by the mercurial Prime Minister of Pakistan. In response, Bangladesh stuck to its line—that Kashmir was India’s internal matter. Obviously, Pakistan was trying to play its infantile game, this time ostensibly with China to undermine India’s core regional interests in its neighbourhood—a process that began with Nepal. But Sheikh Hasina would have none of that, despite Bangladesh’s significant economic relationship with Beijing.

Not only did the Bangladesh government statement not make any reference to Kashmir or SAARC, which the Pakistani statement had made, it also made it plain that ties with Islamabad could turn a new page, only if Islamabad apologised for the atrocities that it had committed in 1971. In other words, the Hasina government was reminding Pakistan, that Islamabad’s atonement of the 1971 genocide, was the litmus test for any meaningful revival of Dhaka-Islamabad ties.

Some media then picked on the point that Hasina had declined to meet the India’s outgoing Indian envoy, to suggest that by not agreeing to meet the ambassador, the Bangladeshi Prime Minister was expressing her displeasure with New Delhi. But there is one basic problem with this argument. It so happens that the Bangladeshi Prime Minister has not met any foreign ambassador, recently, on account of the Covid-19 pandemic. Does that mean she is miffed with all countries whose ambassadors may have sought an appointment to meet her?

At this juncture, it is important to take a reality check of what is really happening on the ground between India and Bangladesh.

For starters, on September 3, Bangladesh and India's North-eastern state of Tripura will be connected by a 93-km long inland waterway over River Gumti. A Bangladeshi company has agreed to pioneer the dispatch of 50 MT of cement onboard MV Premiere from Daukandi in Bangladesh to Sonamura in Tripura.

This new connectivity node follows the, Protocol for Inland water trade and transit (PIWT&amp;T), or India-Bangladesh inland water agreement that the two governments had signed in May. Under this agreement, two new routes, five new ports and two extended ports of call, will be added to the India-Bangladesh connectivity bouquet. The Sonamura-Daudkhandi stretch of Gumti river will serve as route number 9 and 10 of the protocol, and it will be connected with all the existing routes.

Besides, railway connectivity got a major boost as freight services have been increased in past few months. Besides, India will provide 10 locomotives to the railways in Bangladesh as grant in aid because it needed the locomotives to run its services, since most of the existing ones have crossed their service life and new engines ordered from the United States, will take some more time to arrive. In recent months, the two countries reached commercial deals such as the acquisition of Beximco LPG, one of Bangladesh's largest liquid petroleum gas provider, by India's state-owned Indian Oil Corporation.

Bangladesh has been a major supporter of Modi’s call for a regional emergency fund for fighting Covid-19 and declared to contribute $1.5 million to the fund in March 2020. India also provided medical aid to Bangladesh to tackle medical assistance for dealing with Covid-19 pandemic. This included donation of Hydroxychloroquine (HCQS) medicines, as a goodwill gesture to treat coronavirus patients.

As a consequence of a deepening strategic relationship, Sheikh Hasina has called the current phase of ties between New Delhi and Dhaka as “Shonali Adhaya,” or golden chapter.

The Indo-Bangladesh relationship was re-booted when the two countries resolved their land boundary and maritime boundary disputes. On the security axis, India played an important role in the arrest of Captain Abdul Majid who killed the founding father of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, Sheikh Hasina’s father.

There is no denying that Bangladesh has appreciated Chinese investment proposals, including in major infrastructure projects. But Hasina's government has made it clear that it intends to strike a delicate balance when it comes to its relations between China and India.

During her visit to China in July 2019, Sheikh Hasina observed that Bangladesh’s relationship with India is organic, while China was an economic partner, especially in the development of mega projects. Faiz Sobhan, a senior researcher at the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Dhaka, said that the ‘China factor’ or its role in Bangladesh is "being somewhat overplayed," in light of recent reports. He said that China and Bangladesh were not new friends and have long held strong ties since the birth of Bangladesh. “Bangladesh views China as an important partner and both countries share a cordial and friendly relationship. But Bangladesh equally shares strong economic and development ties with Japan, India and other countries," Sobhan said.

According to M. Humayun Kabir, president of the same institute, “Our aspirations should be to maintain good relations with both India and China. It is good for South Asia to promote common interests such as reducing poverty and unemployment. Bangladesh is on track to achieve the United Nations Developing Country status by 2024, rising from its current least-developed status.”.