It is a pleasure to be in Dhaka, a city that always feels like a second home. I have had a long association with Dhaka and with Bangladesh. I lived and worked here as High Commissioner, in what was one of the most fulfilling postings of my career. Even before that, I had travelled to this beautiful country often when I worked on the India-Bangladesh relationship. And so it is a pleasure to be in Dhaka on one of my first visits abroad in my current capacity.Let me start by thanking the Bangladesh Institute for International Studies (BISS) for hosting this event today. I am very grateful for this opportunity to greet so many old friends, while I am here to prepare for our Prime Minister’s second visit to Bangladesh.
As you know, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been specially invited to participate in the inaugural ceremony of Mujib Barsho later this month. We are looking forward to this visit, both because of the priority the Prime Minister attaches to this relationship, and even more so, because Bangabandhu is just so iconic – as a globally-recognized statesman and iconic symbol of liberation for Bangladesh and for our subcontinent. For us in India, there is a special resonance to his name. He is as revered and as remembered in India, as he is here in Bangladesh.
And so let me wish you on the centenary of this great Son of Bangladesh: a man of letters, a man of action, courage and conviction, and most of all, a true hero, for he liberated from oppression the spirit of a people and brought forth a nation. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is our national hero too. We are honoured to be part of the celebrations, including through the joint production of a special feature film on the life of Bangabandhu.
Distance often helps with perspective. In the year I have been away from Shonar Bangla I have had the opportunity to focus on the fundamentals of our partnership. And I can emphasise with great conviction that this is a relationship that is truly of the highest priority to India. As our former External Affairs Minister, the late Smt Sushma Swaraj, said in Dhaka two years ago, even in the implementation of our "neighbourhood first" policy, it is “Bangladesh first” for us. We are joined by history, culture, and shared sacrifice just as much as we are joined by shared waters, the same cherished soil and by our fraternal ties. Baanglar maati and Baanglar jol enrich and nurture both of us; they sustain our societies and they sustain our souls. It is inevitable that our partnership builds upon the deepest commonalities. And it is inconceivable to even contemplate anything else.
Often, we tend to lose sight of these larger realities, especially in the noise and clamour of the immediate, and in the minutiae of the moment. But for those of us who are in the business of policy-making, there is little doubt about the abiding reality that we in India will always seek the closest possible ties with Bangladesh.
Let me ask the obvious question: what do we mean by the closest possible ties?Quite simply, it is entirely in India's national interest to fully support your own efforts to build a strong, prosperous, progressive, peaceful and harmonious Bangladesh; to build a nation that stays true to the extraordinarily far-sighted vision of Bangabandhu. Your astonishing successes in improving socio-economic indices – from infant mortality to women's education; from primary health to literacy – has been given new energy by the world's most impressive economic development rates. Today it is Bangladesh that is leading Asia's development race, a miraculous achievement that merits every word of praise.
As you build your nation and as the benefits of development flow more rapidly to the people, it is inevitable that Bangladesh should seek to benefit more from its strategic location and its rapidly-growing capabilities. As your largest neighbour on land and on sea, with the many ties that bind us together, it is natural that our partnership has been evolving to focus much more squarely on mutually-beneficial cooperation. It is this spirit, as well as the sagacity and statesmanship of our leadership, that have enabled us to address and resolve some of the hardest problems that bedevil relations between any neighbours –problems such as those of borders and land exchanges. We have done so with maturity, grace and sophistication. Indeed, I would argue that the manner in which Bangladesh and India have resolved such issues is a model for other countries.
It is in this overall context that Bangladesh today has become our largest development partner in the world; our largest trade partner in the region; and our most extensive and integrated Government-to-Government relationship. Over 75 separate dialogue mechanisms connect our Governments and people in an effort to build the strongest possible framework for a permanent partnership. At the level of people to people ties, our largest visa operation anywhere in the world is in Bangladesh, and our Bangladeshi friends constitute the largest number of tourist arrivals – by far – in India.
Let me break that down further.
The closest possible cooperative relationship between Governments, businesses, civil society and people creates a process by which there is a mutuality of interests. In other words, a truly developed bilateral partnership is one where my interests are affected if your interests are not served, and vice versa. That is true mutualism and true symbiosis.
To reach that level of complementarity, we need to recognize that we are today faced with a happy problem. The pace at which our relationship has expanded has gone beyond expectations and beyond systemic capacities of our respective establishments.
This is despite an impressive effort by both sides to address and reverse needless regulations and controls that had earlier prevented the expansion of trade, people to people ties and travel, and even security ties. We have resolved many such issues through a consistent and focused effort. We have sought to identify and eliminate obstacles to our partnership, without finding fault or apportioning blame. In sum, we have worked to find quick, practical and practicable solutions.
Let me give you a few examples.
In the past few years, we have gone from a situation of huge pendency periods and long waiting lists for visas to visit India, to the current stage where there are more visitors from Bangladesh to India than from any other country. And connectivity to facilitate movement overland has been significantly improved, with all six pre-1965 era railway crossings likely to be completely restored in 2021. The establishment of end-to-end immigration services and customs arrangements has enabled the Maitree and Bandhan trains to become enormously popular connections between Kolkata and Dhaka, and Kolkata and Khulna respectively. I am glad to know that the frequency of services has expanded. We look forward to working together to consider starting new services as well.
On our side, we are working to remove the list of locations which require separate entry permits, so as to facilitate seamless travel overland.
We are also working more closely to simplify and expand trade. Easier and simpler trading systems offer us scope to generate wealth and create jobs on both sides. There is enormous untapped potential for our businesses to establish footholds in each other's market. And we, as Governments, must make extra efforts facilitate our businesspersons and entrepreneurs doing business in each other's country.
One obvious example where we could and should do much more is in the management of our shared river waters. I know how sensitive this issue is in both our countries, given that we are both densely-populated societies with extensive needs and dependence on life-giving rivers that run through our geographies. It is self-evident that good arrangements to share the waters of the 54 rivers that unite us in a manner that is fair and environmentally sustainable lies in our broader national interests.
I am pleased to say that both sides recognize there is ample room for progress on each of the rivers that we share, and it is in this spirit that serious dialogue has resumed between our officials responsible for this important matter since August 2019. Let me assure our friends here that we remain committed to finding the best possible solutions to sharing scarcities and hardships fairly during the dry season. And to improving water management so that our rivers continue to sustain future generations as they have sustained our people for so many millennia.
It is in the spirit of finding common ground rather than being bogged down by a few differences that we have jointly agreed to work to enhance the navigability of waterways that serve as Bangladesh’s historic north-south arteries of connectivity. We have agreed to dredge the fairways of the Kushiyara and Jamuna rivers, between Ashuganj and Zakiganj, and between Sirajganj and Daikhowa respectively, on an 80:20 cost sharing formula. This is being accompanied by a steady expansion of the Protocol on Inland Water Transport and Transit (PIWTT), and by joint efforts to improve inland water port facilities at key locations, such as the major river junction of Ashuganj.
The same spirit of finding common ground has enabled us to come up with win-win solutions where, at no cost to Bangladesh, profitable businesses can be created. A standout example is India’s decision to buy foreign-sourced LPG in bulk at Chattogram, and transport it using special trucks, run by Bangladeshi companies, to Tripura. This not only saves Indian consumers money, it also generates incomes here in Bangladesh – and reduces pollution and environmental impact that could result from a longer road journey within India.
Similarly, the effort to improve trans-border connectivity – roads, ports, power transmission – is predicated on the understanding that these are truly of benefit to both economies. Such partnerships build two-way reliance, not one-way dependency. After all, if Bangladesh buys 1160 MW of electricity from India, this makes us increasingly reliant upon you as a market. Similarly, if you facilitate bilateral and cross-border connectivity to and through your country, you not only generate incomes, jobs and employment, but also enhance India’s strategic and economic reliance on Bangladesh. Such an outcome is in the long-term interests of both sides, as it brings us closer to the point of complete mutuality of interests.
In other words, our partnership will reach its true potential when we equally recognize that our interests converge and there is a mutuality of benefit. This is why we believe that our ongoing efforts to develop a robust partnership between our militaries emphasizes trust of a high order. Especially since we are willing to share with you any and all military hardware being manufactured in India for use by our military. We also welcome the opportunity for our officers to train at your premier military institutions, just as we are ready to open military training institutes at all levels – from officer cadet training to specialized higher command training – to Bangladesh.
As the closest of neighbours, with so many shared cultural traits, it is also inevitable that events in each other’s countries create ripples across the border – irrespective of whether there is real justification for this. One recent example is the process of updating the National Register of Citizens in Assam, which has taken place entirely at the direction and under the supervision of the Supreme Court of India.
Let me clearly state here what our leadership has repeatedly confirmed at the highest level to the Government of Bangladesh: this is a process that is entirely internal to India. Therefore there will be no implications for the Government and people of Bangladesh. You have our assurance on that count.
There is also often interest and sometimes uninformed speculation about our position on the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State of Myanmar, and its impact upon Bangladesh. Let me clearly say that India is deeply appreciative of the spirit of humanism that motivated Bangladesh to offer shelter to nearly one million displaced people. And we fully recognize and sympathize with the enormous burden that you are facing. As the only country that is an actual neighbour of both Bangladesh and Myanmar, we are committed to offering the fullest support for any mutually-acceptable solution that will enable the earliest possible return of displaced persons to their homes in Rakhine State and to a life of dignity. This should be done in a manner that is safe, secure and sustainable.
We have provided five tranches of aid to the camps in Cox’s Bazar area through the Government of Bangladesh, and are prepared to do more. In parallel, we are investing in the socio-economic development of the Rakhine area, including housing, so that there is an incentive not only for people to return, but for all communities to focus on cooperative solutions for economic development, rather than compete for limited resources.
Towards this end, we are consistent in our interventions with the Government of Myanmar at all levels, on the importance of closing IDP camps, facilitating socio-economic development projects, and in offering a conducive environment to encourage displaced persons to return to their homes in Myanmar from Bangladesh.
In other words, there is no difference between India and Bangladesh on the way forward in addressing this major humanitarian problem. All we suggest in this regard is that we encourage diverse stakeholders to lower the rhetoric and find practical and pragmatic solutions, bearing in mind that the priority is finding a fair and dignified humanitarian outcome.
The great poet-philosopher, Kazi Nazrul Islam, once wrote “We all share happiness and sorrow equally.” This noble emotion must motivate us, as neighbours, to recognize that both sorrow and happiness do not respect borders or passports: in this globalized era, they arrive equally at everyone’s doorstep. Our approach to Bangladesh will always be characterized by this sentiment. And I trust that our Prime Minister’s visit later this month will fully exemplify India’s strong sentiment of goodwill, trust and respect for Bangladesh.
This is the full text of the Keynote Speech delivered by Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla yesterday at a seminar on “Bangladesh and India: A Promising Future” in Dhaka.