Bangladesh and India have stepped into 50th year of their friendship. It is not only a relationship between two countries or two nations; but also a relationship between two souls created from the same philosophy, history, culture and sacrifice. It is a relationship emanated from the difficult days of our struggle for freedom and independence. It is a relationship founded on mutual trust and respect. It is a relationship that was built on the blood of the martyrs of the two countries mingled in the same stream. It is an everlasting relationship, as the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had said in Kolkata in February 1972, “Indo-Bangladesh friendship will remain intact forever. No power in the world will be able to split that.”
A similar sentiment was echoed in the air of Bangladesh when Indian Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi, during her visit to Bangladesh in March 1972, said, “Indian army shed their blood on the soil of Bangladesh and their blood was mingled with that of freedom fighters and that has strengthened two countries’ friendship.” She also said “Bangladesh and India had many identical views on a number of national and international issues, but each country should follow its own path. The basis of friendship should be on the basis of mutual respect.” In fact, that was the spirit of the foundation of two countries’ friendship.Though it was 6 December 1971, the Government of India officially recognized Bangladesh as a sovereign independent country, but the unofficial recognition was extended to Bangladesh much earlier when India had opened its border for the people of Bangladesh who had to flee to save their lives from the atrocities of the Pakistani military started in the mid-night of 25 March 1971. It was India that provided arms training to the freedom fighters and pushed them into Bangladesh with arms to free their motherland from the Pakistani occupation. Was not it the acceptance of Bangladesh as a nation by India that happened before their formal recognition? In true sense, our relationship was knotted on that day.
Bangabandhu visited India (including stop-overs) five times, which was the highest number of visits paid by Bangabandhu to any country. At the invitation of Bangabandhu, Indian President Mr. V V Giri and Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi also visited Bangladesh. Their visits were the reflections of the importance the two countries gave to their friendship. Furthermore, the visits from both sides, at ministerial and senior official levels, had immensely contributed to widen, deepen and strengthen the relationship.
Suddenly, the relationship came to a standstill with the assassination of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on 15th August 1975. Bangladesh had to experience a very cold relationship with its great friend India after installation of the undemocratic military government. However, the light of democracy, once again, started brightening the sky of Bangladesh from 1991 when the military government was forced to step down in 1990. Anyway, the people of Bangladesh had to pass an era of tyranny during those 15 years of military rule. And for obvious reason, that had put an adverse impact on Bangladesh relations with the democratic world.
From 1991 to 1995, during BNP-led government, Bangladesh Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia and Indian Prime Minister Narashima Rao met thrice. They first met in May 1992 when Begum Zia was visiting Delhi. For the second time, they met while Narashima Rao was attending the SAARC Summit held in Dhaka in April 1993. Afterwards, they met for the third time in New Delhi, particularly for the Ganges water sharing issue, though that visit could not bring any solution of the Ganges issue. However, this issue was solved within five months of coming in power of the Awami League-led government headed by Sheikh Hasina in 1996. The historic Ganges water sharing agreement was signed by the two Prime Ministers on 12 December 1996 in New Delhi.
In 2001 general elections, BNP won and formed the government headed by Begum Zia. The BNP government was in power for five years, but nothing happened substantive in strengthening the relationship between the two countries. However, the relationship returned to its original format when Sheikh Hasina became the Prime Minister for the second time after the general elections held in 2009. Since then, Bangladesh and India have been marching together towards the destined development and thus the relationship has been getting stronger day by day. The rays that are enlightening two countries’ bonding are mainly the reflections of the directives undertaken by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina with a view to strengthening and intensifying the relations for greater interests of the two nations.
There were a number of highest-level visits between the two countries. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited India in January 2010. Indian Prime Minister visited Bangladesh in September 2011, when a Framework Agreement on Cooperation for Development and a Protocol to the Land Boundary Agreement, 1974 were signed. Indian President Mr. Pranab Mukherjee came to Bangladesh in March 2013. Bangladesh President Mr. Md. Abdul Hamid visited India in December 2014.The present Indian Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi paid a visit to Bangladesh in June 2015. And within a month of his visit, 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh became Bangladesh territory and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves in India became the territory of India, which was a peaceful ending of the 68 years’ outstanding humanitarian crisis.
Sheikh Hasina went to India on 19 August 2015 to attend the funeral of Smt. Suvra Mukherjee, lady wife of President Mr. Pranab Mukherjee. At that time, she also met her Indian counterpart. The two Prime Ministers had a bilateral meeting in September 2015 on the side-line of the UN General Assembly. Bangladesh Prime Minister had a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the BRICS-BIMSTEC Outreach Summit held in India in October 2016.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina went on a state visit to India in April 2017. Sheikh Hasina was received by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the airport and she stayed at the President’s residence. During the visit, a road was named in the heart of Delhi in memory of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Sheikh Hasina inaugurated the Hindi translation of Bangabandhu's unfinished autobiography as well as honoured the family members of the Indian soldiers who sacrificed their lives during our war of liberation. The two Prime Ministers also inaugurated the fourth railway connection between Radhikapur and Biral.
President Mr. Md. Abdul Hamid visited India to attend the International Solar Alliance Founding Conference held in New Delhi on 19 March 2018. In May the same year, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited West Bengal to attend the opening ceremony of Bangladesh Bhaban of Visva-Bharati University at Shantiniketon. Indian Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi was also present there.
In September 2018, two Prime Ministers, through video conference, laid the foundation stone of Bangladesh-India ‘Friendship Pipeline’ project and also inaugurated two railway projects. In March 2019, four other projects were inaugurated by the Prime Ministers of the two countries through video conference. On 29 May 2019, President Mr. Md. Abdul Hamid went to India to attend the oath-taking ceremony of Mr. Narendra Modi for the second term as the Indian Prime Minister.
The relationship has, once again, proved its seriousness when India has given top priority in providing Covid-19 vaccines to Bangladesh. This friendly gesture has brought the two nations closer to their hearts.
Very recently, a 1.9-kilometre friendship bridge has been built over the Feni River connecting the two countries and was inaugurated electronically by the two Prime Ministers. Undoubtedly, this bridge would play a significant role in the economic development of the two countries.
It is difficult to mention here the titles of all the documents, including treaties, agreements, MoUs and protocols, so far signed between the two countries. There are hundreds of such documents covering a number of sectors such as security, power, trade & commerce, investment promotion, boundary demarcation, connectivity, cooperation, infrastructure development, environment, education, culture, blue economy, health, taxation, defence, etc. Besides, there exist numerous bilateral institutional mechanisms such as Joint Working Groups between the two countries. These documents and mechanisms are making two countries’ cooperation more specific and fruitful.
The Prime Minister of India Mr. Narendra Modi is coming to Dhaka on 26 March 2021 at the invitation of his Bangladesh counterpart Sheikh Hasina to attend the programmes for celebrations of the golden jubilee of Bangladesh’s independence and the birth centenary of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. A bilateral meeting between the two Prime Ministers is supposed to be held on 27 March. There are possibilities that some documents between the two countries would be signed after the meeting.
Though there exists threat from corona pandemic all over the world, this visit of Indian Prime Minister to Bangladesh at this time, once again, manifests the depth and strong bonding of friendship existing between the two countries. A trusted friend always remains besides his friends and share their joy and sorrows. It is to be mentioned here that Bangladesh always considers India as a trusted friend and in spite of its limitation, it gives top priority to India's problems. The people of Bangladesh always want to see the India of 1971, which stood by Bangladesh and its people, keeping aside its thousands of problems. We have already seen the evidences and therefore hope that the two countries will find solution to other issues, like the pending Teesta River water sharing, through free, just and sincere discussions for a better and more prosperous future for the two peoples. Based upon mutual trust and confidence existing between the leaders and people of these two friendly countries, there should not be any hindrance to finding out mutual beneficial pathways to bring peace, prosperity and security for them as well as for the region and the whole world. India, being a bigger country, should listen to its time-tested friend Bangladesh with open and cooperative mind. There should not be any issues unresolved between the two friends who are also neighbours. With that sentiment and vision, Bangladesh and India will march forward to become developed countries much before completing 100 years of their friendship, this is the whole-hearted aspiration of the two people. Long live Bangladesh-India friendship!
The writer is a former Ambassador and Secretary.