INDIA-BANGLADESH PEOPLE-TO-PEOPLE TIES STRONGER
Dr. Rupak Bhattacharjee
One of the positive aspects of India-Bangladesh ties that deserve attention is the curiosity of the common people in each other’s matters. Bangladesh generates huge interest in bordering Indian states of West Bengal, Tripura, and parts of Assam and Meghalaya. India being the most important neighbour, as rightly pointed out by Bangabandhu Kanya, means the expectations of the people of Bangladesh are much higher.
The enthusiasm they displayed on the eve of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s maiden Dhaka visit was unprecedented. The buzz around the visit was such that it compelled even orthodox Jamaat-e-Islami, an ideological adversary and vocal critic of the ruling Awami League’s certain foreign policy priorities, to endorse popular sentiment and issue a statement saying “Bangladesh has a friendly relation with India”.
Bangladesh had been keenly watching the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and Modi’s rise to power. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina invited Modi to visit Bangladesh soon after he pulled an emphatic electoral victory. Modi sought to make his first overseas trip to Bangladesh.
But it could not be worked out as there had been no progress on two outstanding issues—Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) and Teesta water sharing deal. He decided to undertake a visit to Bangladesh after resolving at least one of the two lingering issues. The date of the visit was finalised barely two weeks after the Indian Parliament ratified the LBA paving way for its implementation.
Modi’s historic visit has elevated India-Bangladesh ties to a higher trajectory and opened the flood gate of opportunities for enhancing cooperation in the arena of connectivity, education, culture and tourism. Some of the agreements inked during the visit covering these areas were: Kolkata-Dhaka-Agartala and Guwahati-Shillong-Dhaka bus services, Kolkata-Khulna train service, Cultural Exchange Programmes for the years 2015-17 and a Memorandum of Understanding between University of Rajsahi, Bangladesh, and University of Jamia Milia Islamia, India. Both the sides also adopted a Statement of Intent on Bangladesh-India Education Cooperation.
India and Bangladesh share similar colonial history and language. The improvement of cross-border connectivity has always been a popular demand since the people of the two neighbouring nations continue to maintain strong ties of kinship. The opening of new bus routes between India and Bangladesh will largely benefit tourists and residents of landlocked North Eastern states by drastically reducing travel time and cost. Both the countries also agreed to restore old Kolkata- Khulna railway link.
During their bilateral talks, the political leaders of India and Bangladesh underscored the need to up grade transport infrastructure along the international boundary for economic development of the border regions and boosting of friendly ties between the people of the two countries. Bangladesh President Abdul Hamid told Modi that improved connectivity between Bangladesh and India would bring the people of both the nations closer.
A major outcome of the visit has been the expansion of consular facilities between the two South Asian countries. After hectic negotiations, both the governments decided to open Bangladesh Mission in Guwahati and Indian Missions in Khulna and Sylhet. The opening of new missions will definitely enhance trade and commerce, cultural ties and tourism between the two nations. Prime Minister Hasina observed that people-to-people contact is the strongest of links. She added that the decision to open new missions in each other’s country demonstrated “growing mutual confidence and shared commitment to expand our relationship”. Modi also stressed on boosting tourism between the two countries. He remarked, “Terrorism divides, tourism unites”.
Greater trade and connectivity, especially people-to-people relations had been the focus of Modi’s June 6-7 Dhaka visit. During their one-to-one talks, Modi and Hasina agreed to enhance connectivity for the development in South Asia. Finalisation of a motor vehicle agreement between Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and India (BBIN) is a major step in this direction. The BBIN agreement, which was recently approved by Hasina’s cabinet, is set to be inked on June 15 in Thimphu.
Another significant factor that brought the people of the two neighbouring nations nearer was the positive role of the media. The Indian media gave full coverage to the historic visit. Several commentators had been appreciating Hasina’s bold leadership in the face of strident opposition from the rightist and extremist elements. The television channels ran a number of programmes highlighting the pioneering role of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the liberation struggle and war, the challenges he confronted to rebuild a war-ravaged country and the circumstances under which he was brutally murdered along with most of his family members.
These programmes helped people, particularly those who were born after 1971, to know the historical background and uniqueness of India-Bangladesh ties. Such activism also assumes significance as Modi prior to his visit lamented that the ratification of the landmark LBA had not received proper media attention. Modi’s Dhaka sojourn had gone down well in Bangladesh with the media calling it dawn of a new era in India-Bangladesh ties.
During Mod’s visit, a cultural exchange pact was signed for screening Bangladeshi programmes on Indian television. Dhaka’s media outlets were seeking New Delhi’s approval in this regard as Bangladesh had already allowed some Indian television broadcasters to operate in the country. This step has been lauded by the Indian viewers in the border states where several Bangladeshi cultural programmes are quite popular.
A big attraction of the visit was Modi’s inspiring speech on India-Bangladesh relations at the Bangabandhu International Convention Centre. In his indomitable style, Modi enthralled a gathering of 1,500 people, representing almost all sections of the society, including diplomats, teachers, students, business and political leaders. He noted that India and Bangladesh are not only neighbours but also share a common destiny. In his words, “India and Bangladesh are not just neighbours but nations bound by the threads of history, religion, language and kinship and a passion for cricket.”
In its bids to expand people-to-people relations between the two countries, the Modi Government had been planning to launch a new visa regime since it assumed power in May 2014. India’s Ministry of External Affairs proposed to allow visa-free entry for Bangladeshi nationals below 10 and above 65 years and visa-on-arrival for all other citizens. But the Ministry of Home Affairs turned them down as the Assam Government raised strong objections to the suggestions on security ground.
Relaxation of visa formalities could have benefited many people of Bangladesh whose preferred destination for tourism, treatment, and education is India. It was expected that Modi would offer long-term multiple-entry visas for children and senior citizens. But it was not included in the bilateral agenda of discussions during the visit. We hope that the issue will be taken up at the appropriate level soon to fulfill the wishes of thousands of Bangladeshis.
Dr. Rupak Bhattacharjee is an independent political analyst based in New Delhi, India, and focuses on issues related to India-Bangladesh relations, insurgency, infrastructure development, and regional connectivity in North-East Bangladesh.
JUNE 14, 2015