It was around 4pm on August 17. I received a call from a senior official about a possible visit of Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, a very well-known and popular face in Bangladesh, that too the very next day. It was, to some extent, surprising to me as no official announcement was made beforehand showing a departure from the current, pandemic-induced schedule.
Even my Indian media friends based in New Delhi were not aware of such a visit. I kept calling my sources around to get a concrete quote and run a story as quickly as possible. And I had to wait around four hours to get concrete information that Shringla will be in Dhaka for 24 hours carrying a ‘special message’ from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Confidentiality at its extreme everywhere.
Much speculation started swirling before his arrival here on August 18. So many things came to my mind around the impending visit. Finally, UNB took the lead in releasing the news on Monday night confirming that Shringla is coming for sure.
Soon after his arrival in Dhaka on Tuesday, Indian High Commission in Dhaka issued a media note, possibly ntheir shortest ever media release, saying Shringla was on a visit to Dhaka to discuss and take forward cooperation on matters of mutual interest.
Like me, my media colleagues in Dhaka were struggling to get the schedule of the visit. Neither the Ministry of Foreign Affairs here nor the Indian High Commission in Dhaka - usually well-resourced in such matters - could provide a schedule or his engagement in Dhaka officially.
Hours after the top Indian diplomat had arrived, Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen came up with a big help. He revealed that the Indian Foreign Secretary will meet our Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. He, however, did not mention date, time and venue of the meeting with the Prime Minister. The Bangladesh Foreign Secretary also said he would have a meeting with his Indian counterpart on August 19. Yet, he did not mention time and venue of the meeting. The meeting was, however, held over lunch at Sonargaon Hotel.
The meeting with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina took place at 7:30pm on Tuesday, the day of his arrival. According to an Indian diplomat, it lasted an hour. However, the Prime Minister's Office did not brief the PM's press team, or anyone else for that matter, about the meeting. Singularly, neither side saw it necessary to release any image of the meeting taking place - usually a part of standard protocol through the Press Information Department here, and the Press Trust of India. An Indian diplomat after the meeting said there has been commitment from both sides to take forward the relations between the two countries. The two sides also discussed deeper cooperation in post-COVID-19 era and the importance of smooth economic recovery.
What about the ring?
Naturally everybody wanted to know what the ‘special message’ was, that Shringla was supposed to convey from his prime minister to ours. Was it written, or verbal? To the extent that this was all starting to take on the atmosphere of a renewal of vows by a wedded couple, the ‘special message’ could serve as a new ring. Speculation pointed to something concrete regarding the sharing of Teesta waters. Befitting, it would have been. In the event, it soon became clear there wasn’t one at all.
Pushed on the matter (What was the ‘special message’ from PM Modi for PM Hasina?), Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh Riva Ganguly Das said Foreign Secretary Shringla visited Dhaka to convey the message that Bangladesh and India “share deep relations” and reiterated that they will “continue to be a development partner of Bangladesh”. “India has special and close relations with Bangladesh. Therefore, the Foreign Secretary has come to meet the Prime Minister with this message even during this pandemic,” she said, somewhat underwhelmingly.
Everything took place with the proverbial elephant in the room that no-one mentioned - or in this case, the dragon. The observable deepening of ties between Bangladesh and China, especially since a visit by President Xi Jinping to Dhaka in 2016, has coincided with a further, gradual deterioration in relations between Delhi and Beijing. While officialdom has remained tight-lipped on the subject (mostly), the Indian media has not resisted the urge to offer their own views from time to time, on Dhaka’s supposed drift. Rarely have they turned out to be helpful.
Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen recently took to terming Bangladesh-India ties as a ‘blood relationship’ while Bangladesh-China is an ‘economic relationship’.
And India has recently described its relations with Bangladesh as "exceptionally close" but expressed displeasure over "mischievous" stories pertaining to Bangladesh-India ties, which could only have pointed to the shockingly inauthentic yet almost unrelenting efforts of Subir Bhowmik, a once-respected Indian journalist whose entire body of work - focused on India’s north-eastern states, and Bangladesh - is now viewed with suspicion.
Sharing deep cultural and societal bonds, both sides have historically appreciated mutual sensitivities and maintained mutual respect while building on the relationship. Under the present AL regime, this has been uninterrupted for twelve years running now. Today, Bangladesh-India relationship is seen as a role model of good neighbourly relations in the region, officials like to say.
‘Always a priority’
An Indian private pharmaceutical company, The Serum Institute, is thought to be close to mass-production of a COVId-19 vaccine, through an agreement with AstraZeneca, the global pharmaceutical giant that is developing the ‘Oxford’ vaccine candidate. Shringla said friends, partners and neighbours will get priority when it comes to distribution, if all goes well.
"For us, Bangladesh is always a priority," Shringla said after a meeting with his Bangladesh counterpart Masud Bin Momen terming his Bangladesh visit "short but very satisfactory" one.
Highlighting India's strength in producing vaccines, Shringla said he also briefed Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina about what they are doing to fight off COVID-19.
Like India, he said, Bangladesh also has a large population and it needs to take measures to fight off COVID-19. The Indian Foreign Secretary said luckily the fatality rate is low and the recovery rate is high in both the countries.
Foreign Secretary Masud said Bangladesh is ready to collaborate in the development of COVID vaccine, including its trial, and looks forward to early affordable availability of the vaccine when it is ready.
Foreign Secretary Shringla expressed India’s willingness to be in close contact with Bangladesh and other neighbours and highlighted the cost advantage that India enjoys due to its economies of scale in manufacturing.
"We’re ready to cooperate," said Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Masud.
He also said Bangladesh has a good number of pharmaceutical companies with the capacity of vaccine production.
Earlier, Bangladesh said it will explore all avenues to get quick access to COVID-19 vaccine and choose one which will be safer and useful for the country.
"We’ll explore all the options and head for that one which’ll be safer and useful for us," said Foreign Secretary Masud at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Tuesday.
Shringla said there has not been much contact during COVID-19 period but the relationship must continue.
"We must continue and move forward our strong bilateral relationship," Shringla said adding that he primarily came to Bangladesh to look at that matter.
Bangladesh is in touch with countries, including China, Russia, the USA and the UK for discussions and cooperation on COVID-19 vaccine.
At the meeting on Wednesday, they discussed ways to further improve the relations between the two countries. On India's engagement in developing COVID-19, they updated each other on the issue.
The feeling is gone?
Bangladesh expressed deep concern at the rise in killings along the Indo-Bangladesh border by BSF/Indian nationals during the first half of this year.
Bangladesh flagged that this is in violation of all bilateral agreements and that the Indian Border Security Force must be duly urged to exercise maximum restraint.
The Indian side assured that the BSF authorities have been sensitized of the matter and the issue will be discussed in detail at the DG-level talks between BGB and BSF to be hosted by Dhaka next month.
The Bangladesh Foreign Secretary congratulated his counterpart on India becoming a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.
He conveyed Bangladesh’s greater expectation from India as a member of the UNSC to play a more meaningful role for a lasting solution to the Rohingya crisis, including their early repatriation to Myanmar.
Bangladesh has long been trying to pass a resolution in the UN on Rohingya issue.
India has proposed to hold the next Joint Consultative Commission (JCC) or FM-level talks in virtual format as soon as possible.
Foreign Secretary Masud said he will visit India before the next JCC.
Both sides agreed to convene the JCC between the two countries at the level of Foreign Ministers at the earliest, as JCC provides an excellent platform to discuss the entire gamut of bilateral relations between the two countries with an action-oriented focus.
The Indian Foreign Secretary requested Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen to visit India at the earliest, taking advantage of the ‘air bubble’ initiative of India.
Air Bubble Arrangement
India has proposed to establish a bilateral "air bubble" arrangement with Bangladesh amid COVID-19 like some other countries have done, including France and Germany.
India is negotiating with a number of countries to establish separate bilateral air bubble arrangements towards resumption of international flight operations.
Under a bilateral air bubble pact, airlines of both the countries can operate international flights with certain restrictions.
"We hope we can do it soon," Foreign Secretary Masud said, adding that it will help Bangladeshi critical patients go for treatment to India and Indians to come to Bangladesh smoothly.
He appreciated India’s efforts to ease travel through introduction of ‘air bubble’ flights, proposed by the Indian side.
During the one-and-half-hour-long meeting, both sides discussed a wide range of issues of ongoing bilateral cooperation, with particular focus on ways to address issues arising out of the COVID -19 situation.
First in Neighbourhood First
Indian Foreign Secretary reiterated that Bangladesh comes first for India in Prime Minister Modi’s ‘neighbourhood first’ policy.
Shringla expressed deep gratitude for the kind gesture of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to grant him an audience in spite of her not having met any foreign dignitaries since the start of the COVID pandemic.
Both sides expressed satisfaction that even during this unusual situation created by the pandemic, the two countries have maintained a high level of engagement in the various areas of cooperation.
Important developments have included conducting the first trial run for transshipment of Indian cargo through Bangladesh under the Agreement on the use of Chattogram and Mongla port as well as signing the second addendum to the Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade.
Foreign Secretary Masud reiterated Bangladesh’s appreciation for the assistance in the form of medicines and other medical items proactively provided by India for containing the pandemic. Handing over of 10 locomotives no longer used by Indian Railways to Bangladesh Railways was also appreciated.
The Bangladesh side appreciated the government of India for facilitating the evacuation of stranded Bangladeshi nationals from India to Bangladesh during the onset of the pandemic.
In this context, Foreign Secretary Masud requested for urgent reopening of visa issuance from the Indian High Commission in Dhaka, particularly since many Bangladeshi patients need to visit India for availing critical and emergency medical treatment.
The Indian side was also requested to reopen travel through Benapole-Petrapole land port which has been halted by the West Bengal State Government in the wake of the pandemic.
The Bangladesh Foreign Secretary requested Shringla to expedite the return of the Tablighi Jamaat members from Bangladesh, many of whom ended up in Indian jails after attending a gathering at the group’s headquarters in Delhi that has been described as a COVID-19 ‘superspreading event’.
Another request was also made for the early release of 25 Bangladeshi fishermen, now in custody in Dhubri district of Assam. The Indian side assured that the matter has been addressed and the Bangladeshi nationals would be able to return soon.
Both sides discussed firming up plans for organising joint events to celebrate ‘Mujib Borsho’ and the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s Independence next year, as well as establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
They also expressed interest to hold programmes at select capitals across the world, as well as at the UN Headquarters, through close coordination between the diplomatic missions of the two countries.
Both the Foreign Secretaries agreed that a greater attention is required to give more impetus to the development projects in Bangladesh under the Indian Lines of Credit (LoC).
Shringla, who had served as Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh, assumed office of the Indian Foreign Secretary in January this year.
As the Foreign Secretary, he first visited Dhaka in March this year.
Free flow of information regarding any such visit is essential to avoid speculation. Hide and seek creates scope for speculative stories by a section of media outlets which is harmful for any relations. Bangladesh and India underscored the value of positive media reporting on the bilateral engagements between the two countries and agreed to call upon their respective media communities to play more responsible roles in this regard.
Among all the vows that were renewed on the occasion one side heavily insisted on, that last point would have drawn the most wholehearted ‘Amen’ of them all.