‘Modi’s visit to fully exemplify India’s trust, respect for Bangladesh’

It was never in doubt of course. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had been specially invited to participate in the inaugural ceremony of 'Mujib Barsho' on March 17, 2020, a mega event marking the birth centenary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and he had accepted. As the head of the Indian government, it was only natural that he would be invited, given the Indian contribution in cementing Bangabandhu's greatest achievement.

Other figures from India, notably the flag bearers of Congress, the party that led Indian independence and ruled at the centre of India's federal structure for the vast majority of its first 7 decades, are also expected. Again, quite naturally, since the seminal ties between the Bangladeshi and Indian states were formed under the leadership of the Congress matriarch Indira Gandhi, who shared a widely admired working relationship with Bangabandhu. Crucially, the Congress was also in power when the Awami League returned to power in Dhaka in 2008/9, and immediately embarked on a markedly Indocentric foreign policy that continues unabated, despite the change since 2014 that saw Modi's BJP storm to power in Delhi.

Yet the entirely unnatural and terrifying spate of communal violence that visited upon the Indian capital last week - in which Muslims were reportedly targeted and suffered disproportionately - served to throw a spanner in the works. Seen by some within India itself as merely the culmination of a series of steps taken by the BJP government, particularly since its reelection last year with an increased majority, that are meant to undermine the country's secular tradition, it fuelled a demand from some quarters in Bangladesh - not merely the Islamists - to disinvite the Indian PM from the Mujib Centennial, in line with a view that his party's leaders, including a member of the cabinet, played a role in stoking the fires.

Not that it was ever on the cards of course. It was all rather silly, especially when you consider that the invitation had already gone out, and Modi had already accepted. Perhaps some earlier not-entirely-explained incidents, whereby a series of scheduled engagements between the two governments at various levels had failed to materialise in recent months, served to encourage its advocates. In any case, a disinvitation at this stage would have represented the height of reckless foreign policy. The AL obviously knows better than to antagonise its most reliable and influential friend. For its part, the government consistently maintained that it was on their invitation that Modi would be coming, and as such it fell to them to do everything to accord him the due respect.

To take care of the remaining formalities ahead of the visit, Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, who maintains an enduring association with Bangladesh having served as high commissioner here in his penultimate overseas posting prior to assuming his current role, via a stint as ambassador in Washington, visited Dhaka on March 2.

"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," Shringla said while delivering a keynote speech at a seminar during his brief visit.

He described Bangabandhu as 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.

Indian 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."

Shringla mentioned that the great Bengali poet-philosopher Kazi Nazrul Islam, Bangladesh's national poet, once wrote, "We all share happiness and sorrow equally."

"This noble emotion must motivate us as neighbours to recognise that both sorrow and happiness do not respect borders or passports: in this globalized era, they arrive equally at everyone's doorstep," said the Indian Foreign Secretary.

He said their approach to Bangladesh will always be characterised by this sentiment. "And I trust that our Prime Minister's (Narendra Modi) visit later this month will fully exemplify India's strong sentiment of goodwill, trust and respect for Bangladesh."

The Indian foreign secretary met Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Awami League General Secretary and Minister of Road, Transport and Bridges Obaidul Quader, Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen and his Bangladesh counterpart Masud Bin Momen apart from delivering a keynote speech at the seminar titled "Bangladesh and India: A promising Future" jointly organised by the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS) and Indian High Commission in Dhaka. BIISS Chairman Ambassador Fazlul Karim, Indian High Commissioner Riva Ganguly Das and acting Director General of BIISS Colonel Sheikh Masud Ahmed also spoke at the programme.

In his speech, Shringla touched upon issues related to the the controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), water sharing, border killings, trade relations and held up the "most extensive and integrated" relationship between the two countries.

The secular creed

It isn't often that Indians get lectured on secularism, or the variant of it as understood and practised in this part of the world (more concerned with equal status for all religions in the state's architecture, as opposed to separation of religion and state). Till recently, it was a principle that the Indian state, its representatives, and its citizens all championed dearly, warts and all. Although the Indian constitution originally did not enshrine secularism as a founding principle, unlike the Bangladeshi one, since the forty-second amendment to it enacted in 1976, the preamble asserts that India is a secular nation.

While that assertion remains, the present dispensation in Delhi barely tries to hide its disdain for the concept, seeing it as the top-down imposition of an elite that relied on 'minority appeasement' for its political capital. The Congress is condemned by association. Now the BJP gleefully crows about realising a 'Congress-mukth Bharat', or Congress-free India. There is no doubting the ascendant force in Bangladesh's neighbour on three sides. The BJP practices, in its own words, Hindu nationalism. Secularism can only be as strong as its advocates.That may explain why Dr Gowher Rizvi, an internationally renowned scholar of political science before taking up his present role as the Prime Minister's International Affairs Adviser, chose to devote the lion's share of his address as chief guest at the BIISS seminar, to the shared tradition of secularism between India and Bangladesh. The extent of it was rather pointed, as was the choice of not speaking for both nations, but only reaffirming Bangladesh's own commitment to tackling any situation that "might affect the secular social fabric".

"It's true, we are a secular society. Our commitment to secularism is absolutely central and we don't want to have any situation where our secularism will be threatened in any way," he said.

Dr Rizvi said they will need to continue to work "closely" with India to ensure that their secular society grows from strength to strength.

He made it clear that minorities in Bangladesh are not only sacred as they are "absolute equal citizens" of this country. So, he said, there is no question whatsoever that their interests in a secular Bangladesh society can be affected. "The government attaches the highest priority to the protection and welfare of our minority citizens."

Dr Rizvi, who spent four years in Delhi headingh up the Ford Foundation's philanthropic operations there, assured everyone that there is no way the administration will look away if minorities in Bangladesh are adversely affected in any possible way.

He mentioned that minorities in Bangladesh have invaluable contributions to growth and development of Bangladesh and the government is committed to providing them equal opportunities. "We're committed to Agenda 2030...nobody will be left behind."

Dr Rizvi said much has been achieved together and the two countries have created a relationship which would be envy of any two neighbours in the world and the two countries have resolved issues in a peaceful manner.

"We need to look forward, ours is a long-term relationship. We need to find long-term solutions to all the problems," he said.

Dr Rizvi described India's National Register of Citizens (NRC) issue as a burning one but expected it to remain as an internal or domestic affair of the neighbouring country as stated repeatedly by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi having no impact on Bangladesh.

"We've accepted that (repeated assurances) and we've good reasons to believe we shouldn't worry [about]," he said.

He termed "heavenly" the Dhaka-Delhi ties saying the two neighbours by now resolved the seven-decade-old land boundary disputes in a peaceful manner, setting an example for other parts of the globe though there are some outstanding issues.

Dr Rizvi said he was unhappy with the existing pace of progress in resolving the outstanding issues which two countries have agreed previously. He said opportunities will be lost in delays and urged to expedite the implementation of the initiatives under the Indian Line of Credit.

Water Sharing Deal

Bangladesh and India are working to finalise an agreement on water sharing of seven common rivers within this year.

"We agreed to expedite harmonization of this data so that water-sharing agreement can be finalized as early as possible, possibly within this year," he said highlighting the water flow of seven trans-boundary rivers.

On October 5 last year in New Delhi, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Indian counterpart directed the technical level committee of the Joint Rivers Commission (JRC) to expeditiously exchange updated data and information and prepare the draft framework of 'interim sharing agreements' for the six rivers -- Manu, Muhuri, Khowai, Gumti, Dharla and Dudhkumar -- and to firm up the draft framework of interim sharing agreement of the Feni River.

During the visit, Prime Minister Hasina highlighted that the people of Bangladesh are awaiting early signing and implementation of the framework of interim agreement for the sharing of Teesta water, as agreed upon by both governments in 2011.

Prime Minister Modi informed that his government was working with all stakeholders in India for conclusion of the agreement 'soonest possible'.

Indian Foreign Secretary Shringla said they can proceed on sharing the waters of other shared rivers so that there is a positive progress that benefits people on both sides.

On Teesta issue, Shringla said there is no diminishing on the commitment of their government on this issue. He mentioned that the agreement can only be finalized on the basis of consensus among the stakeholders. "We certainly want to assure you we're working on conclusion of the agreement as early as possible."

Shringla talked about the management of shared river waters saying, "I know how sensitive this issue is in both of our countries, given that we're both densely-populated societies with extensive needs and dependence on life-giving rivers that run through our geographies."

He said it is self-evident that a good arrangement to share the waters of the 54 rivers that unites the two countries in a manner that is fair and environmentally sustainable that lies in "our broader national interests".

"I'm pleased to say both sides recognise there's ample room for progress on each of the rivers that we share, and it's in this spirit that serious dialogue has resumed between our officials responsible for this important matter since August 2019," he said.

The Foreign Secretary assured Bangladeshi friends that India remains "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've sustained our people for so many millennia," he said.

Shringla said it is in the spirit of finding common ground rather than being bogged down by a few differences that they have jointly agreed to work to enhance the navigability of waterways that serve as Bangladesh's historic north-south arteries of connectivity.

The Indian Foreign Secretary said the partnership between the two countries will reach its true potential when they equally recognise that their interests converge and there is a mutuality of benefit.

Border Free From Crime

India says an equal number of Indian citizens are getting killed along the border and stressed keeping the border safe free from any kind of criminal activities through joint cooperation.

"There's 50-50 in terms of Bangladesh and Indian nationals getting killed on the border,"Shringla said. While responding to a question on border killing issue, Shringla said the issue is consistently coming up in Bangladesh-India relationship and mentioned the criminal activities that take place along the border.

The secretary may be counting the Indian nationals who also die at the hands of the BSF. It's not as if Indians are getting shot by BGB. The same apparent solution applies: the BSF needs to be reined in more robustly. The Indian Foreign Secretary however defended the BSF, saying that they face lots of challenges, and that there have been a fair amount of attacks on border forces.

Although there was an incident in which a BSF member, not an ordinary citizen, died after being shot by BGB, which was a one-off incident after some BSF members entered Bangladesh territory to try and snatch away an Indian fisherman caught fishing in Bangladeshi waters.

Shringla said it is the responsibility of border forces on both sides to ensure that the border is respected and the place is kept safe stopping criminal activities.

"Despite that there's a fair amount of criminal activities that happen. Every death on the border is something that is a problematic issue," Shringla said adding that the death of every single human being diminishes them further.

He said there is a completely stated position that one death is too many on the border. He said deaths on the border are not necessarily just confined to the citizens of Bangladesh and highlighted facts "from other side of the border" which are not looked at here.

The Indian Foreign Secretary talked about improving security, creating zero criminal activities, more cooperation, more joint patrolling and common border management plan, and bringing deaths zero level. He laid emphasis on ensuring only legal activities along the border stopping all kinds of illegal activities.

Foreign Minister Dr Momen raised the issues related to border killing and water sharing when Shringla met him at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

He said though the two countries agreed on zero killing along the border "unfortunately" this year it witnessed a rise. "We're friends...there shouldn't be killing within friends."

No NRC, CAA Impact

India has reassured that the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) will have no impact on Bangladesh. "These are purely internal to India," Shringla said.

As the closest neighbours with so many shared cultural traits, Shringla said 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, he said, 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'll be no implications for the government and the people of Bangladesh. You've our assurance on that count," he explained.

On CAA, he said, "This is a proactive legislation that has been undertaken on humanitarian grounds. In other words, the people who were refugees or faced political persecution and came to India within a cut off time were allowed fast track citizenship." Shringla thinks the Citizenship Amendment Act passed by Indian parliament late last year was misunderstood in many senses.

Shringla said the two countries have resolved many issues through a consistent and focused effort. "We've sought to identify and eliminate obstacles to our partnership, without finding fault or apportioning blame. In sum, we've worked to find quick, practical and practicable solutions."

Rohingya Issue

The Indian Foreign Secretary said there is also often interest and sometimes "uninformed speculation" about their 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 recognise and sympathise with the enormous burden that you're facing.

"As the only country that's an actual neighbour of both Bangladesh and Myanmar, we're committed to offering the fullest support for any mutually-acceptable solution that'll enable the earliest possible return of displaced persons to their homes in Rakhine State and to a life of dignity," he said adding that this should be done in a manner that is "safe, secure and sustainable".

Shringla said they 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're investing in the socio-economic development of the Rakhine area, including housing, so that there's an incentive not only for people to return, but also for all communities to focus on cooperative solutions for economic development, rather than compete for limited resources," he said.

Towards this end, he said, they are consistent in their 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, Shringla said, 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," he said.

Additional Reporting by AKM Moinuddin

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