by Vinay Kumar in New Delhi
As Bangladesh is on its way to celebrate 50th anniversary of its independence from Pakistan, India-Bangladesh ties and the momentum given to it at the virtual summit between Prime Ministers NarendraModi and Sheikh Hasina earlier this week continue to remain in focus in media and top government circles in this nuclear-powered South Asian country.
While respected and leading Indian newspapers have described relations with Bangladesh as a “bright spot,’’ they have sounded a note of caution, saying Delhi must take care of challenges posed by trans-border migration and must not allow contentious issues like Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens to derail the domestic gains.
Describing India’s relationship with Bangladesh as its most consequential relationship in the region, the Hindustan Times said the birth centenary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is an opportune time to recognise how far bilateral relations have progressed.
Once derided as a basket case, Bangladesh is now the fastest growing economy in South Asia; it surpasses India on many development indicators; and it has overtaken Pakistan’s economy, acknowledged the respected English daily in its editorial titled “The Delhi-Dhaka bond’’on Saturday.
Underlining that sustaining relations with Bangladesh has been an important element of Prime Minister NarendraModi’s “Neighbourhood First’’ policy, the Hindustan Times pointed out that the two countries are now reconnecting by rail, road and water in the way they were prior to 1965. It said that Sheikh Hasina’s government has provided a model of security cooperation. India should involve Bangladesh more in its global initiatives such as Covid-19 and climate.
The newspaper opined that both countries should take some time to consider how to reconcile their domestic political narratives. “Indian visions of Bangladeshi hordes need to be replaced with a realisation that migrants cross in both directions. Dhaka, in turn, needs to be more honest about localised discrimination of minorities and the outward migration this has engendered. Differences over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act arise from such incomplete viewpoints. New Delhi has concerns about the Hasina government’s policy of allying with Islamist groups to counterbalance other such groups,“ it added.
The daily said that Beijing will continue to expand its influence but as long as Dhaka does not cross security redlines and keeps Delhi in the loop, the China factor can be managed.
In its editorial “A Friend Indeed,” multi-edition English daily The Indian Express said that deepening ties with Dhaka are important for both nations. Delhi must not let domestic political rhetoric derail diplomatic gains. The newspaper advised Delhi to be careful in addressing the challenges posed by migration, especially as India prepares to implement the Citizenship Amendment Act. “Unfortunate comments by Union Home Minister on illegal migration and migrants came close to derailing ties between India and its most important regional partner, Bangladesh. With elections around in West Bengal, the temptation to posture on the question of trans-border migration could again threaten bilateral relations,’’ the daily wrote.
As Dhaka prepares to celebrate 50th anniversary of its independence from Pakistan and the special role of India in that event next March, as well as set ambitious goals for its impressive economic development, Delhi can’t let crude electoral calculations undermine the historic transformation underway in the eastern subcontinent, The Indian Express opined.
In the opinion of the largest circulated English daily The Times of India, New Delhi must not take ties with Dhaka for granted. In its editorial “Bangla Connect,” the newspaper noted that issues such as the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) have created a highly negative impression in Bangladesh. “Harping on them for hypothetical domestic political gains can jeopardise ties with Dhaka and put unnecessary pressure on Sheikh Hasina. Relations with Bangladesh are a bright spot. Government must take care to keep it that way,’’ the Times of India wrote.
The daily said that India-Bangladesh ties today have acquired a multi-dimensional character. And a large reason for this is Hasina herself who is personally invested in the relationship with New Delhi. However, China has been pushing hard to increase its footprint in Bangladesh as exemplified by its $24 billion investment plans for Dhaka announced in 2016. Bangladesh has also joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the newspaper pointed out.
From the government side, India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla dwelt at length on India-Bangladesh ties in his address on Saturday to the inaugural session of North East festival through video conference. He also recalled his tenure as India’s High Commissioner to Bangladesh and touched upon a number of connectivity projects with Bangladesh.
The Foreign Secretary noted that the North East region also connects India and its neighbours, to one of the most economically dynamic and politically significant geographies of the world – the ASEAN and the Indo-Pacific, he said.
“At one level, we work bilaterally with our partners with a full range of diplomatic tools. At another level we work through multilateral and plurilateral initiatives such as BIMSTEC and BBIN or the Bangladesh- Bhutan-India-Nepal grouping,” Shringla said.
Recalling his stint as India’s High Commissioner in Bangladesh, he said that improvements in connectivity between India and Bangladesh have a direct and positive impact on the North East.
“Accordingly, a lot of work has been done in recent years to enhance connectivity with Bangladesh.We have revived five rail links that used to be operational between India and Bangladesh before 1965. As many of you would have seen, the Prime Ministers of India and Bangladesh jointly inaugurated the rail link between Haldibari in West Bengal and Chilahati in Bangladesh during the virtual summit held this week. This link can revive the old Siliguri-Sealdah rail route through Bangladesh, taken by the Darjeeling Mail,” he said.
Shringla said that work is ongoing on two more connections. Work on the pre-1965 rail link —- Kulaura-Shahbazpur — is underway and will revive the railway connectivity between Karimganj in Assam and Sylhet in Bangladesh. The other will connect Akhaura in Bangladesh to Agartala is also under construction and will be ready by 2022 when India will commemorate 75th anniversary of its independence.
For the first time, Tripura was connected to Bangladesh through inland waterways route. This new route can further connect Tripura with the National Waterways of India. These new initiatives provide alternative and shorter routes for transporting goods between the North East and the rest of India through Bangladesh, he said.
The plan for twenty port townships along the Brahmaputra and Barak river systems to enhance inland water connectivity could galvanize multimodal linkages in the entire region, said Shringla.
“Road transportation links are also being improved. Indian and Bangladesh nationals can move by bus between Shillong and Dhaka and between Agartala and Kolkata via Dhaka. Goods and people move by road between the two countries through a network of Land Customs Stations and Integrated Check Posts,” he said.