By Harun ur Rashid
President Pranab Mukherjee arrived in Dhaka on 3 March for a three-day visit to Bangladesh at the invitation of the President and Prime Minister of Bangladesh. Highly respected in Bangladesh for his modesty and affability, Mukherjee has close personal connections with the country, through his wife, who hails from the Sadar Upazilla of Narail. During his recent visit, President Mukherjee received an honorary doctorate degree at a Convocation of Dhaka University and visited the ancestral home of his in-laws in Bhadrabila village, Narail in Sadar sub-district. According to media reports from Bangladesh, Kanai Lal Ghosh, the president’s brother-in-law, is currently residing at the ancestral home.
Politically speaking, too, Mukherjee is no stranger to Bangladesh. During the 1971 War of Liberation, he was one of the main Indian political leaders who supported and assisted the provisional government of Bangladesh and the people of Bangladesh bear a debt of gratitude to him. Indeed, he received the ‘Bangladesh Swadhinata Sammanona (Bangladesh Freedom Honour)’ a state honour for his outstanding contribution to the Liberation War. The government of Bangladesh, led by the Bangladesh Awami League, first started honouring foreign allies for their contribution to the country’s liberation war in 2011, when the government posthumously conferred the Bangladesh Swadhinata Sammanona upon former prime minister of India, the late Indira Gandhi. Her daughter-in-law and Congress President, Sonia Gandhi received the honour on her behalf on July 25, 2011.
The majority of people in the smaller neighbouring countries in the vicinity around India perceive it to be the larger and more resourceful neighbour. There is both admiration and apprehension in these perceptions. Admiration is felt because this particular neighbour, having common bonds of history and geography, has been emerging as a global and a regional political and economic power. Apprehension emanates from a more strained scenario when these smaller neighbours are not sure of their position in a fluid geopolitical environment. Under such circumstances, an Indian presidential visit to any foreign country in the neighbouring vicinity is not only highly ceremonial but diplomatically symbolic. It goes without saying that no presidential visit can take place without the approval of the Indian government. Usually, a list of countries is prepared, to which the ceremonial visit of the Indian President will take place, taking into account India’s national and regional interests.
India is aware that the geopolitical scene around South Asia and South East Asia is in a fluid state. Bangladesh not only shares borders with India, but also with reformist Myanmar and is also a near neighbour to China, Nepal and Bhutan. If India has strained relations with Bangladesh, some analysts believe Bangladesh may consider seriously looking eastwards, and eventually form a cooperative institutional relationship with Myanmar, Thailand, and China, given the geopolitical shift of power towards the Asia-Pacific at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Domestically speaking, India also realizes that it needs Bangladesh because of its geographic location, especially because of the advantages that Bangladesh holds in terms of transit/trans-shipment of goods through the latter country to India’s north-eastern states via West Bengal.
In this context, relations between India and Bangladesh have been on the upswing ever since Sheikh Hasina took power in 2009. Prime Minister Hasina visited New Delhi in January 2010 and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in Dhaka in September 2011. Dhaka moved quickly to address Delhi’s concerns on cross-border terrorism and transit/trans-shipment to India’s north-east, given the proper infrastructure in place for it. Transit on an experimental basis was provided to India by Bangladesh in 2011. However, the promises made by India, in return for Bangladesh’s acquiescence on issues such as these, remain unfulfilled. Nevertheless, President Mukherjee’s first foreign visit to Bangladesh demonstrates that the Indian government does indeed attach great importance to the existing cooperative relations with Bangladesh in various sectors.
There is a saying that one can choose friends but not neighbours. As a regional power, however, India needs to cultivate good relationships with its neighbouring countries. If neighbouring countries, such as Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal, do not respond positively to India’s overtures, it may be difficult for India to achieve its regional goals, while catering to its global ambitions. Bangladesh and India are neighbours and they cannot re-fashion geography. The two countries are destined to live next to each other. Given the desire to live together in cooperation, two countries may proceed with productive relations through unrelenting efforts in political, economic, social and environmental issues.
Harun ur Rashid
Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva
Email: [email protected]