The affinity between India and Bangladesh was further emphasised recently.
Indian prime minister, Narendra Damodar Modi’s thirty-six hour maiden visit to Bangladesh on June 5 was historic in many respects. He was visiting a country that India had midwifed and must have heaved a long sigh of satisfaction at his country’s “achievement,” even though it had been facilitated by Pakistan’s own default, because the situation would have been quite different had the latter not blundered the way it did.
It was also to reinvigorate India’s sentimental relationship with Bangladesh Prime Minister, Sheikh
Hasina Wajed because, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had taken along with her sister, Raihana, under her motherly care when her entire family - father, mother and three brothers were mowed down by assassins at home. Subsequently, India’s successive governments have been treating her as India’s foster child.
The occasion was memorable because of a sheaf of 22 agreements that the prime ministers of Bangladesh and India inked. Among them were
Exchange of Instruments of Ratification of the1974 Land Boundary Agreement and its 2011 protocol, a Bilateral Trade Agreement, a Memorandum of Understanding on Blue Economy and Maritime Cooperation in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean and many others.
The agreements were rounded off with a Joint Declaration issued on the last day of Modi's visit and reaffirmed the "unequivocal and uncompromising position against extremism and terrorism in all forms and manifestations” of the two countries.
The most important among these agreements was the one relating to the land boundary. It was first signed by founder of Bangladesh and Hasina’s father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in 1974. Since then, for 41 years it had been languishing because India dragged its feet on the issue of implementing it, obviously, because the resultant exchange of enclaves between the two countries would give more land to Bangladesh.
Now, armed with Lok Sabha approval Modi, signed the historic document under which 111 enclaves stretching over 17,160 acres would go to Bangladesh and 51 enclaves comprising 7,110 acres would go to India. The only irritating problem that still remained to be resolved related to the sharing of waters of the Teesta and Feni rivers flowing between Bangladesh and West Bengal over which the Indian state chief minister, Mamata Banerjee had reservations. But given the new camaraderie, it was being hoped that the issue would be amicably resolved soon.
In fact Mamata Banerjee, whom Narendra Modi included in his entourage, must have been delighted to join Modi and Hasina flag off the new Dhaka-Gwahati-Shillong and Kolkata Dhaka-Agartala bus services. These are happy auguries. The day may not be far when the old prepartition rail service between Kolkata and Siliguri (Darjeeling) and between Kolkata and Amingaon across Bangladesh would be revived.
Apart from these formal activities the Indian prime minister also took time to visit the Indian chancery in Dhaka. He prayed at the Ram Krishna Mission temple and addressed a select gathering of media persons, businessmen, political leaders, academicians, artistes and students of the Dhaka University. In his speech he complimented his host for her actions to combat terrorism. "I am happy that Bangladesh Prime Minister, despite being a woman, has declared zero tolerance for terrorism, he said.
“Despite being a woman” was an innocent remark made in all sincerity. It acknowledged the hurdles in the way of a woman in a conservative society like Bangladesh to take such bold steps as Hasina has done. But some people made it a gender issue and deplored it as sexist and derogatory. Even Washington Post splashed the story under the headline, "India’s Modi just delivered the world’s worst compliment.”
Modi also took a pot shot at Pakistan, lamenting that it was a cause of perpetual annoyance "Pakistan aaye din (constantly) disturbs India, jo naako dum la deta hai ( creates nuisance), terrorism ko badhawa deta hai...ki ghatnaayein ghatthi rehti hain (promotes terrorism so incidents continue to occur),” he said.
In the same context, he recalled that 90,000 Pakistani prisoners of war were in India's captivity during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War and proudly observed, “If we had a diabolic mindset, we don't know then what decision we would have taken.” The claim, however, exposed the smallness of his mind instead of adding to his stature because those who do a noble deed do not trumpet about it.
Emphasizing India’s contiguity with Bangladesh, Modi said that while people thought we were just paas-paas (side by side), now the world will have to acknowledge that we are not just paas-paas but also sath-sath(together).
Modi also made a reference to India’s role in the independence of Bangladesh saying that when Bangladesh progresses, India feels proud because Indian soldiers too have shed their blood for the birth of this country.
However, the statement, at best, was intended to bring home to the people of Bangladesh how much they owe to India for their independence and what they should do to repay the debt. Modi was not making any revelation about India’s role in the dismemberment of Pakistan. That role is well-known and well-documented. In fact, Pakistan, by declaring war on India, itself opened the way for the Indian army to enter East Pakistan openly by land and air.
Yet, Modi’s remarks sent the Pakistani leadership into a commotion. The speech was treated as provocative and drew flak from the civil and military leadership, alike from foreign affairs adviser Sartaj Aziz, to formation commanders of the army, while the Foreign Office came out with its own “regrets.”
Lost in the brouhaha, though, was Modi’s crucial reference to connectivity among India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. He plans to create a “mini-SAARC” which would be geographically compact and mutually cooperative.
In fact, according to a Times of India report, the path has been already broken. “India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh have inked a Motor Vehicles Agreement for the regulation of passenger, personnel and cargo vehicular traffic in Thimpu, Bhutan. The agreement will enable seamless movement of people and goods across the borders for the economic benefit of the entire region.”
It is this that other SAARC countries should reflect upon.
Modi’s remarks sent the Pakistani leadership into a commotion.