New Delhi needs to walk the talk in mending relationship with Bangladesh

No dignitary from Bangladesh has ever been chief guest for India’s Republic Day while dignitaries from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bhutan, China and even Myanmar have…

New Delhi needs to walk the talk in mending relationship with Bangladesh

Nilova Roychaudhury

Among the first foreign dignitaries to condole the death of Lata Mangeshkar were President Abdul Hamid and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh, the latter saying, “A great void has been created in the subcontinent’s musical arena with the demise of the “Sur Samraggi”, or the ‘Empress of Music.’

As a close neighbour and friend, Bangladesh has always swiftly responded and been particularly supportive of India and major events in this country, including the revocation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir in 2019. It was one of few Muslim majority nations to say the issue was an internal matter of India.

But that warmth has not been equally, or indeed, adequately, reciprocated by the bigger neighbour India in recent years, despite much lip service.

Not just at the government level, but the common man in Bangladesh has been deeply offended at the ruling BJP leaders’ rhetoric, calling Bangladeshis ‘termites’, making it very difficult for Sheikh Hasina to maintain the warmth of relations. Her government has also been distressed with provisions in the Citizenship Amendment Act, which labels Bangladesh, along with Pakistan and Afghanistan, as nations which persecute their minorities.

Infusing a communal flavour into a highly emotional and cultural relationship has not gone down well with Bangladesh. That an economic relationship of over US$10 billion per annum could not curb Indian majoritarian tendencies have swung the focus away from India. With Bangladesh beating India on most social and economic indicators today, it now chooses to look where its interests are best served; very often that is not India.

As Bangladesh celebrated 50 years of its independence from Pakistan in 2021, India entered its 75th year as a free nation. Both landmarks offered an opportunity to introspect on what has arguably been the most significant bilateral relationship between two nations.

Celebration of the golden jubilee of Bangladesh’s birth were subdued, because of the global Covid pandemic, but the Indian Prime Minister, fittingly, visited Dhaka as guest of honour at commemorative national celebrations. After all, 50 years ago, India midwifed the birth of that nation, helping to sever its cord with Pakistan and, indeed, challenge the foundation of the two-nation theory. The emergence of Bangladesh was an epochal event, perhaps unparalleled in the annals of modern history.

Thus, the government’s controversial decision to extinguish the flame at the ‘Amar Jawan Jyoti’, a memorial to the unknown soldier, which burnt for 50 years to commemorate those who died fighting for the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, has had a negative fallout in Bangladesh. Though the government claims that flame was not extinguished, but ‘merged’ with the eternal flame at the recently built National War Memorial, the fact is that the monument at AJJ, under the India Gate, lies today in darkness like a discarded relic, negating the homage paid there for half a century after it was inaugurated by Indira Gandhi on January 26, 1972.

While there have been no formal demarches, the leadership in Bangladesh is upset over the decision. Coupled with the fact that no leader from Bangladesh has ever been invited as chief guest for India’s Republic Day celebrations, this has added to Dhaka’s unhappiness with New Delhi’s lack of sensitivity.

India’s Republic Day celebrates the day on which the Constitution came into effect on January 26, 1950. Ceremonies to commemorate this National Day are very special, celebrating and showcasing the grandeur of India; its military prowess, economic development, cultural richness and plurality; through a grand parade witnessed not only by India’s leadership and people, but also a specially invited foreign chief guest.

The choice of chief guest thus evokes considerable interest. A lot of thought and some politics goes into the choice of chief guest. Beginning with Indonesian President Sukarno, in 1950, chief guests have, in the past seven decades, been those whom India has deemed particularly special, from countries with which India enjoys good relations which it seeks to further improve. The guest country is chosen after a careful deliberation of strategic, economic and political interests.

In the 50 years of Bangladesh’s existence, no dignitary from that country has ever been chief guest for India’s Republic Day. Every other neighbour of India, including Afghanistan, Pakistan (twice, including in 1965), Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bhutan, China and even Myanmar has seen top dignitaries visit as chief guests.

Despite both India and Bangladesh supposedly sharing a “shonaliadhyay”, or golden chapter in bilateral relations for the past seven years, India’s choice for chief guest for the Covid-curbed 2021 parade was Britain’s Boris Johnson! Not inviting Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina has seen outrage and been criticised, publicly, in our closest neighbour.

On top of that, the arbitrary closure of the AJJ has been viewed as an effort to downplay the contribution of the Bangladesh Liberation war martyrs and those who gave their lives in that struggle, unarguably India’s greatest military victory.

It is true that a joint contingent of the Bangladesh armed forces led the Indian Republic Day parade in 2021, an unprecedented gesture of solidarity. But when India sought to invite Sheikh Hasina for the 2022 Republic Day celebrations along with leaders of all the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) countries, Bangladesh categorically refused to attend.

According to former Indian diplomats, the reason why Sheikh Mujib, who shared a very warm relationship with the Indian leadership of the early 1970s, headed by former PM Indira Gandhi, was not invited as chief guest after Bangladesh was born was because the priority was to stabilise the then fledgling Awami League government in Dhaka. The brutal assassination of Sheikh Mujib and his family on August 15, 1975 ended that special chapter of India Bangladesh relations.

Given that Bangladesh is crucial to India’s strategic and security paradigm and central to two key foreign policy initiatives of the Modi government: ‘Neighbourhood First’ and ‘Act East’, the government and leadership must show greater sensitivity or risk alienating this neighbour.

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines