New Delhi had time for Iranian minister but not for Bangladesh's Foreign Minister?

When Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visits New Delhi next, possibly as early as in July-August, will she be received as warmly as Nepal’s PM Sher Bahadur Deuba?

Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen with Vice President of India M. Venkaiah Naidu
Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen with Vice President of India M. Venkaiah Naidu
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S.N.M. Abdi

The skies would not have fallen if Prime Minister Narendra Modi had extended Bangladesh Foreign Minister, Abul Kalam Abdul Momen, the courtesy he extended Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. The latter was granted an audience with Modi during his June 8-10 India visit. But the PM had no time for Momen during his June 18-20 trip to New Delhi.

Meeting Modi and a photo-op has now become a yardstick to judge the importance India attaches to the visiting dignitary’s country. By that criterion, where does Bangladesh figure in India’s foreign policy priorities?

Momen came for the seventh round of the India-Bangladesh Joint Consultative Commission (JCC) meeting with External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, who announced after the talks that the two countries were advancing their ties to new domains like Artificial Intelligence, cyber security, start-ups and Fin Tech.

All that’s fine. But why does the Modi government invariably fall short of acknowledging what Bangladesh keeps doing for India and Modi? I am not privy to what New Delhi does in private. But it definitely doesn’t thank Dhaka enough publicly.

New Delhi fixed Amir-Abdollahian’s appointment with the Big Three – Modi, Jaishankar and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. Memon had to be content with his counterpart and Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu! Frankly, this is discriminatory and appalling.

If not for anything else, Modi should have met Memon to personally thank the Bangladesh government for refraining from lodging a protest against Nupur Sharma-Naveen Jindal’s vile anti-Prophet Muhammad comments. Dhaka is the only capital of a major Islamic country in the whole world which spared New Delhi the blushes by keeping quiet despite the revulsion and anger sweeping the conservative and deeply religious country.

The Sheikh Hasina government was sympathetic and acted with great sensitivity at a time when India was cornered. Barring Bangladesh, all other Muslim nations were summoning our envoys, issuing demarche after demarche and demanding a public apology from the Indian government. The lone exception was Dhaka.

Importantly, Amir-Abdollahian’s Iran had summoned Indian Ambassador to Iran, Gaddam Dharmendra, and lodged such a strong protest that our envoy had to express regret and call any insult to the Prophet of Islam unacceptable. Teheran did that on June 5 knowing full well that Amir-Abdollahian’s maiden visit to India since taking charge last year was only three days away.

Yet we rolled out the red carpet for Amir-Abdollahian but not for Momen. I don’t know what Bangladesh’s crime is. Do we take our next-door neighbour lightly, casually and for granted because it doesn’t have oilfields, doesn’t have nuclear ambitions, hasn’t crossed swords with America and the West, isn’t engaged in nuclear talks with world powers, doesn’t share a frontier with Pakistan and Afghanistan and hasn’t signed a 25-year Cooperation Programme with China?

Anyone who knows all there is to know, knows all the boxes Bangladesh ticks. The problem is the big gulf between India’s words and deeds. We never tire of talking about the current shonali adhyay, or golden period, of India-Bangladesh relations. Yet the PM has no time for Momen. The problem is indeed deeper. We are yet to invite Hasina, who has done so much for India for years, as Chief Guest at our Republic Day parade. Even Mujibur Rahman did not make the cut!

Hasina will soon embark on her umpteenth visit to New Delhi. Dates have not been announced but I’m told that Momen has done the spadework. She might come as early as next month. Let’s see whether she is accorded the extraordinarily warm reception Nepal Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba got, or is treated in the same cavalier manner as we forever treat Bangladeshi leaders.

(The writer is former Deputy Editor of Outlook and was one of the targets of Pegasus spyware attacks on journalists)

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