Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s presence as guest of honour on the 50th anniversary of the South Asian country’s independence is significant both for the optics and the substance of bilateral relations.
In the first place, it is an expression of deep gratitude that Bangladesh seeks to express to its neighbour, without whose military intervention we would not have won our Independence in less than a year after the struggle started. Our bravehearts were fighting, their sacrifices were enormous but Bangladesh would not be free of the Pakistani scourge without the brilliant military offensive planned and executed by Field Marshal Sam Maneckshaw and Generals Arora and Jacob.
Secondly, Modi’s presence at Bangladesh’s most emotional moment is a reminder of a stark fact which some religious fundamentalists on both sides of the border seek to deny — that having grown together in the last three decades into economic powerhouses, India and Bangladesh need to be friends and partners to be able to grow together in future.
The release of a World Bank report titled “Connecting to Thrive” just before Modi packs his bags for Dhaka drives home this point. It advocates further strengthening of ‘seamless transport connectivity’ between the two neighbours, which, it says, can drive up their national incomes by 8 to 10 per cent and boost exports by 180 to 290 per cent in a decade.
No visionary leader like Prime Ministers Sheikh Hasina or Narendra Modi can miss out on such obvious opportunities.
Thirdly, there is a strong security raison d’etre for the two nations to be friends and not foes. If Bangladesh is hostile, it can become the launchpad for rebels from India’s northeast — like in the days of East Pakistan. If India is hostile, it can destabilise the strategic but remote and the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
Bangladesh’s successive military rulers incurred India’s wrath by backing northeastern rebels and our forces faced the music in Chittagong Hill Tracts for two decades. Modi cannot be chief guest at the Golden Jubilee of our independence if the two neighbours are not rocking. That’s good news for both.
When the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) opposed the Kolkata-Dhaka bus service during the first Hasina government (1996-2001) , their leaders had to be reminded that most Bangladeshis don’t have the resources to go for medical treatment to Singapore and that Kolkata or other Indian cities were their best bet. Bengali food stalls in Vellore proves the steady flow of our people to hospitals like the CMC. And this makes Bangladeshis the largest segment of tourists to India, 23 per cent, who spend much more in the country than cannabis-smoking Western tourists. So no way we are termites and no way we can ignore India. This is the stark reality.
Prime Minister Hasina has been more than kind in her expression of gratitude to India. An important road in Dhaka is named after Indira Gandhi, widely viewed in our country as ‘Liberator’, someone described as ‘Ma Durga’ by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Modi’s predecessor as India’s first Bharatiya Janata Party Prime Minister. In fact Modi accepted Vajpayee’s ‘Muktijuddho Padak’ (Liberation War Medal).
Scores of Indians who played an important role in 1971 have received this medal. Hasina has delivered on India’s crucial security and connectivity concerns and signed the land boundary agreement to settle the prickly enclaves problem.
Both nations are trying to negotiate water sharing agreements on common rivers like the Teesta and moving towards a slew of economic agreements which can hugely boost growth in both countries, specially in their border regions .
The radicals who are threatening to disrupt Modi’s visit must be reminded that lakhs of Bangladeshis, including some who spew venom at India, are getting vaccinated by India-made vaccines. Actually, Modi has faced some criticism at home for rushing off vaccines abroad before inoculating his own people. But proving detractors wrong, Indian vaccine supply to Bangladesh has been steady and uninterrupted.
The battle to contain Covid was no less important than other battles. India has stood by us both in 1971 and now.
India-bashing is cottage industry in a section of Bangladesh’s elite and radical political fringe. I have three requests for them : (a) please don’t take the Indian vaccine and leave it for a poor Bangladeshi because you can afford an expensive Chinese or an American vaccine even by flying to that country; (b) don’t go to an Indian hospital next time you suffer an ailment but rush to Singapore or the West for treatment at five to 10 times the cost; (c) please ask Pakistan to tender a formal apology for its massacre and mass rapes in 1971 because they did not kill or rape Indians but massacred your fellow Bengalis (unless you think you are Pakistanis).
I am a victim of sexual harassment at my workplace and, in some ways, the pioneer of the #Metoo movement in Bangladesh. I thank Modi for asking his powerful minister MJ Akbar, once India’s top editor, to stand down from his cabinet because of the charges of sexual abuse against him.
Akbar has lost his case against the ladies he tormented.
I want my tormentors at the bank I worked to be similiarly brought to justice and the rapists elsewhere in Bangladesh to be hauled over the coals. Here again, the Indian example should help.
(Monira Sultana Popy, a Dhaka-based columnist and gender-human rights activist, is a former banker)