Modi in Dhaka: India and Bangladesh share a golden bond

“Maitri” or friendship is the basis of good neighbourly relations. On the eve of the subcontinental festival of colour, “Holi,” this was underscored by the decision of India and Bangladesh to celebrate December 6 as “Maitri Diwas” or Friendship Day. This was the day, 50 years ago in 1971, when India formally recognised Bangladesh as an independent country.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s’s just concluded two-day official visit to commemorate the 50th year of Bangladesh’s independence must be recognised as a diplomatic and humanitarian coup.

It was his first visit outside India since the coronavirus pandemic broke out. Naturally, along with a fleet of 109 ambulances, Modi also gifted his counterpart, Sheikh Hasina, 1.2 million doses of vaccines.

Besides signing five important accords, the visit assumed added significance as Modi visited “Bangabandhu” Mujib’s birthplace in Tungipara, Gopalganj district. Just ten days after Mujib’s 101 birth anniversary, he was the first Indian prime minister to do so.

He laid a wreath at the mazar (grave) of the founder of Bangladesh, signed the visitor’s book, in addition to delivering a speech.

Wearing a ‘Mujib jacket,’ a high-necked sleeveless coat, which bears a close family resemblance to what is now known as the ‘Modi jacket’,’ Modi also conferred the 2020 Mahatma Gandhi peace prize posthumously on the “Father of Bangladesh.”

Bangladesh’s tremendous progress

Bangladesh’s tremendous progress — it has overtaken India in per capita GDP — reminded me of my first visit to that country nearly twenty years ago. I flew Biman, the national carrier, which offered incredibly cheap flights to Bangkok and Singapore, with a stopover at Dhaka.

The flight was full of migrant workers on their way home from Dubai, their flight refuelling in Delhi, where I boarded it. In the airline’s magazine, Bihanga, I couldn’t help noticing that the section on the history of Bangladesh made no mention of India’s role in their freedom struggle.

I remembered so vividly the daily news bulletins after India joined Bangladesh’s liberation war on December 3, 1971. I was but a young boy, but felt deeply involved. Despite winning the 1970 general election, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was not allowed to form the government of Pakistan.

His party, the Awami League, had won 160 seats, well ahead of its nearest rival, the Pakistan People’s Party’s 81. Unrest had broken out all over East Pakistan. Mujib addressed the nation in a landmark speech attended by over a million people on March 7, 1971 in Dhaka. Pakistan retaliated by launching ‘Operation Searchlight.’ In the early hours of March 27, Mujib struck back by declaring the independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan.

Arrested, flown out to Pakistan, Mujib was imprisoned. Mukti Bahini, an indigenous independence army, launched a counter-offensive against the forces from West Pakistan. As tens of millions of refugees poured into India from its eastern borders, tensions between India and Pakistan also escalated.

Finally, towards the end of a terrible year, the Indian army invaded East Pakistan. Gen. Jagjit Singh Aurora was the joint commander of Indian and Bangladeshi forces. The Pakistani army surrendered on December 16, 1971. India took some 90,000 prisoners of war. The next year, Mujib returned to Bangladesh, assuming power as the country’s first Prime Minister.

Swaying coconut palms

When we landed at the Shahjalal International Airport, it was like a tiny island, with only the black tarmac of the runway gleaming in a large lake. It was raining and much of the city appeared submerged. Later, after the sun came out, the green fields of paddy, dotted by swaying coconut palms, glistened and danced just outside the airport.

Dhaka was pretty much like any of India’s big cities, chaotic, bustling, and vibrant. Many hand-drawn carts, laden with goods, plied in the narrow lanes, where much of the business still took place.

Next morning, blaring from the large Dacca Stadium in Motijheel in the heart of the city, I was woken up to a moving and mellifluous speech in chaste Bangla. The tone, diction, and the highly Sanskritized vocabulary rendered the words instantly intelligible to me.

At breakfast, I was told that it was Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib’s birthday, 17 March. His party, now led by his daughter, Sheikh Hasina, was marking the anniversary by playing his speeches. The stadium itself has now been renamed after him and his daughter is serving her second term as Bangladesh’s Prime Minister.

In fact, her present term, since January 2009, has lasted over eleven years. It has also taken Bangladesh to unprecedented levels of peace and prosperity.

One plank for this tremendous progress has been good neighbourly relations, especially with India. But the whole history of Indo-Bangladesh relations, which had been downplayed, if not erased by the previous regimes in Bangladesh, has now been set right again.

In addition to offering prayers at the Jeshoreshwari Kali Temple, Modi also visited the birth shrine of Harichand Thakur in nearby Orakandi. Thakur, the leader of the reformist Matua or namoshudra sect, has a huge following in both Bangladesh and West Bengal. Modi said he felt the same emotions as any ordinary Matua on coming to Orakandi because he too was inspired by the spiritual leader’s pious message.

Modi’s masterstroke led his arch-rival, Mamata Banerjee, to complain that he was campaigning in Bangladesh and thus in violation of the model code of conduct of India’s Election Commission. Quite expected since the first phase of polls for the West Bengal’s assembly elections concluded on March 27 with a high voter turnout of over 80%.

The outcome of these elections is still up in the air, but in the first phase it is advantage BJP, thanks to its leader and India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi

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