For people like me who played a part in Bangladesh’s 1971 War of Independence, we remember those who stood by us in our hour of need and ensured our liberation.
India is our neighbour, our ally and our partner: one of the first countries to formally recognise a free Bangladesh and commit its troops to achieve it. As someone who remembers the support we received from India, it is wonderful to watch the relationship between our countries grow. Our Honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will be meeting Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi in New Delhi, for the first time since the beginning of Covid, and indeed there is much in our bilateral relationship to celebrate.
This relationship has been forged in blood and there are strong cultural and historic ties between the two nations: including common threats at home and abroad from violent state- and non-state actors. The importance of the relationship is highlighted by the fact that this is the first foreign visit of Sheikh Hasina following the pandemic. This returns the gesture paid by Indian Prime Minister Modi, as Bangladesh was the first country he visited following the pandemic to participate in the Golden Jubilee of its independence, and the birth centenary of the father of the nation of Bangladesh, Bongobandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. India was instrumental in helping Bangladesh to navigate the pandemic by sending over two million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccines, enabling Bangladesh to launch its own highly successful national vaccination programme.
India and Bangladesh share over 50 common rivers and, since the earliest days of Bangladesh’s independence, the two countries have been committed to working together to maintain the ecosystems and maximise the benefits of their shared waterways. As climate change continues to wreak havoc upon the planet, and particularly in the form of the extreme flooding we have seen in our region, cooperation on sustainability will be a high priority.
India is Bangladesh’s biggest trade partner in South Asia and, in the last fiscal year, India’s exports to Bangladesh were valued at a healthy $14 billion. While both countries grow at phenomenal rates - Bangladesh’s economy grew by a massive 6.9% last year – there can be no doubt that all are feeling the pressures of global inflation, the soaring cost of fuel and other problems resulting from the Russia-Ukraine war. It will be interesting to see whether the two countries can come up with ways to support each other during what will be a period ahead.
Meanwhile, there are huge opportunities for our region if progress can be made on road and rail connectivity projects, and particularly on the widely touted landmark CEPA trade deal (Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement). According to a feasibility study, the deal could be worth up to $15 billion in trade between the two countries over the next 7-10 years. It is significant that an agreement with India has been prioritised over requests for similar arrangements from China and Japan, showing just how much Bangladesh values this relationship.
Unlike some of India’s other neighbours, Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League Government has shown a consistent commitment to rooting out extremists, and the Bangladeshi Prime Minister has worked with New Delhi over security concerns and the growing Islamist threat, stamping out insurgents who were causing disruption and instability in the North-eastern regions of India. Bangladesh’s founder Bongobandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman enshrined secularism and equality in the country’s 1972 constitution. Following in her father’s footsteps, Sheikh Hasina has stood firm on attacks against Hindu minorities within Bangladesh, personally addressing Hindus in Bangladesh on Janmashtami and assuring them of their rights as full citizens of the country.
Whilst we are fortunate that these two countries share such a positive and mutually beneficial relationship, this cannot be taken for granted. While Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League Government has presided over a ‘golden age’ in India-Bangladesh relations, her party goes to the polls next year against the pro-Pakistan Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Also, in contrast to the inclusive Awami League, BNP leaders have sought to Islamize the country when in power, marginalising our cherished Hindu minority. The BNP’s problematic and short-sighted policies ignore the fact that India and Bangladesh are consistently stronger when we are together.
Meetings between the leaders of our countries have always proved to be fruitful for the citizens of both and we should wish this latest round of dialogue every success.
(Syed Mozammel Ali is the Chair of the Study Circle, a London-based think tank focused on Bangladesh. In 2021 he was decorated as a ‘Freedom Fighter’ by the Bangladesh Government for his role in the Bangladesh War of Independence)