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Political Turbulence in Bangladesh Fails to Dampen the Indian President’s Visit

Dr Anand Kumar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for detailed profile
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  • March 08, 2013

    On his first foreign visit after becoming the President of India, Pranab Mukherjee went to Bangladesh from March 3 to 5. This was the first visit by an Indian president to Bangladesh after nearly 40 years and only the second after its liberation from Pakistan in 1971. This visit assumed significance for two reasons: one, it happened at a time when the country is once again reliving the experience of the ‘liberation war spirit’; and two, through the visit India tried to consolidate its bilateral relations with Bangladesh which has seen an upswing in the last couple of years.

    Bangladesh too attached a lot of importance to the visit and rolled out the red carpet for Pranab Mukherjee who was honoured with the nation’s second highest award for his valuable contribution to the country's liberation war in 1971. He was handed over a crest of 'Bangladesh Muktijuddho Sanmanona' (Liberation War award) at a ceremony at the Darbar Hall in the Bangladesh Presidential Palace (Bangabhaban) by President Zillur Rahman. Mukherjee was also conferred the degree of Doctor of Law Honoris Causa by the University of Dhaka, which is one of the largest universities Bangladesh and whose Chancellor is the President of Bangladesh Zillur Rahman. Besides, the Indian president held meetings with all top leaders of the Awami League government. He also met General Ershad, who called on him and discussed the Teesta and land border issues.

    Mukherjee, along with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, jointly inaugurated the locomotives and wagons supplied under the $800 million line of credit extended by India, reflecting growing bilateral ties in the infrastructure sector. The freight train flagged off at the Dhaka cantonment railway station comprised two locomotives, 20 broad gauge tank wagons and one brake van.

    Pranab Mukherjee made clear India’s intention to take the bilateral relationship to a new level. The Teesta river water-sharing deal and land boundary agreement with Bangladesh are two important issues for Bangladesh. During his visit Mukherjee underlined the need for building consensus on the two key issues to improve ties with Dhaka. He also pointed out that in a democracy there are “divergence of views on many issues but there are some areas where there is a consensus and developing good relations with Bangladesh is one such area on which there is consensus”. He informed that the Indian government proposes to introduce a constitutional amendment Bill in Parliament to implement the provisions of the 1974 Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh. He also stated that the sharing of waters of all common rivers was a priority issue for both countries and "We have successfully forged agreements in the past and are hopeful of arriving at an early accord on the sharing of the Teesta waters."

    Making a strong case for transit through Bangladesh, Mukherjee said that it could pave the way for greater integration between South and South East Asia. He pointed out that Bangladesh has a unique geographical location that can make it act as a bridge between South and South East Asia. He wanted Bangladesh to fully explore and exploit this.

    The only sour part of the visit was the cancellation of the scheduled meeting with the Indian president by the main opposition leader, Khaleda Zia. Khaleda’s political advisor Shamser Mobin Chowdhury is understood to have cited security reasons for her calling off the meeting with Mukherjee in view of the two-day general strike called by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s ally Jamaat-e-Islami. The Jamaat is carrying out violent agitation in the country to press for a halt to the trial of fundamentalist leaders for war crimes during Bangladesh's liberation war. The BNP itself announced another strike on March 5, which was immediately after two day strike called by the Jamaat.

    Interestingly, it was the BNP which had sought the meeting with Mukherjee through the Indian High Commission. Khaleda herself, during her nine day visit to India in November 2012, had met the Indian president and all other important leaders. She had also expressed the desire to make ‘a new beginning’ in her relationship with India and promised not to support insurgent elements in the northeast even if she comes to power. Pranab Mukherjee had also met Khaleda in the past in Bangladesh in various capacities.

    It seems the commitment of Khaleda Zia for friendly relationship with India was skin-deep and it could not withstand the slightest pressure. She has chosen to side with the Jamaat, which is the main actor behind the present political turmoil in Bangladesh. This also exposes her leanings towards the anti-liberation forces in Bangladesh. The BNP has to overcome this dilemma before it makes a new beginning with India. The visit of the Indian president to Bangladesh has made clear that the security situation in Bangladesh is under control and it is the BNP which has to overcome its mental block.