Modi-fied India-Bangladesh ties: Small gestures go a long way

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plane took off for Dhaka, Sheikh Hasina’s Foreign Policy Advisor said that it was to be a “landmark visit”. Living up to the expectations, the tour was very successful- Mr Modi met the political leadership across party lines and presided over the exchange of instruments of ratification on the historic land boundary agreement. The two neighbours came out with a 65-point joint declaration, signed 22 agreements and extended a whooping 2 billion USD credit line for developmental aid (regarded by some to be a coup on Chinese chequebook diplomacy in the region). Quite understandably, the media went gaga on either side, calling the visit a watershed moment in bilateral relations.

Hype apart, small gestures go a long way in building a relationship, but often remain unnoticed. In the slow moving wheels of international diplomacy, it is necessary to not see them merely as photo ops, but as genuine steps towards winning over the hearts of people, which in the long run generate tangible benefits. These measures, which go beyond the stuffiness of formalities and protocols which shroud diplomatic interactions, show a more humane face and build on people-to-people contacts, a major focus area for Mr Modi in his foreign policy efforts. With the savvy use of technology, and a strong social media presence, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has been making it a point to highlight these aspects to build on India’s soft power.

Throwback to 1971

The 1971 Bangladeshi liberation war, which apart from being a momentous occasion in South Asia, is also a symbol of the shared struggles and triumphs of India and Bangladesh, since Indian soldiers had fought alongside Bangladeshi freedom fighters to secure independence of the erstwhile East Pakistan. This point was recalled several times during the visit — the PM’s first stop was the National Martyrs’ Memorial at Savar, after which he visited the Bangabandhu Memorial Museum. There was an exchange of war memorabilia- Mr Modi handed over an audio recording of Bangabandhu’s historic speech in 1972 made in Kolkata after the independence war and a memento of INS Vikrant, which had played a stellar role during the war, to Sheikh Hasina, who gave Mr Modi a photograph of the signing of the historic instrument of surrender of 1971. These exchanges give recognition to a shared past on which a fruitful future can be built.

Building people to people ties

The highlight of development diplomacy was, of course, the 2 billion dollar credit line, but immediate steps to improve daily lives of people such as flagging off the Dhaka-Shillong-Guwahati and Kolkata-Dhaka-Agartala Bus services, shall go a long way in building goodwill. Talks are also underway for the revival of the old railway links and multimodal transport ways on the numerous rivers and waterways in the area. Both sides have stepped up to help with humanitarian causes as well. Mr Modi expressed appreciation for allowing the transshipment of food grains to Tripura across Bangladesh territory on humanitarian grounds in 2014 while Sheikh Hasina thanked India for helping in bringing back Bangladesh nationals from Yemen earlier this year.

Culture connect

Mr Modi has made visits to cultural sites a regular feature of his itinerary (the Pashupatinath temple in Nepal, Buddhist temples in Japan and Sri Lanka). In Bangladesh, he visited Ramakrishna Mission ashram and offered prayers at the Sree Sree Dhakeshwari Temple in Dhaka.

He inaugurated the Hindi Department during this visit to the Dhaka University, and six developmental projects- which included a girls hostel and rehabilitation centre for the blind – and interacted with the beneficiaries. A cultural exchange programme was among the MOUs signed during the visit.

Recognising the shared traditions of arts and crafts, Mr Modi presented Sheikh Hasina with a jamdani tapestry from Venkatagiri, Andhra Pradesh, a well-known style in Bangladesh as well. The Kalpavriksh tree and the Kamadhenu cow woven in the tapestry symbolise prosperity and plenty — a likely direction now for the revitalised India-Bangladesh relationship.


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