Sheikh Hasina-Modi Summit: New Prospects for People-to-People Cooperation

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Bangladesh and India are two neighboring countries in South Asia that share deep historical, social, and cultural ties in between them. With the world’s fifth longest land border connecting the two nations, people from both sides frequently interact with each other. The people of both countries are connected through their shared norms, values, and language. Most importantly, they fought together against Pakistani military oppression during the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971. Even before the partition in 1947, they were a single entity under the greater Indian sub-continent. But the partition created a physical border that separated them from each other. The recent visit of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India has opened up new opportunities to upgrade the existing people-to-people cooperation to the next level. During the visit, both sides signed a number of Memorandum of Understanding (MoUs) in different areas of cooperation to further strengthen their people-to-people connection. However, the growing political rhetoric on both sides is seriously damaging the strong bilateral relations between these two friendly nations.

The red carpet was rolled out at the airport as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina landed in New Delhi on September 5, 2022. Later, she received a ceremonial reception at Rashtrapati Bhavan where she was welcomed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This tells us the existing warm and friendly relations between the two countries. The year 2021 was a landmark year as both countries celebrated the golden jubilee of their diplomatic relations. In addition, the Prime Minister and President of India visited Bangladesh to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of the Independence of Bangladesh, the Birth Centenary of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and the Golden Jubilee of the Victory Day of Bangladesh, where the Indian President was the Guest of Honor. This demonstrates that Bangladesh-India bilateral relations consist of not just political, but also historical, cultural, and people-to-people connections.

India played a crucial role during the Liberation War of Bangladesh. It helped Bangladesh with diplomatic support and later sent troops to fight alongside the freedom fighters of Bangladesh. India also opened its border and sheltered millions of Bengali refugees. The government of Bangladesh has always acknowledged the support and sacrifices made by India during 1971. During the recent visit, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina once again thanked the Indian people for their assistance at a time when Bangladesh needed it most. As a gesture of great respect, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated the “Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Student Scholarship” for 200 descendants of Indian Armed Forces members who were sacrificed their lives or severely injured during the 1971 Liberation War. The Prime Ministers of both nations also committed to cooperating toward the operationalization of “Shadhinota Shorok,” the historic route connecting Mujib Nagar in Bangladesh to the India-Bangladesh border in Nadia, West Bengal. Along with the exchange of seven different MoUs, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh presented her Indian counterpart with a book featuring translations of the historic “7th March Speech” of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in twenty-three different Indian languages and five languages of other South Asian countries. These initiatives will ensure that the longstanding friendship between Bangladesh and India is passed on to the next generation.

Bangladesh and India also have strong cultural links. People in Bangladesh and West Bengal talk in the same language Bangla. Moreover, one can easily find out similarities in their socio-cultural norms, values, and practices. The joint productions of film, music, and documentary are the expression of their cultural affinity. During the recent visit, both leaders looked forwards to the release of the jointly-produced film on Bangabandhu (Mujib: The Making of a Nation) and the creation of a documentary on the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. The Bangladeshi side also requested a joint collection of rare footage from the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. An MoU was also signed between Prasar Bharti and Bangladesh Television on cooperation in broadcasting.

Knowledge partnership is another important pillar of Bangladesh-India relations that helps improve people-to-people connections. Along with the inauguration of the scholarship program by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, both sides expressed their satisfaction at the expected resumption of the youth exchange program in the coming months. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also commended India for the establishment of the Bangabandhu Chair at the University of Delhi. Currently, around 3000 Indian students are enrolled in different universities and institutes in Bangladesh. A number of MoUs were also signed for the professional skill training programs and exchange of know-how between the countries. An MoU between the railway ministries of both countries was signed for the training of Bangladesh Railway Personnel in India. Another MoU for the training and capacity building for Bangladesh Judicial Officers in India was also signed between the National Judicial Academy of India and the Supreme Court of Bangladesh.

Recently, Bangladesh and India have strongly focused on youth generation and cooperation in IT sector development. An MoU was signed between the two railway ministries to work together on Bangladesh Railway IT systems like FOIS and other IT applications. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in India and the Bangladesh Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (BCSIR) in Bangladesh signed another MoU on scientific and technological cooperation. And lastly, Newspace India Limited and Bangladesh Satellite Company Limited signed an MoU to work together on space technology. Cooperation in the medical sector is another important instrument to strengthen people-to-people cooperation between Bangladesh and India. The number of Bangladeshi patients in India has multiplied over the years. More than half of India’s medical tourism revenue was generated by 1,65,000 patients from Bangladesh in the fiscal year 2015-2016. In the recent visit, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina lauded the Indian role during Covid-19 as it helped Bangladesh through the “Vaccine Maitri” initiative and Oxygen express trains to Bangladesh. Recently, both countries also expressed their interest in the joint production of medical equipment and drugs. As Indian Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal said that India and Bangladesh can become the “pharmacy of the world.”

During the visit, both countries underlined the importance of effectively implementing the 2011 MoU on “Conservation of the Sundarbans” so that the ecology of this deltaic forest and the people who rely on it may live sustainably. The leaders also stressed that the people of both countries would need to work together to keep the environment safe from further degradation. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also spoke at a business event jointly organized by the business communities of India and Bangladesh. It shows the significant involvement of the general people, along with both governments, in expanding the bilateral trade relations between Bangladesh and India. Furthermore, the two leaders were excited about the first-ever visit of a start-up delegation from Bangladesh, which they hoped would encourage collaboration between the two nations in the field of innovation.

Prime Minister Sheik Hasina talked with the Minister of Development of the North Eastern Region Shri G. Kishan and discussed several connectivity initiatives to improve connection with the landlocked province. It will help Bangladesh to engage more with the people in the Northeast and vice-versa. Moreover, both countries have now three passenger train services, as well as bus services on different routes which makes cross-border interactions easier. Water is the lifeline of people who depend on it for irrigation, livelihood, and other water resources. The signing of a water-sharing MoU in regards to the Kushiyara river will create a good impression of India among the Bangladeshi people. Not to mention, the pledge to maintain a peaceful border will build mutual trust and bring the people of the two countries closer.

In conclusion, Bangladesh and India have come a long way in their fifty years of diplomatic relations. Both countries have a strong mechanism for people-to-people cooperation. The recent summit has further increased the prospects of people-to-people cooperation as both leaders have taken several initiatives in cultural collaboration, educational exchange, human resource development, environmental protection, business, and medical sectors. However, attempts of misinformation and propaganda to tarnish the image of each other by a section of people in both nations need to be addressed immediately to prevent misperception among the people on both sides of border.

– Muhammad Estiak Hussain is a Research Intern of the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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