New Delhi: Bangladesh is a “key pillar” of India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Thursday during a summit with his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina, who called India a “true friend”, as the two sides inked seven pacts to further broaden cooperation in varied sectors, and restored a cross-border rail link, snapped during the 1965 India-Pakistan war.
During the summit, held virtually, the two leaders deliberated on a range of issues including threat of terrorism, challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, management of Indo-Bangla border, regional connectivity, ways to boost trade and energy ties as well as matters relating to the displaced people from the Rakhine State of Myanmar.
“It has been a challenging year due to the epidemic. But it is a matter of satisfaction that India and Bangladesh had good cooperation in this difficult time. We are also having good cooperation in the field of vaccines. We will also take special care of your needs in this regard,” Modi told Hasina.
Describing India as a “true friend”, Hasina said both countries could play a significant role in the global and regional value chains by further integrating their economies as well as boosting connectivity.
Hasina also commended the way India confronted the coronavirus crisis and hoped that it would contribute significantly in recovery of the global economy that has been severely hit by the pandemic.
Ways to boost regional connectivity was a key focus area of the summit, and both Modi and Hasina agreed to an early operationalisation of the BBIN motor vehicles agreement with a provision for Bhutan to join at a later date.
Bhutan has been dillydallying on the BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal) pact that provides hassle-free movement of people and goods among the four countries.
Recognising that terrorism remains a threat to global peace and security, the two prime ministers reiterated their strong commitment to eliminate it in all its forms and manifestations, a joint statement issued after the talks said.
The two leaders also underscored the need for an early conclusion of a framework of interim agreement on water sharing of six rivers – Manu, Muhuri, Khowai, Gumti, Dharla and Dudhkumar, and issued direction to expeditiously conclude a joint study on having a bilateral Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), the statement said.
Hasina highlighted the need for early signing of an interim agreement for sharing of the Teesta waters as agreed by both the governments in 2011 to which Modi reiterated India’s commitment and continued efforts on it.
In another significant move, the leaders agreed to facilitate completion of border fencing at all pending sectors at the earliest, beginning from the frontier along Tripura, besides stressing on full implementation of the ongoing coordinated border management plan.
“Both leaders also agreed that loss of civilian lives at the border is a matter of concern and directed the border forces concerned to enhance coordinated measures to work towards bringing such border incidents to zero,” the statement said.
In his comments, Modi said that holding of the virtual summit immediately after celebration of the ‘Vijay Diwas’ (Victory Day) assumed “special significance”.
On Wednesday, India celebrated ‘Vijay Diwas’ that marks the surrender of around 93,000 Pakistani troops before the joint forces of the Indian Army, and the ‘Mukti Bahini’ on December 16, 1971, that led to the birth of Bangladesh, which celebrates the day as ‘Bijoy Dibosh’
“It is a matter of pride for us to celebrate the historic victory of Bangladesh over the anti-liberation forces. Today, when Bangladesh is celebrating 49 years of independence, I pay homage to the armed forces personnel of both the countries who laid down their lives,” Modi said, adding that strengthening and deepening India’s relations with Bangladesh has been a special priority for him since his first day in office.
In her remarks, Hasina talked about India’s role in the liberation of Bangladesh and particularly highlighted how Indian Army’s Major Ashok Tara rescued her family including her mother and sister from Pakistani forces.
“December 17 is a special day for me as it was the day when Ashok Tara, a Major at that time rescued my mother, my sister, my brother from the hands of Pakistani forces… Bangladesh was freed on December 16 but we were free on Dec 17,” Hasina said.
At a media briefing, joint secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs Smita Pant appeared to endorse Hasina’s recent comments that Pakistan cannot be forgiven for the atrocities it unleashed during the 1971 liberation war.
“There is no denying that state sponsored oppression against Bangladesh’s just war of liberation led to death of 3 million people. More than 200,000 women were raped and tortured. We deeply respect and understand the sentiments expressed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina,” Pant said when asked about the comments by the Bangladesh prime minister.
The two prime ministers also jointly inaugurated a Bangabandhu-Bapu digital exhibition on the life and legacies of the two iconic leaders –Bangladesh’s founder Mujibur Rahman and Mahatma Gandhi.
In the talks, Hasina expressed keen interest on the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway project and sought support of New Delhi for enabling Bangladesh to connect with the project.
The inauguration of the Chilahati-Haldibari rail link is expected to enhance connectivity to Assam and West Bengal from Bangladesh. It was part of the broad gauge main route from Kolkata to Siliguri till 1965.
However, the war of 1965 effectively cut off all the railway links. Both sides have already restored four other rail links that were suspended in 1965. Initially, the Chilahati-Haldibari rail link will facilitate the movement of goods and cargo. Passenger movement will also commence after the development of required infrastructure on both sides.
The joint statement said Modi appreciated the generosity of Bangladesh in sheltering and providing humanitarian assistance to 1.1 million displaced people from the Rakhine State of Myanmar.
“Both prime ministers reiterated the importance of their safe, speedy and sustainable return. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina congratulated India on its election as a member of the UN Security Council. She expressed Bangladesh’s expectation to see India assist in the repatriation of the forcibly displaced Rohingya back to Myanmar,” it said.
The joint statement said Hasina thanked Modi for accepting her invitation to visit Bangladesh in person in March 2021 to join the celebrations on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s Independence and 50 years of Bangladesh-India diplomatic relations.
“Thank you for the invitation to visit Bangladesh next year. It would be a matter of pride for me to pay tribute to Bangabandhu with you,” he said.
In the summit, Modi also thanked Hasina for the contribution of Bangladesh under the framework of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
“Apart from health issues, this year our special partnership has been steadily advancing in other areas as well. We reduced barriers in the land border trade; expanded connectivity between the two countries…All this reflects our intentions to further strengthen our relationship,” Modi said.
The joint statement said it was agreed to expedite implementation of projects including India-Bangladesh friendship pipeline, Maitree super thermal power project as well as other projects.
“Both sides welcomed the signing of the framework of understanding on cooperation in the hydrocarbon sector which would further augment energy linkages by streamlining investments, technology transfer, joint studies, training and promoting hydrocarbon connectivity,” it said.