Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla came to Dhaka last week on a brief visit to Bangladesh aimed at boosting ties between the two neighbouring countries
Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla came to Dhaka last week on a brief visit to Bangladesh aimed at boosting ties between the two neighbouring countries. As media report suggests, the objective of this visit was to convey a message from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. This visit has generated a lot of interest in both countries. There has been a hype surrounding Shringla’s visit in the Indian media where it is being claimed that relations between Dhaka and New Delhi have deteriorated in recent times.
However, a few Indian media reports have also suggested after the two-day visit from August 18 was over that the Indian foreign secretary returned to New Delhi, assuaged of unfounded misgivings and suspicion about Bangladesh and was fully reassured of continued unimpaired friendly relations with Bangladesh, its time-tested and trusted traditional ally.
Shringla described his Bangladesh visit as "very satisfactory,” some media reports in India and Bangladesh suggested. It was Shringla's second visit to Bangladesh after he took office as foreign secretary in January this year. Earlier, he visited Bangladesh in March.
“Shringla said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent him to Dhaka to carry forward the excellent India-Bangladesh relations even during the pandemic situation. We must continue to move forward towards our strong bilateral relations and I came primarily to look at that point," Shringla was quoted as saying by NDTV news channel.
The television report also suggests that through this visit India reiterated its position on safe, secure, and sustainable Rohingya repatriation.
“Cooperation in building an airport in Bangladesh was announced earlier. This time, China is also helping with $1 billion for the Teesta irrigation project. After that, Delhi could no longer remain silent,” reported Indian Bengali daily Aajkaal.
Another Indian media report reported, “China's help in Teesta project, India's foreign secretary in Dhaka soon…. Sheikh Hasina will also hold a meeting with a foreign guest for the first time since the lockdown.”
Another popular Bengali daily Ananda Bazar Patrika wrote under the headline “Foreign secretary in a surprise meeting with Hasina” that Shringla paid a courtesy call on PM Hasina during a two-day surprise visit to Bangladesh.
Zee News headlined “Foreign secretary to visit Dhaka, discuss Teesta with Sheikh Hasina."
Another media report highlighted the perceived tensions between the two South Asian nieghbours. “The tension between New Delhi and Dhaka over Teesta water sharing is nothing new. In the meantime, Beijing has recently announced a huge amount of aid to Dhaka in the Teesta project. In such an atmosphere, the informed sources think that this hasty visit is only to strengthen the bilateral agreements between India and Bangladesh and to get a glimpse of the overall situation.”
“China’s Teesta plans: Foreign Secretary likely to visit Bangladesh today” was the headline of the English-language daily The Hindu.
According to the newspaper, “Bangladesh is likely to receive $1billion assistance from China for an irrigation project on the Teesta which has been at the centre of water-sharing negotiations with India.”
The headline seems to indicate that Shringla came to Bangladesh targeting Chinese investment in the Teesta project.
“Foreign secretary meets Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina in bid to counter China's influence,” another Indian daily The Asian Age wrote, adding that “both countries are moving towards convening a Joint Consultative Commission at the foreign ministerial level to oversee the bilateral relationship, especially projects being carried out for the welfare of Bangladesh with Indian assistance.”
“Old Dhaka hand Shringla rushes to the rescue as India tries to placate a friend Bangladesh,” under this headline News18 wrote, “this is seen as a significant move, considering New Delhi has been concerned over Dhaka’s sudden leaning to China for investment much like other neighbours of India. The latest trigger being a possible loan from the Chinese for a project related to the Teesta River.”
“India and Bangladesh have been unable to sign a Teesta river water sharing treaty for eight years now – both (former) prime minister Manmohan Singh and PM Modi have been stopped due to objections from West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee over the treaty.”
If we look at the Bangladeshi media reports, Dhaka Tribune, a national daily in Bangladesh; reported that India recently described its relationship with Bangladesh as "exceptionally close", but expressed displeasure over "mischievous" stories pertaining to Bangladesh-India ties.
In this regard, Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen said Dhaka and Delhi had discussed a number of false and negative news items in various news portals.
Abdul Hannan, a former diplomat from Bangladesh, wrote that the recent spate of Indian press reports and comments indicate that the visit was prompted by India’s concern.
He pointed out a massive investment of $38bn in Chinese infrastructure projects in Bangladesh -- described as a charity to Bangladesh by Ananda Bazar Patrika, caused unease and suspicion in policy circles in India. The diplomat further stated, “Indian media pointed out the immediate provocation for the visit was some recent comments by the foreign minister in two separate forums that China-Bangladesh economic ties were indissoluble, adding in the context of Pakistan to the old adage that there is no permanent friend or foe in diplomacy. Such remarks, at a time when India was engaged in border clashes and skirmishes over its claim to territory in the Ladakh region raised alarm and suspicion in India. However, Foreign Minister Momen simultaneously reiterated that Bangladesh’s relationship with India was “rock solid and forged in blood.”
In a recent interview, Bangladesh Foreign Minister A K Abdul Momen had welcomed the whirlwind sudden visit of Shringla and trashed the speculations surrounding that the relations between the two countries have hit low in its “historic” bilateral ties. But said ties with New Delhi and Beijing are not comparable.
In his first comments after Shringla’s visit to Dhaka, Momen in an interview with newsnextbd.com said, “I welcome the visit despite risks of COVID-19 infection and if it was not confirmed hours before his arrival we could have made this visit more comfortable and pleasant.”
He stressed that the “bonding with India is strong and historic, while China is our trading partner with major investments in our infrastructure.”
“Our ties with India are historical and their soldiers sacrificed their lives for independence in 1971 … we plan to celebrate our 50th anniversary of independence next year together with a series of programmes as it will be a moment of pride for the two neighbouring countries,” Momen added.
“In the 1971 Bangladesh war, India under prime minister Indira Gandhi gave shelter to millions of Bengali refugees who fled the then East Pakistan in the face of mass killings by the Pakistani army. It also helped to train freedom fighters who were fighting to oust the Pakistani army and major leaders of the current ruling Awami League were sheltered in Kolkata,” he further said in his interview.
It seems that speculations over the sudden visit of Shringla have finally settled down. It is imperative to say that the relationship between the two countries is a textbook example of a good neighbourly relationship.
Media has an important role in building a relationship between countries. It is supposed to bridge the communication gap between different groups. Hence, the content of media should always reflect truth, accuracy, objectivity, and balance. Indian and Bangladesh media should be more vigilant while commenting on the relationship between these two countries.
(The writer is an advocate of Bangladesh Supreme Court. The views expressed are personal)