It remains unclear why no leader from India’s closest neighbour Bangladesh has ever been a chief guest at the Republic Day parade, writes Nilova Roy Chaudhury for South Asia Monitor
India’s Republic Day celebrates the day on which the Constitution of India came into effect on January 26, 1950. The ceremonies to commemorate this National Day are very special, celebrating and showcasing the grandeur of India: its military prowess, economic development and cultural richness and diversity; through a grand parade witnessed not only by the leadership and people of India but also a specially invited foreign chief guest.
Beginning with Indonesian President Soekarno in 1950, chief guests to Indian Republic Day celebrations have in the past seven decades been those whom India has deemed particularly special, from countries with which India enjoys and seeks excellent relations. Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro was India's guest in 2020, deemed a rather strange choice.
Bangladesh absence intriguing
Over the decades, the guest country is chosen after careful deliberation of strategic, economic and political interests. It is, therefore, unclear why, in the 50 years of Bangladesh’s existence, no dignitary from that country has ever graced the dais as chief guest for India’s Republic Day.
This year, 2021, when India and Bangladesh are celebrating the golden jubilee of the birth of Bangladesh, in which India played a stellar role as midwife, the two countries are also commemorating 50 years of their diplomatic relations.
Bangladesh declared 2020 as 'Mujib Borsho,' to celebrate the birth centenary of its founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and invited the Indian Prime Minister to grace the occasion. However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Dhaka in August 2020 got cancelled after protests in Dhaka and the pandemic surge. Modi did visit Bangladesh later in March 2021 as chief guest for the golden jubilee celebrations of the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent nation.
India and Bangladesh currently share what has been called the “shonali adhyay” or golden chapter, like never before in bilateral ties, since India ratified the Land Boundary Agreement and accepted the UNCLOS-mandated maritime boundary. Bangladesh is also central to the two key foreign policy initiatives of the Modi government: ‘Neighbourhood First’ and ‘Act East Policy’.
Rajnath breaks protocol
Illustrative of these close ties, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh visited the Bangladesh High Commission in New Delhi on the Armed Forces Day of Bangladesh in a significant break from protocol. He was accompanied by the top brass of the Indian armed forces, Chief of Defence Staff Bipin Rawat, Indian Army chief Gen M.M. Naravane, Air Chief Marshal Vivek Ram Chaudhari and Navy chief Admiral Karambir Singh. November 21, 1971 was when the Battle of Garibpur began, which saw the Indian armed forces and the Bangladeshi Mukti Bahini coming together against the Pakistani forces, a military campaign that resulted in the birth of Bangladesh as an independent nation.
Every single neighbour of India, including Afghanistan, Pakistan (twice, including in 1965), Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bhutan and China and even Myanmar (included as part of 10 ASEAN heads of state invited in January 2018) has seen top dignitaries invited as chief guests for India’s Republic Day celebrations. Given that both the Indian and Bangladesh governments speak of the current "shonali adhyay" of bilateral ties, it is unclear why this glaring omission continues.
It is true that a joint contingent of the Bangladesh armed forces led the Indian Republic Day parade in 2021, an unprecedented gesture of solidarity. No chief guest was invited for the January 26, 2021 parade because of the global Covid-19 pandemic.
Why not invite Hasina?
According to former Indian diplomats, the reason why Sheikh Mujib, who shared a very warm relationship with the Indian leadership of the early 1970s, headed by Indira Gandhi, was not invited as chief guest shortly after the liberation of Bangladesh was because the priority was to stabilize the then-fledgling Awami League government in Dhaka. The unexpected and brutal assassination of Sheikh Mujib and his family on August 15, 1975 ended that special chapter of India-Bangladesh relations.
Asked whether Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who is also the daughter of Sheikh Mujib, was being invited as the chief guest for January 26, 2022, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) spokesman responded: “We have had a tradition for many years to have a high-level dignitary part of our Republic Day celebrations and at an appropriate and opportune time we shall share the details once it's finalised.”
(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator. The views expressed are personal.)