India's relations with Bangladesh - Ups and Downs

For a very long time, we have made a mistake of not giving enough attention to our smaller neighbors. In the last few years, we have tried to mend this mistake. This article looks at the efforts made over the years to promote good relations with Bangladesh.

Movies and neighbours

How much ability do movies and media have in improving the relations between any two countries? The answer is a lot. This can be verified by the recent decision of India and Bangladesh to come together to create a movie on the founding father of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The state agency, Prasar Bharati has decided to co-produce the film. Legendary director Shyam Benegal will direct the movie. The decision to create a movie was the culmination of three years of dialogue between top-level bureaucrats of the two countries.

The decision has come at a critical juncture, with the process of the updating of the National Register of Citizens continuing in Assam that might act as a disruption in the smooth ride which India-Bangladesh relations have taken over the past couple of years. A movie (especially a well made one) is often the best way to reach the hearts of millions of people. And the negotiations were not just about the movie. A separate documentary relating to the Bangladesh Liberation War would also be made. There would also be greater collaboration between the public broadcasters of the two countries as well as between All India Radio and its Bangladeshi counterpart Bangladesh Betar.

One people, two nations

India and Bangladesh share so many things in common that it is almost a wonder that we have to talk about them as two separate countries. Except for the differences arising due to religious, tribal or economic distinctions the ordinary people of Bangladesh and neighboring West Bengal and Tripura are more similar than different. In the words of Bhupen Hazarika who shared a close bond with both West Bengal and Bangladesh, the two lands share the 'same air, the same sky' and the 'same joys and sorrows in their hearts'. The works of iconic figures like Kazi Nazrul Islam and Rabindranath Tagore are celebrated in both countries with equal delight.

India's help during the Liberation Movement will always be remembered in Bangladesh and so will Bangladesh's adoption of Tagore's beautiful song as their national anthem. Despite this, it is remarkable how after the initial goodwill post-1971, the two countries showed so much hesitation in coming close to each other. Instead of developing close relations with India, Bangladesh went to the other Islamic countries to find some friends. Both countries were on the opposite side of the cold war alliances which further complicated the situation. Almost simultaneously, the Assam Agitation (which was primarily against the alleged Bangladeshi immigrants into Assam) was launched. The problem became even more messed up when Bangladesh categorically denied illegal immigration from its side. All of this threatened to put a break on the natural development of friendly ties between the two countries.

A few more problems were added in the coming years. As Bangladesh became more and more Islamized, terror outfits like Harkat ul Jihad ul Islami Bangladesh came into being. There were also allegations that outfits like Banga Sena were carrying out anti-Bangladesh activities from within India. Although the situation has improved vastly since then, these issues were an actual threat to bilateral relations in the early 2000s. There were also several disputes between the two countries regarding the sharing of river water and the movement of Indian forces heading towards the North East through Bangladeshi territory.

Better times

Since then, however, we have seen reasonably good relations with Bangladesh. This has been helped by the continuing power of Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Mujibur Rahman who is known for her pro-India stand. Although there is still the presence of anti-India extremist forces and even anti-India political groups, tensions have largely cooled down. In fact, Bangladesh has emerged as one of India's closest friends in the South Asian region. This is important because we already have two hostile neighbors and we simply cannot afford any more trouble with our neighbors.

This has been helped by several moves undertaken in the last few years. In 2015, the historic land deal between both countries was conducted through the 100th Constitutional Amendment thus securing definite citizenship for several families who were in the grey area as to whether they were Bangladeshi or Indian citizens. In 2016, when India conducted its raids on alleged militant hideouts in Pakistani territory (post the Uri attack), Bangladesh was one of the first countries who supported India wholeheartedly. As of 2018, Bangladesh and India are the largest bilateral trading partners in the region. In various multilateral organizations, both countries have adopted more or less similar stands.

Needless to say, this government to government cooperation needs to be complemented by good people to people connection as well. Herein lies the importance of efforts like the ones outlined in the first few paragraphs of this article. Movies and other popular media are essential to bringing about the closeness of hearts of a people otherwise separated by borders.


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