Indian President Pranab Mukherjee made a historic three-day state visit to Bangladesh this week. In doing so, he became the first Indian head of state to visit the country since 1974. The office of the Indian president is nominal, yet Mukherjee’s visit was more than symbolic.
For one, this was his first presidential visit since taking office last year. Until he became president, Mukherjee was a senior cabinet member in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, wherein he held positions in the Defence, External Affairs and Finance ministries, among others. Indeed, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs sought to underscore the importance of New Delhi’s ties with Dhaka by choosing Bangladesh for the new president’s first foreign visit.
Bangladesh spared no effort in extending a warm welcome to Mukherjee, who arrived to a 21-gun salute in Dhaka where he was received by his Bangladeshi counterpart Zillur Rahman. The Bangladeshi media referred to him as “India’s first Bengali President” and a “son-in-law” of Bangladesh. Mukherjee’s wife hails from the Narail district of Bangladesh.
Mukherjee came to a Bangladesh experiencing massive social upheaval, which has been ongoing since early February. The nation has been in turmoil following the prosecution of several leaders of the Jamaat-i-Islami (the country’s largest Islamic party) for their involvement in war crimes during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. The Awami League government led by Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina instituted the tribunal that has tried the leaders in 2010, and Hasina has made prosecution of war criminals a key goal of her government.
The tribunal enjoys huge popular support, but clashes between Islamists and secularists over the past month have once again highlighted the deep schisms in Bangladeshi society. The main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), allied to the Jamaat and led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, has slammed the tribunal as a witch-hunt by the Awami League, calling it a “farce.” The politicization of the trial has only intensified the bitter rivalry between Hasina and Zia.
This is important context for Mukherjee’s visit. After all, India’s armed intervention in 1971 was crucial in turning the tide in favor of the liberation of East Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh. In 1971, Mukherjee, then serving in the government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was sent to world capitals to drum up support for the Bangladeshi cause. For this effort, Bangladesh awarded Mukherjee with the nation’s second highest civilian honor during his visit.
In an incident that cast a dark shadow on the visit, Zia cancelled a scheduled meeting with the Mukherjee. Zia cited a two-day general strike called by Jamaat, which coincided with the visit as the reason. The embarrassing snub underlines India’s perceived closeness with the Awami League and Hasina.
Indeed, the Awami League’s return to power in 2008 transformed ties between the two neighbors, resulting in a number of high-level bilateral visits. Under Hasina, Bangladesh has cracked down on insurgent groups seeking to foment tensions in India’s northeastern states. Further, Hasina’s landmark visit to India in 2010 was soon followed by a visit by Indian Prime Minister Singh to Dhaka in September 2011. This heralded a period of strong diplomatic engagement between the two countries.
During Prime Minister Singh’s visit, the two countries signed a historic land-swap agreement allowing about 50 Bangladeshi enclaves inside India to be integrated into Bangladesh, and about 100 Indian areas inside Bangladesh to become part of India.
Despite doubts over the Indian president’s visit due to a deteriorating security situation, the fact that Mukherjee’s visit went ahead is yet another affirmation of the Awami League’s political moderation. There is, however, an inherent risk of India’s bilateral ties with Bangladesh being reduced to an engagement that only involves one political party.
Understanding this, New Delhi hosted the BNP chief in November 2012 as part of its efforts to reach out to the opposition in Bangladesh. In light of the diplomatic snub, however, India still has a way to go in its efforts as a non-partisan interlocutor.
There are other dangers too. While Hasina’s government has been an able partner in addressing India’s concerns, India’s inability to deliver on issues of concern to Bangladesh could undermine the relationship. At the crux is the Teesta River water-sharing agreement, which was not signed during Prime Minister Singh’s Dhaka visit in 2011 given pressure from Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal, who saw it as detrimental to the interests of West Bengal.
Failure to sign the agreement over time could weaken the credibility of the Awami League government, which has put great stock in strengthening ties with India. During his visit, President Mukherjee reportedly assured his hosts of India’s intention to press ahead with the Teesta accord after building domestic consensus.
At this tumultuous juncture in Bangladeshi society and politics, there is little doubt that India must continue to support a legal process in Bangladesh aimed at closing the dark chapters of 1971. For this effort to succeed, India must nudge the BNP away from Jamaat and towards a more centrist line. The trick will be doing this without appearing to interfere in Bangladesh’s internal affairs.
This diplomatic effort is more important than ever given the country’s elections later this year, which will determine the future course of India-Bangladesh ties. If the people’s voices at the recent Shahbag protests in Dhaka are anything to go by, it seems that India is on the right side of Bangladesh’s Islamist-Secular divide.