On a late evening in September, after passing through countless security checks, I was able to step into the Rashtrapati Bhavan (presidential residence). Mr Rajamony, press secretary of the president of India, greeted me. He is primarily the officer of Indian foreign services, and had previously served as an Indian diplomat in Washington, Geneva, Abu Dhabi, but is now working for India’s first-ever Bengali President Pranab Mukherjee’s team, on deputation. I took a model rickshaw from Bangladesh as a gift for him.
Very politely, Mr Rajamony told me: “You are our guest from Bangladesh. Trust me, we do not expect any gifts from our Bangladeshi friends. Here, such relationships are completely different -- the warmth is enough.”
I could take his words as just that, mere words, but whenever I meet government officials or ministers from the South Block, Rashtrapati Bhavan, Jawahar Bhavan, or any other government residential districts, it’s always a common thing for them to tell me how they have “a different kind of relationship with Bangladeshis.”
If we put Bhutan aside for a moment, it is Bangladesh that is the most important neighbour for India. Regarding Bangladesh, not a single strain of doubt can be observed in Delhi -- the damaged relationship between the two countries notwithstanding.
There is a lot of academic research going on regarding the relationship between Bangladesh and India. Certain mainstream research organisations such as Observer Research Foundation and Ecoria are now busy analysing the Bangladesh-India relationship. Lots of seminars and discussions have been held and study papers published. A complete Bangladesh Study Program was launched recently at the Jamia Millia University, focusing exclusively on Bangladesh-related research. Veena Sikri, former Indian high commissioner of Dhaka, is leading this initiative. A few years ago, Delhi putting so much stock on Bangladesh was unthinkable.
Indian policy-makers have also started viewing Bangladesh differently. After being sworn-in as president, Pranab Mukharjee’s son visited Bangladesh on his first official tour abroad. Even Ms Sushma Swaraj, India’s current foreign minister, visited Bangladesh on her first solo foreign tour. Narendra Modi also came to Dhaka a year after he was sworn in, and again after signing the land boundary agreement in the Indian parliament.
India seems eager to re-discover its neighbour, four decades after our independence. The nation is trying its best to bury its past “dadagiri” and pay proper respect to its smaller neighbours, treating them as partners more than anything -- and it all begins with Bangladesh.
“But, we know that we can never make Bangladesh happy. No matter what India does, there will be some protests and some level of anger in Bangladesh towards us” -- a bold statement, but it all rang very true coming from a powerful BJP leader, despite the relatively stable relation that the two nations have at the moment. His delivery was unwavering, and I felt a bit embarrassed asking him why he thought so.
“The geo-political reality is that India is much bigger than its neighbours in size, population, economy, and military power. Its neighbouring allies have bigger expectation from India. They sometimes do not want to realise this, but India also has the problems of poverty, exploitation, caste, and provincialism. Overlooking these limitations is not how liberalism is exhibited.”
“If one brother earns more than the other, there is sure to be some amount of distaste against the one who earns more from the one who earns less,” he said.
Concerning the Teesta agreement, some BJP leaders based in Delhi think Bangladesh is putting too much weight on this issue: “We have explicitly stated that we intend to fight for Teesta, but it begs to be said that Teesta is not much of a ‘life and death’ kind of issue for Bangladesh. Discussing the Farakka dam makes sense, but is Teesta really that important?” -- if similar sentiments were to be expressed here, not only in North Bengal, the whole country would be on the verge of annihilation.
Let me conclude with a small anecdote: When I was in Delhi, a heated discussion was going on over Cricket Australia’s cancellation of its tour. One of the BJP minister’s remarked: “Did you know that the Australian foreign secretary who is overseeing the cricket team there is an Indian by birth? His name is Peter Varghese and his father lived in Kerala! If this news broke up in your country, then 50% of all Bangladeshis might find an Indian-backed conspiracy theory behind this cancellation.”
I burst out laughing, despite the solemn ambience. I could not deliver a proper response, though. While I know that might not be completely untrue, I also realised that as the recent “intimacy” between India and Bangladesh is quite genuine, a small pulse of doubt and disbelief is still rather prevalent.