President Pranab Mukherjee looked grim only once during his interaction with media onboard Air India One while returning from Bangladesh on Tuesday evening: when asked why Bangladesh Opposition leader Khaleda Zia had cancelled her meeting with him. It was obviously domestic politics, but this was a minor glitch on a smooth journey. Mukherjee was particularly happy that he had gone to Narail, his in-laws' home. He got married in 1957, he said, but never visited his wife's ancestral village. "I was received like a new bridegroom," he laughed. Someone who accompanied him to Narail later said that the President's relatives welcomed him with barandala (welcoming thali), conch shells and ululation, the way Bengali families welcome bridegrooms. There was much emotion as her family welcomed first lady Shuvra Mukherjee. They gifted her with a sari.
The royal treatment that Bangladesh gave Pranab Mukherjee during his first trip abroad as President started from the sky. Soon after Air India One entered the Bangladesh airspace, the aircraft was accompanied by Bangladesh Air Force fighter jets. During the guard of honour at the airport, the tune that was played was Dwijendra Lal Roy's Dhane Dhanye Pushpe Bhora. The song is equally popular in both Bengals and spoke volumes of a shared culture.
Much was made by the Bangladeshis about a "Bangali" becoming India's President. Dhaka University students went delirious at the mention of a Bengali President. Later, a smiling Mukherjee pointed out that he had delivered his Dhaka University convocation speech in impeccable Bengali, without using any English, unlike Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen who had peppered his Bengali speech with English words.
Minister of State for Railways Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury was not given a chair at a railway function in Dhaka on Tuesday morning. The occasion was the inauguration of the broad gauge locomotive and wagon bought under the line of credit extended by India by the President and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The Ministry of Railways has lodged a complaint with the Bangladeshis about this.
Bangladesh foreign minister Dipu Moni is smart, articulate and intelligent. A doctor by profession, she was educated at Dhaka Medical College, Johns Hopkins University and at the University of London. She also studied conflict resolution in Harvard. She has been doing some serious work in areas of women's rights, health legislation, policy and management, among others. She does not need Birkin bags, pearl strings and tonnes of makeup to make her presence felt, unlike her Pakistani counterpart, Hina Rabbani Khar. As for her Indian counterpart Salman Khurshid, he can learn a lot from her on how to handle an aggressive media without losing one's temper.
The Bangladesh economy, growing at a steady pace of 6%, is attracting many Indian business houses that now have a visible presence in the city. For instance, a big Titan showroom at the multi-storeyed Basundhara City Mall is popular among the locals. But Dhaka has a long way to go in terms of infrastructure. Traffic is chaotic, rackety and rickety. The buses and taxis look like dented tin cans. The $800 million line of credit that India has extended to Bangladesh has helped it buy 290 double-decker and 100 single-decker buses. Not that the double-deckers that this correspondent saw were in much better shape than the older buses.
Dhaka is tiring of bandhs. On Sunday, the first day of the bandh called by Jamaat, the city wore a deserted look. On the second day of the bandh, life started getting back to normal in most parts. The Jamaat retaliated by bursting a cracker, locally called a cocktail, near the hotel where Pranab Mukherjee was staying. The locals shrugged off the incident as a minor hiccup. It's a different matter that inside an hour an Indian TV channel, followed by several Indian channels, had started screaming about a blast taking place next to the President's hotel.
Shahbag Square does not sleep. Protesters, sometimes a handful depending on the time of the day or night, maintain a 24-hour vigil there. Slogan-shouting against the Jamaat-e-Islami is on even at 7 a.m., with bleary-eyed morning walkers stopping by to show their support. The protesters do not want their photographs clicked on mobile phones. The Jamaat has been using MMS clips and photographs to identify and target them. A protester, Rajib Haider was stabbed to death by unknown assailants just a few days ago, and it's time to be careful.
A photograph of Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, Jamaat leader and war crime convict, was morphed on the face of the moon by his supporters. The photograph was then used to foment violence in the districts: It was said that since Sayeedi's face was seen on the moon, he is a representative of Allah and must be released. A Dhaka newspaper, New Age, felt the need to go to a scientist to disprove this claim. "Bangladesh Academy of Sciences president M. Shamsher Ali on Monday dismissed the rumour of some individuals seeing the face of anyone on the moon as without any scientific basis... Science gives no credence to such miracle, said Shamsher, also an Islamic scholar," read the newspaper report.