New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first foreign visit during the pandemic to Bangladesh on 26-27 March was historic and transformative, ushering in a new golden chapter in Delhi-Dhaka ties. In a free-wheeling interview at his home in Dhaka during PM Modi’s visit, Dr Gowher Rizvi, International Affairs Adviser to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, underlined the centrality of India to Bangladesh’s economic and global aspirations. Dr Rizvi, a well-known author and academic, rejected any attempt by Bangladesh’s leadership to play India against China as “outrageous” and stressed that Dhaka will like to benefit from India’s rising global stature. Excerpts:

Q: What’s the overarching message coming out of the 26-27 March visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Bangladesh? What was so special about this visit?

A: This has two important dimensions. First is Prime Minister Modi coming here to celebrate with us the centenary of the birth of Bangabandhu and centenaries are always very important. When it is the centenary of the Father of the Nation, it is particularly important that PM Modi has personally chosen to come to Bangladesh, to join us, to celebrate with us, to share our happiness. The fact that this is the first time Prime Minister Modi has stepped out of India during the pandemic in itself shows how much importance he attaches to nurturing relations with Bangladesh. His visit was full of special gestures. During his visit, PM Modi personally handed over the Gandhi Peace Prize, awarded posthumously to Bangabandhu, to Sheikh Hasina and her sister.

During his visit, he also announced the gift of 109 ambulances for Bangladesh. There is a chair being named after Bangabandhu in Delhi University. These are very significant gestures. In addition to that, he went to  Tungipara to pay homage to Bangabandhu. This is of great significance, not only because he’s the first head of government who has gone to Bangabandhu’s village, but also it is a very symbolic, heart-warming gesture for Bengalis to see the Indian Prime Minister laying a wreath in this manner.

Q: What are next steps in India-Bangladesh partnership?

A: India and Bangladesh have made remarkable progress in almost every facet of their economic life. We have cooperated in all areas including social, economic, security transit, transport and connectivity. We have to move forward in a much more planned and strategic manner so that we can align our policies internationally, and economically we should promote development through strategic cooperation, taking comparative advantage of each other’s best resources.

We need to be more globally aligned on international issues. Bangladesh will like to take advantage of India’s position. India has voice in tables and places we don’t reach so that our voice can be heard and we can play the role we hope to play.

Q: People often talk about special chemistry between PM Modi and PM Sheikh Hasina. How much has the Modi-Hasina chemistry contributed to the upswing in India-Bangladesh partnership?

A: I’ve had the privilege of knowing Sheikh Hasina for as long as I can remember. She’s an amazingly warm, informal, genuine and sincere person. I don’t say this because I happen to be her advisor. There is something very unique and very special about her. She does not believe in protocols. She cannot be restrained by protocol. She went to the airport to receive Prime Minister Modi not because she felt she had to but because she felt, my neighbour is here, I want to welcome him. She has gone out of the way to personally select vegetarian dishes for PM Modi at the state banquet.

Q: Bangladesh’s growing strategic proximity to China has triggered concerns among the diplomatic-strategic community in India, especially after Dhaka signed BRI. Some suspect Bangladesh of using the China card to balance India. What’s your take on this issue? 

A: Let me be very categorical. India is our most important ally and neighbour. India is central to our security and our economic prosperity and political stability. We hope India feels about Bangladesh in the same way. This is not a relationship we are going to trifle with. India is an indispensable partner of Bangladesh. But like every other country, we also are interested to promote our economy and to the extent that China can contribute to our infrastructure development, we welcome Chinese involvement.

The idea that we will play one against the other—India against China, or use the China card in a balancing act is completely outrageous. What is China’s interest and what is India’s interest? Both countries would like to see politically stable and prosperous Bangladesh and everything that we do is to achieve that. We are animated by the vision of Bangabandhu, “Friendship towards all, malice towards none”. And our foreign policy is driven by finding ways of how we can create Sonar Bangla.

Q: There were disturbing reports about violent anti-Modi protests taking place ahead of PM Modi’s visit. These protests were apparently orchestrated by Pakistan’s ISI. How do you look at Pakistan’s role in stoking these anti-Modi protests and in stoking radicalism in Bangladesh?

A: If they have tried, they have failed. These people belong to the fringe of the fringe. It’s also important to remember that Bangladesh, like India, is a democracy, where the ability to protest is considered your constitutional right. We know that the vast majority—99.5% or more—welcomed PM Modi’s visit. This was a totally non-controversial visit. Mr Modi had come to pay respect to our Father of the Nation.

Q: The rise of Islamism and Islamist “extremism” in Bangladesh has fuelled concerns in India and the region. Five years after the Holey Artisan Bakery terror attack, how do you look at the danger of Islamic radicalization?

A: When the Holey Artisan Bakery incident took place (in 2016), the whole of Bangladesh was shocked as this had never happened in our country before. It was so totally alien to Bangladesh. And in the western media, there were strong projections that Al Qaeda and the Islamic State were behind it. Well, I’m happy to say that since then we have curbed terrorism and continue to follow zero-tolerance policy towards terror.

And while we have assisted India, Indian intelligence agencies have shared information with us. The agencies of the two sides have been engaged in training and counter-terror cooperation.

It’s important to remember that Islam in Bangladesh is very different from Islam of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Our Islam is syncretic. We don’t exclude anybody. By and large, Bangladesh society is tolerant and syncretic. Hindus and Muslims live alike and celebrate each other’s festivals. Our villages are not Hindu villages, Muslim villages—they are mixed villages. In a few incidents that have happened, these are unfortunate and we dealt with them with plenty of force.

Manish Chand is Editor-in-Chief, India Writes Network and India and The World magazine.