Each time Sheikh Hasina sets foot on Indian soil,there is a lump in my throat. It happened all over again when she winged into New Delhi (5 September) for her third state visit as Prime Minister of Bangladesh. The reason goes farbeyond those inked by our Foreign Office wordsmiths.For me, it is all about emotions that bubble over when the daughter of “Bangabandhu” Sheikh Mujibur Rahmancomes calling as Head of a country the boundaries of which were drawn with the blood of her father and her people.
I connected emotionally with Bangladesh just a few hours after it was born. It was a moment in history as well as my very own when my eyes took in for themselves the gruesome trail left behind by Pakistani army men and Razakars. On 20 May 1971 thousands of civilians were butcheredby gun-wielding soldiers in the small unknown town of Chuknagar in Khulna district of then East Pakistan. Seven months later I drove into Khulna sitting on a pile of relief material stacked in an Indian army truck. Dhaka had been liberated barely few hours ago and it was frenzied jubilation on the streets of Calcutta (Kolkata) and plenty more outside the Nizam Palace on AJC Bose Road. This heritage building was camp headquarters for senior Indian officials managing the tide of refugees flowing in from then East Pakistan into India and Mukti Bahini logistics. My fatherin charge of the refugee movement who had beenliving there for some months shut the door on me when I had landed at Nizam Palace a wet-behind-the-ears news reporter in search of an exclusive.For him the building was out of bounds even for his daughter more so because I was on the rolls of a daily newspaper. That was the typical bureaucrat of yore.
His Delhi driver, now with him on the temporary assignment, found me lodgings with a local driver after I had sworn never to let my father know he had come to my rescue. Iwas at the driver’s living quarterswhen I got the tip off. Whenmy father summoned him in the wee hours of 15 December 1971, I could smell a news break.The staff had beeninstructed to remain in the office till further orders. I stood in the shadows at the Nizam Palace gate. A number of army trucks filled with stacks of food and clothes were parked inside. I was smuggled into one by father’s driver who put in a word with his mate driving one of the trucks. I had no idea where we were headed except it was going to be a border crossing into East Pakistan. The slogans, the cheering, the flag waving crowds lining the roads, hugging and embracing strangers, flagging down the Indian Army trucks announced that Dacca had fallen. It was the end of the War of Liberation and Victory for the Mukti Bahini guerrilla force. We sped into a country now free of tyranny and brutality.
Our first stop was about a 100 kms from Kolkata at a stretch of fields in Khulna district adjacent to the Indian border.Surprisingly there was no euphoria here.On either side of the road men in tattered lungees and women with torsos wrapped in muddysareesstood carved in stone. They did not rush to take the food packets and bundles of clothes we had been handing out from the truck along the way as if afraid to drop the cloth covering their nose and mouth. A young man stepped out and without a word pointed to a tiny single room brick structure across the fields.
I was now face to face with the barbarity of Pakistani soldiersinflicted on their own.Naked, bloated, rotting bodies floated in the ankle- deep water in the paddy fields. Some had eyes missing probably picked out by vultures perched on trees skirting the fields. Sacks had been thrown over some bodies undoubtedly to give a shred of respect to the dead women. The nauseating stench was unbearable but worse was yet to come. Behind the brick construction, a pump room of sorts, was a well brimming with the dead. On the wall of the pump room were etchedshort lines to count the dead bodiesbeing dumped inthe well. The Khulna Well with its chilling wall markings made international headlinesthe next day. The foreign media arrived from Dhaka later in evening. I realized I had stumbled on anews story but at that moment my head was reeling at the grisly sight.Talking to the people grouped thereone could gather that Pakistani soldiers after shooting people in the Chuknagar bazarhad paid 4 annas per corpse to anyone willing to dispose them. Suspicion was that the bodies were dumped in the Khulna Well too as it was near Chuknagar.
As details of Operation Searchlight, the Dacca University mass rape and other atrocities heaped on Mujibur’s people came to light it was the Khulna Well that linked me emotionally to Bangladesh, Bangabandhu and Hasina his daughter and political successor. Emotion was the leitmotif of India-Bangladesh relations under the rule of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman till his assassination in 1975, poignantly on India’s Independence Day, and has remained so under Hasina. It would be naïve to believe that the bilateral relationship stands singularly on the emotion plankand is not driven by geo political, economic, other mutual interests and strategic priorities. Every nation centres its foreign policy primarily on what serves its interests best. At the same time it is difficult to ignore that the lows in the New Delhi-Dhaka relationship have come whenever the reigns of Bangladesh havebeen in the hands of others besides Mujibur and Hasina.
Not that there have been no hiccups in the multifaceted relationship through Hasina’s four terms as PM. River water sharing, killings of civilians allegedly by the Border Security Force and energy concerns are politically emotive issues for the people of Bangladesh. The ties,though stretched at times because of such sensitive topics, have given India many positives like Hasina handing over to India militants from the north-east hiding in Bangladesh and announcing a zero -tolerance policy for terrorists using the country for activity detrimental to India’s security.
New Delhi on its part gives maximum grants and loans after Bhutan to Dhaka. India has provided concessional loans worth $9.5 billion for development projects in Bangladesh, especially connectivity initiatives. Talks on connecting power transmission lines between the two countries are underway. Bangladesh is India’s biggest trade partner in south Asia. Since people in Bangladesh sometimes feel that India has gained more out of the friendship than they have it is to Hasina’s advantage that she returns home with a bagful of signed agreements including a pact to share Kushiyara river water coming in as it isalmost 25 years after the Ganga Water Treaty. Afterall it is her last visit to India before the 2023 elections in Bangladesh.
Amidst all this, the emotional thread in the relationship continues to hold its own. Both sides are obviously nurturing it with gestures like Hasina announcing a Mujib scholarship for the direct descendants of Indian soldiers killed or grievously injured in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pledging that India will continue to walk step by step with Bangladesh in realising “Bangabandhu” Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s vision of a stable, prosperous and progressive country.
To conclude on a personal note: Can the two leadersquickly find a solution to the vexed issue of testing Jamdani sarees from Bangladesh for chemicals at the Bangalore laboratory before they are sold in the Indian market? Madam Hasina, women in India yearn to wear beautiful muslin jamdani sarees like the ones you sported during your visit!