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Transcript of Special Press briefing by Foreign Secretary before Prime Minister’s visit to Bangladesh (March 24, 2021)

March 25, 2021

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Ladies and gentlemen, very Good evening to all of you. Before I begin, since this is the first time I'm doing this, I am Arindam Bagchi, the new Joint Secretary and official spokesperson here. Today we have a special briefing on Prime Minister's forthcoming visit to Bangladesh and for that we have with us Hon’ble Foreign Secretary, Shri Harsh Vardhan Shringla and Joint Secretary (BM), Smt. Smita Pant. We will have brief remarks by Foreign Secretary followed by set of questions. You are aware of the ground rules; I'll go through that. So without further ado, Sir may I request you to make opening remarks.

Shri Harsh Vardhan Shringla, Foreign Secretary: Arindam as you said, it's your first press interaction, so thank you for kick starting this and setting this briefing off. Good evening to all our friends in the media. As you're aware, the Prime Minister will pay an official State visit to Bangladesh on the 26th and 27th of March at the invitation of Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Her Excellency Sheikh Hasina. The visit comes at a momentous time in our bilateral ties. Bangladesh is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its Liberation War. India had lent its full support to this noble cause in which Indian soldiers also sacrificed their lives. Both countries are commemorating 50 years of the establishment of diplomatic ties this year. India was one of the first countries to recognise Bangladesh in 1971, on 6th of December 1971, to be precise. This is also the year of commemoration of the 100th birth anniversary of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the Bangladesh nation, which is being celebrated throughout Bangladesh as Mujib Barsho. This is the first visit of the Prime Minister after the onset of the COVID pandemic. This highlights the significance that India attaches to its ties with Bangladesh. The Prime Minister will join Bangladesh’s National Day celebrations on 26 March and will deliver an address on this occasion at the National parade ground in Dhaka. During his two day programme, the Prime Minister will call on His Excellency Mr. Abdul Hamid, President of Bangladesh. He will hold restricted and delegation level talks with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Dr. AK Abdul Momen, Foreign Minister of Bangladesh will call on the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister will also interact with diverse groups of Bangladesh’s polity and society. This will include representatives of the ruling 14 party Alliance, the opposition party in the Jatiya Sangsad (Bangladesh parliament), Mukti Jodhhas (freedom fighters), community leaders and youth icons of Bangladesh. On the first day of the visit, the Prime Minister will pay homage at the National Martyrs monument in Savar. Both Prime Ministers will inaugurate the Bangabandhu Bapu exhibition in Dhaka that will showcase the life and legacy of these two great leaders. Considering the special significance of the historic Mujib Borsho, the Prime Minister will visit the Bangabandhu Mausoleum complex at Tungipara, Gopalganj district in Bangladesh and he will be the first Indian dignitary to ever visit Tungipara, which, as many of us would know is the family home of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Our Prime Minister will also visit the heritage sites of cultural importance in Satkhira and Orakandi. Decision has been taken at the highest levels to jointly commemorate Mujib Borsho, the 100th birth anniversary of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. You have also seen that the Gandhi peace prize for 2020 has been conferred on Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in recognition of his "outstanding contribution towards social, economic and political transformation”. Prime Minister Modi has said that the legacy of Bangabandhu has made the heritage of both countries more comprehensive and deep rooted and that the path shown by Bangabandhu has laid a strong foundation for the partnership, progress and prosperity of both countries over the last decade. As my remarks have illustrated, this visit will be of very special significance and will serve to highlight the celebration of our unique and special ties, which reinforce our comprehensive strategic partnership with Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is at the intersection of our "Neighbourhood First” and "Act East” policies. Today, it is our largest development partner, our largest trade partner in the region, and is also the location of our largest visa operation in the world, probably the largest anywhere in the world. Despite the pandemic, both sides have been able to maintain a steady momentum in our ties. You would recall that last December both Prime Ministers held a very successful summit, virtually. External Affairs Minister visited Dhaka recently on the 4th of March. He called on the Prime Minister and met his counterpart, the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh. In last September, the two foreign ministers had co-chaired the Joint Consultative Commission meeting. I had also visited Bangladesh twice in the course of 2020. In the last few months, there have been several high level meetings between both our sides, including at the level of the secretaries of Home Affairs, water, commerce, power and defence. As you can see, this is a very comprehensive range of areas that these secretaries cover. DG level talks between the BSF and BGB and the first Police Chief's dialogue was also held. Our chief of Air staff visited Bangladesh a few weeks ago. So all of this will tell you that the momentum that our relationship has achieved has been continued. And this is reflective of a mutual desire to remain engaged in all areas of bilateral cooperation.

We have also been able to make progress on a number of other significant areas, our partnership in combating COVID-19 including the rollout of vaccines, our development partnership, enhancing connectivity and increased cultural contexts. Let me specifically highlight a few points in this regard. Bangladesh is the largest recipient of Made in India vaccines so far. This is in line with the assurance given by the Prime Minister that we will do our best to meet Bangladesh's requirements. On connectivity, we have made good progress in the last year. Both Prime Ministers recently inaugurated the Maitri Setu Bridge across the river Feni in South Tripura. The Chilahati-Haldibari rail link was inaugurated in December 2020, thus restoring five of the six pre 1965 rail connections. During the pandemic, we were able to expand the movement of trade goods using the railway route. Because of the restrictions on road traffic, the rail route was opened up in a more significant manner. This has proven to be highly successful in cost effective transportation and time saving for businesses on both sides. In addition, successful trial runs of the transshipment of Indian cargo from Kolkata to Tripura via Chittagong and Mongla ports, were also undertaken. Two new routes under the protocol on inland water, transit and trade connecting Tripura with the National waterways have been added and efforts are on to improve facilitation for trade at our land borders.

Another first of the participation of a 122 member Tri-service contingent of the Bangladesh armed forces on our Republic Day parade in January, two Indian naval ships INS Kulish and INS Sumedha visited Mongla port from 8th to 10th March this year marking the first naval visit that we have undertaken to the port of Mongla in almost 50 years. From 1971 this is the first time that Indian naval ships have visited Mongla port and it's a very significant development. We have also gifted 18 new 120 mm motors to the Bangladesh army in December 2020. This is Army to Army cooperation. As a reflection of the growing cooperation, both sides will be signing a range of agreements during the Prime Minister's visit. These agreements will cover number of areas of cooperation; some of the areas include disaster management, trade, oceanography etc. Going beyond the agreements, we will also have new announcements to make which will be covering cooperation in the areas of culture, preservation of the spirit of 1971, health, railways, education, border development, power cooperation and start-ups. So as you can see, a number of new areas of cooperation have also been introduced. We've also reinforced existing areas of cooperation and so there has been a forward movement despite the covid-19 pandemic and the momentum has been sustained in this very vital relationship. In closing, I want to mention that our relationship with Bangladesh has attained historic heights in strong political and people to people ties. This has facilitated the partnership marked by conversations and discussions in candour, friendship, and comfort. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, our two countries have made remarkable progress in all areas, fully justifying this era, being referred to as a Shonali Adhyay or a golden era in our relationship. Prime Minister Modi is looking forward to his visit and interacting with the leadership and people of Bangladesh. We are confident that this visit will be another significant milestone in our bilateral relations, and will further consolidate the strength of our ties and our mutually beneficial cooperation. Thank you.

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Thank you very much sir for such a comprehensive presentation. Ladies and Gentlemen because the visit is so soon, we have a time constraint today. And so we will try to keep it to a very minimal of questions. You know the ground rules better than I do. One question and let's stick to that. And if I could request you to stick to the topic of Bangladesh visit, and we'll see how it goes, thank you. Since for my benefit, please introduce yourself.

Question: Foreign Secretary, what exactly you mean by expanding cultural relations and ties, could you specify in what areas are we facilitating it?

Shri Harsh Vardhan Shringla, Foreign Secretary: Cultural ties in a certain sense require very little facilitation. I having been in Bangladesh myself, I think there's extensive cross cultural ties at all levels. But there is a level of facilitation, which is undertaken by our cultural centre in Bangladesh. It is undertaken by the ICCR in Delhi. And, of course, very regular exchanges of cultural troops of all kinds between our two countries. But when we talk about cultural cooperation in this year, it is very significant, because of the milestones that we are commemorating i.e. the 50th anniversary of our diplomatic relations, the 50th anniversary of the 1971 War and of course, Mujib Borsho as I mentioned. So we will be undertaking a very wide range of events that would commemorate all the three. They would be, for example, taking joint exhibitions to different parts of the world. Not just in our two countries but we start with our countries, and we go to different parts of the world. The Bangabandhu Bapu exhibition itself will be taken to some 18 countries all over the world, including the United Nations in New York. So it's quite unique, where two countries are celebrating their shared cultural heritage. And we will be shortly putting out a list on our website of all the different events that are involved. This list will be publicly available. We will have a calendar of events that will give you a sense of the extent and the depth of these cultural exchanges that would be part of the commemoration events that are taking place. Most of what we will see in terms of cultural activities will link to this very significant year, 2021. It would be quite unique from the point of view of the new initiatives that are going to come in and from the point of view of the extent of involvement of people in both our countries. It will come out as this is developed fully over the next few days. But I can only say for now that it's going to be quite extensive, quite imaginative and will capture the spirit of 1971 very, very significantly.

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Thank you sir.

Question: My question is about agreements specifically, broadly the agreements that are likely to be signed in new areas of cooperation, could you give us a number of agreements/MOUs that will be signed, specifically on the issue of trade. What is the agreement, the broad contours of it and how it elevates the current trade partnership between India and Bangladesh?

Shri Harsh Vardhan Shringla, Foreign Secretary: I don't want to go into numbers, because you know, even as we speak, we are actually tying up the last; let's say elements of agreements that we're going to conclude. It should not be seen in terms of a quantitative thing, what is important is that we have a very qualitative visit that is focused on a shared history, a shared cultural and people to people contact the two countries have based this relationship on the last 50 years. It's a very significant visit from that point of view. And please also remember that we had a Summit just in December, where we signed large number of agreements. We will be signing many more agreements. But the visit shouldn't be seen just as in terms of number of agreements, I think the quality and focus of the visit will really be on the fact that the visit is on this most important of occasions, which is the National Day of Bangladesh on the 26th of March, the day on which Bangabandhu declared a separate nation. He declared independence at that time from Pakistan and from the oppression that it represented. What is significant is that they have invited our Prime Minister to share that dais with the people of Bangladesh on this very very significant day. So what I'm saying is agreements are important. All of these issues are important. We will certainly be looking at a comprehensive trade related agreement; both sides will be cooperating also. We'll be also having continuing discussions in a Comprehensive Economic Partnership. But this should not detract from the important highlight of the visit that is the people to people element of this visit which is going to be most important. And if you see the fact that the Prime Minister is going to so many different parts of Bangladesh, he is going to Satkhira, which is in the south western part of Bangladesh, he is going to Orakandi which is in the eastern end, He is going to Tungipara, which is towards central Bangladesh, He is already in Dhaka, so very, very significant from the point of view of connecting at the popular level. And I think that is in keeping with the spirit of what we want to recreate that has brought our two countries together and very uniquely so where I think there is no parallel of two countries shedding blood for the liberation of one of our two countries. And this is really unique in the annals of history. And this is what has brought our people together and what is bringing our leadership together on this important visit.

Question: Sir, both Bangladesh and India face the issue of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar and now there is influx of refugees because of the current situation. Will this matter also be discussed?

Shri Harsh Vardhan Shringla, Foreign Secretary: Well, as you know, first and foremost, India is the only country that shares a common border with both Myanmar and Bangladesh. We do understand that the impact of any refugee outflow will come on us directly as an immediate neighbour of both these countries. And so we have been engaged with both Bangladesh and Myanmar in trying to address this issue. With Bangladesh itself, first of all we have recognised their immense contribution in hosting up to a million refugees from the Rakhine State in Myanmar. We have also worked with them to provide humanitarian assistance; we have in fact provided five tranches of humanitarian assistance to Bangladesh to help them in maintaining such a large number of people, refugees in their country. And of course, we will continue to be in touch with all concerned in both these countries in facilitating speedy and sustainable return of these displaced persons back to their Rakhine state in Myanmar. Incidentally, we have also worked at the other end; we are one of the very few countries that have worked under a Rakhine state development programme in Myanmar to create the infrastructure for the return of displaced persons. In other words, we have constructed houses in the villages that these people actually lived in. This is our effort to facilitate speedy and sustainable return of these displaced persons. So the answer to your question is that, yes, we are engaged and we will continue to remain engaged with Bangladesh and Myanmar on this issue.

Question: Sir, Approximately how many houses India has built in Rakhine state?

Shri Harsh Vardhan Shringla, Foreign Secretary: Well, at one stage, we had built some 200 houses, but it's an ongoing process. It depends on our ability to get materials there and so on and so forth. But depending on the need, we can increase it. But we had already constructed a certain number of prefab houses. My colleague says that, in fact, it is 250. So that's more precise number.

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Thank you sir. For next question, could you introduce yourself please?

Question: Sir, this is Manas. I'm from Press Trust of India, PTI. Sir, you've talked about the significance of the momentous occasion. Sir, are you also looking at expanding our defence cooperation in Bangladesh apart from connectivity and trade, so we give any specific discussion on it? And are you also looking at discussing the water issue specifically the Teesta river water issue?

Shri Harsh Vardhan Shringla, Foreign Secretary: Well, security in defence is an important part of our cooperation with Bangladesh. We have, in recent years signed a framework agreement on defence cooperation; we have extended a $500 million line of credit for Defence imports from India into Bangladesh. We have on a regular basis undertaken joint military exercises, training and capacity building exercises, HADR exercises with the Bangladesh armed forces. There are very regular visits and exchanges of chiefs of Army Staff between both our countries. It is a regular practice for the chiefs of all of our armed forces to visit Bangladesh and vice versa. So we have an excellent defence cooperation and defence relationship between our countries. Excellent understanding, I would say. And as we go along, we will continue to add more and more depth and momentum to that relationship.

With regard to river water sharing, we recently had a meeting of the secretaries of Water Resources under the Joint River Waters Commission, the JRC between our two countries. In fact, the Bangladesh water Secretary came down. There was extensive discussions and cooperation on all of our 56 rivers that flow between our countries. And of course there are issues that involve not just water flows, but also in terms of use of water for drinking purposes, irrigation purposes, pollution control etc. We work very closely together in all of these areas. We have mechanisms that enable us to cooperate. So this is something where we will continue our cooperation and it's an important area of collaboration between our two countries.

Question: Sir, I’m Naveen from ANI. Sir, as you said that lot of announcements to be made, can we expect a breakthrough in the Teesta as you said that it has advanced a lot to talk between the secretaries. Can we expect any kind of announcement or breakthrough in this matter?

Shri Harsh Vardhan Shringla, Foreign Secretary: Well, I just quite elaborately explained the fact that we have extensive cooperation in the river water sharing arrangements. We have extensive talks on that and we have had cooperation in managing the waters that are shared between our countries. And that cooperation will continue, it is an ongoing thing. We are not talking about one of the things that are there. You will recall that there has been a commitment from our side to conclude the Teesta agreement at the early as possible. We will continue to be engaged in that endeavour. And certainly, this is also an important aspect from our side, but we should not overlook the fact that we are talking about a very large number of rivers between the two countries and Teesta is one of them, and we will continue to work on all of this.

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: So, perhaps this is the last question.

Question: Sir, I am Nainima Basu from The Print. Yesterday at an event, Dr. Rizvi spoke about the fact that while we are part of [inaudible], we also want to be in the Indo Pacific, we don't want to choose between India and China, do you have to say something on this? your thoughts on that? Thank you.

Shri Harsh Vardan Shringla, Foreign Secretary: Look, I mean…

Question: Actually my question is similar. This is Archana Chaudhari from Bloomberg . I had a similar question in terms of would do you call Bangladesh your closest relationship in South Asia for India and how important is it as a core partner, not just as a neighbour, but also a core partner. How important a role does Bangladesh play in Indo-Pacific?

Shri Harsh Vardhan Shringla, Foreign Secretary: I do recall that our External Affairs Minister referred to Bangladesh as our closest neighbour. And Bangladesh in many senses, we share the longest land boundary with Bangladesh, as compared to any other of our neighbours, we are neighbours of Bangladesh on three sides of its own own borders, at least five of our state's neighbour Bangladesh directly. And we have as I said, extensive cultural, besides historical, cultural, linguistic, spiritual linkages with Bangladesh, which go back to centuries, if not millennia. So, there is a strong interconnection between our countries and today that connection has found a new relevance. The relevance has come in terms of economic cooperation, development cooperation, connectivity etc. We have enhanced People to People ties, we have made it easier. As I said, we have the largest visa issuing office in Dhaka, we have very regular exchanges of people in both sides for tourism, recreation, medical purposes, and studies. Of course, much of this is affected due to the COVID crisis, but in the normal course, very regular exchanges between two countries. And I think, , when you refer to the relationship as a golden era, as we find it today, you have to remember that when the Prime Minister made his last visit to Bangladesh, in 2015, we signed the land boundary agreement that we've been working on since 1974. 1974, is when we signed the India Bangladesh land boundary agreement. But we could not conclude it or it could not be conclusively addressed, because there were some significant gaps in interpretation with the fact that in 2015, during Prime Minister's visit, to Bangladesh last, we were able to both ratify this agreement and bring it to a closure, we've completed the maritime boundary with Bangladesh is really unique. I mean, if you look at it from that perspective. Our bilateral trade has gone up by leaps and bounds; our investments between our two countries have gone up. We today have a level of cooperation that is very rare to see between two countries. So it is not incorrect to say that the relationship between Bangladesh in India today is a paradigm which many other countries would like to emulate. This is a model for other countries to try and emulate. And so it is a very, very unique relationship. And again, I come back to the same issue the fact that the Prime Minister is going to Bangladesh on a visit that marks such an important milestone in our relationship is also very, very significant. The fact that Prime Minister of Bangladesh has extended an invitation to our Prime Minister to visit Bangladesh on their National Day, on the most significant National Day that they celebrating which is 50 years. And having been there I can say that they have been planning for this occasion for a very long time. And so the Prime Minister's participation in that very unique event is itself a story, which is why I said that let us not try and conflate that with other issues that are important, but to not detract from the significance of this very, very important high level visit that represents a high point in our relationship.

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: So on that note, thank you very much sir. Thank you, everyone for being here physically despite COVID. Look forward to meeting you all later. Thank you.

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