India, which was known as the Indian subcontinent for centuries, was a very rich region in terms of culture, economy and civilizations. For instance, at the end of the 17th century, India’s share was actually a quarter of the world economy. From history, we see that the Europeans came to this region to change their fates. In fact, India had a rich maritime legacy and played a significant role in world trade and economy for centuries. A British scholar, John M. Hobson, in his book, The Eastern Origins of Western Civilizations argues that “As late as the end of the eighteenth century, India had greater intensive and extensive power than the major European powers” had.
So, this was India, an economic power, maritime power and definitely a soft power. But the 200 years of British rule and exploitation made India decay in all parameters. Against British exploitation, India emerged as a sovereign nation-state on 15 August 1947. India’s independence in 1947 is a landmark event in the world history. And as a citizen of Bangladesh, India’s independence is crucial to me for several reasons.
First, I believe that if India would not be independent, Bangladesh might not have emerged as a sovereign nation-state in 1971. Without India’s material, moral and diplomatic support, the independence of Bangladesh would not be possible. It is important to note that 1, 6, 61 Indian soldiers sacrificed their lives for the Liberation of Bangladesh. This is how Indians fought for Bangladesh’s independence which is well-recognized in Bangladesh. In addition, when 10 million refugees from Bangladesh took shelter in different states of India, including West Bengal, the people of those states wholeheartedly supported them. The spirit of 1971 remains the foundation stone in Bangladesh-India relations.
Second, from an “international basket case”, Bangladesh is now a development miracle. And behind such success, one also needs to acknowledge the role of India in the last 50 years.
Third, India is a versatile land with great diversity in geography, language, religion, culture and ethnicity. In fact, the impressive development record, continued prosperity, stability, the sustainability of the largest democracy in the world, strong democratic institutions and a vibrant civil society including the media and academics is an inspiring story to many in the region and beyond. And to create an identity of the South Asian region in the international arena, Indian independence was crucial.
Fourth, a stronger and prosperous India is beneficial to the South Asian countries and the region as a whole and beyond. In these 75 years, India has achieved impressive success from agricultural production to nuclear and space technology, from Ayurveda to biotechnology. So, if India would not be independent, it might not be able to excel itself in the areas of science, technology and innovations which have spill-over effects in the region.
Finally,India’s independence has value from an international relations perspective. One must remember that India emerged during the Cold War period, where power politics mostly dominated the world politics. Against such a backdrop, India advocated for de-colonisation, spoke for South-South cooperation, and avoided aligning with power blocs. India emphasized on peaceful international relations, a rules-based order. In fact, India played a crucial role in the success of the 1955 Bandung conference. It is also worthy to note that India hosted the first-ever Asian Relations Conference in March-April 1947, which was the forerunner of the Bandung conference.
I want to emphasize here that coming down to 2021, India needs to play a leading role as a regional power. As a citizen of Bangladesh, I feel that some issues can be taken into consideration seriously on the occasion of India’s 75years of independence.
First, after 75 years of India’s independence, I strongly feel that India needs to focus more on its soft power than hard power. With about 1.35 billion people, investment in human development and human security becomes necessary for India.
Second, I do feel that India needs to focus more on institution building in the region. In this case, it is worthy to note that India is doing an excellent job in the promotion of regional consciousness through South Asian University. However, except for South Asian University, we don’t see so much success of the SAARC. In fact, it will not be wrong to claim that SAARC is not working out well due to India-Pakistan rivalry. Against such a backdrop, India can strengthen BIMSTEC. I think it is high time to move forward the Bay of Bengal region which has remained a conflict-free region for years. There is also a need for strengthening BRICS, BCIM Economic Corridor, and the Indian Ocean Rim Association, where India can play crucial role.
Third, there is a growing militarization in the Indian Ocean Region which is not beneficial to any littoral state. In order to make Indian Ocean Region as a zone of peace, India can play leading role.
Fourth, in 2015, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) focusing on mainly maritime domain which is highly encouraging for the region. It can be mentioned that maritime terrorism, piracy, armed robbery against ships, marine plastic pollution, climate change and ocean acidification, the emergence of dead zones, overfishing, IUU fishing are grave concerns for the littorals in the Bay of Bengal region including India. In this case, a regional approach becomes imperative where India needs to play a significant role.
Fifth, on February 8, 2019, the late and the former External Affairs Minister of India, Sushma Swaraj, at the 5th India-Bangladesh Joint Consultative Committee Meeting mentioned that as many as 90 bilateral agreements had been signed between Bangladesh and India since Narendra Modi’s 2015 visit in Bangladesh (Ministry of External Affairs of India, 2019). I want to reiterate here that this has only been possible due to a strong political will from both Delhi and Dhaka to deepen the ties. And this improved relation has impacted millions of people across borders. I always think that a strong political will is enough to change the region of South Asia and the Bay of Bengal Region, where India can play a crucial role.
Sixth, I believe, nurturing people to people contact becomes important in any bilateral relationship. In this case, easing the visa regime, increasing the volume of scholarship, the volume of cultural exchange programmes, including exchanges of students and teachers, musicians will be imperative in accelerating people-to-people contacts in the region where India can play leading role. It is highly encouraging that in 2019, the number of visas issued by India to Bangladeshi citizens crossed the mark of 1.5 million, which is imperative in the promotion of people-to-people contacts.
Seventh, I strongly believe that strengthening academic cooperation between India and its neighbours becomes necessary. India can make a study; how many India Study Centre are available in the region and how many institutes in India focus on neighbourhood studies? It is important to promote joint research and collaboration among scholars, researchers in the region. India study centre in the region needs to be promoted where Indian High Commission on those particular countries can play vital role. Though there is a Japan Study Centre and an East Asia Study Centre focusing on mainly China and Japan at the University of Dhaka, there is no India Study Centre in Bangladesh. It is important to establish an India Study Centre/Institute at the University of Rajshahi, which will be dedicated to the knowledge promotion on Indian affairs, on Bangladesh-India relations.
Eighth, the world of 1945 and 2021 is not the same. Similarly, India of 1947 and 2021 India is not the same. For instance, in 1947, India was a poor country with a large impoverished population and suffering from food shortages. The situation of the industry was also not good enough. The country also faced challenges like national integration and nation-building in the post-partition era. In 2021, India is the third largest economy in PPP (purchasing power parity) terms while the country has the third-largest pool of scientific and technical experts in the world. It is one of the key countries in the global economy and global supply chain. The country has contributed immensely to the international peace and security domain through its active troops contributions to the UN peacekeeping missions. Thus, I strongly feel that United Nations Security Council needs to be reformed. And as a South Asian representative, India can be a permanent member of the Security Council. Indian neighbours can actively support India to gain the Security Council membership.
Finally, there is a possibility of the rise of protectionism, less cooperation in the post-pandemic world. The coronavirus crisis also showed the world the apparent absence of global leadership when it was badly needed. The coronavirus crisis also showed us the importance of the region, regionalism and regional cooperation to face any pandemic or any common challenge. Thus, I feel that, in the vaccine production, sharing and vaccine trade, India’s neighbours including Bangladesh should get the first priority. Because in this age of inter-dependence of so many factors and dimensions, if the people of its neighbours remains unsafe against the pandemic, the safety of India would also be endangered or vice versa.
I conclude by saying that India’s fate is closely tied with its neighbours as it is said that you can change your friends but not neighbours. In fact, neighbours matter in the context of security, development, peace, and prosperity. Therefore, India, with its South Asian and Bay of Bengal neighbours can work collectively in the international forums for the common causes including global health governance, climate change, and free trade. At the regional scale, India taking its neighbours in confidence, can constructively cooperate for a prosperous and peaceful South Asia and Bay of Bengal region in the post-COVID-19 world, which would ultimately benefit everyone.