On the occasion of the 57th Republic Day of India, I convey my best wishes and warm greetings to the people of Bangladesh and also to all members of the Indian community in Bangladesh. On 26th January 1950, India's Constitution came into effect, which declared India as a sovereign, secular, democratic Republic. India looks back with pride at its achievements in the last five-and-a-half decades and at the same time, recognises that much more remains to be done to ensure eradication of poverty and socio-economic development for all of our 1.1 billion people.
2. The people of Bangladesh and India enjoy a special and unique relationship based on shared history, shared culture and traditions and a shared love for our common language and literature. Through centuries of peaceful interaction between our multi-lingual, multi-ethnic and multi-religious communities this relationship has evolved into a shared set of civilizational values, represented by the liberal, democratic and secular societies that the people of our two countries cherish so highly. In 1971 the people of Bangladesh willingly shed their blood to uphold these liberal democratic, secular values and to ensure the rule of law. India's support for the struggle of the people of Bangladesh in 1971 was an endorsement of these values. 1971 was indeed the defining moment which determined that our two countries and peoples would from then on be friendly neighbours working jointly for mutual prosperity and striving for ever closer understanding.
3. In May 2005 the passing away of Lt. Gen. Jagjit Singh Aurora, (as GOC of India's Eastern Command, he was the Joint Operational Commander of the Allied Forces in Bangladesh's 1971 Liberation War) brought forth a spontaneous outpouring of public sympathy in Bangladesh, and a tremendous revival of the fellowship and camaraderie between our two peoples that led to success in 1971. In remembering the contribution of Lt.Gen. J.S. Aurora the people of Bangladesh reaffirmed their commitment to the secular, liberal, democratic values. Freedom fighters and Muktijodhas re-established contact on both sides culminating on 16th December 2005, in the participation of Bangladesh's Muktijodhas in the Annual Victory Day celebrations of the Indian Army in Kolkata. This event was a grand success, taking place as it did after a gap of three decades. All participants expressed their keenness to make this an annual feature.
4. As we have seen in our own country, to win freedom is just the first part of the struggle. To preserve and strengthen the common values for which India's Independence Movement and Bangladesh's 1971 Liberation War were fought remains an ongoing, equally arduous and life long struggle. These values can never be taken for granted.
5. Repeatedly, situations arise that threaten the values on the basis of which liberation was attained. The series of bomb blasts that rocked Bangladesh on 17th August, 2005, and the subsequent suicide attacks targeting the judiciary and other democratic institutions consitute one such situation. The leaders of Bangladesh have condemned these blasts as heinous, cowardly and well planned acts of terrorism representing an attack on the independence, sovereignty and democratic values of Bangladesh.
6. The Government of India has expressed its serious concern and strong condemnation of the events of 17th August, 2005, as terrorism directed against the friendly people of Bangladesh. We have urged the Government of Bangladesh to identify the perpetrators of these terrorist acts. We have offered any kind of assistance as may be required for this. The Government of India has strongly rejected as unfounded and irresponsible the allegations made at senior levels about Indian involvement in these events.
7. Terrorism and fundamentalism pose the most serious challenge to democratic and open societies. Unless these are tackled urgently, they can undermine the very basis of a country's political and economic existence. India is willing to assist Bangladesh in every possible way, whether it is through capacity building, or sharing of information and experiences in tackling and overcoming these problems. As our Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh has said, "we must fight terrorism wherever it exists, because terrorism anywhere threatens democracy everywhere".
8. The greatest bulwark against terrorism is to strengthen the institutions of democracy itself including an active and independent judiciary, vibrantly free media, a neutral and independent Election Commission to ensure free and fair elections together with an apolitical bureaucracy and a strong legislature. India has shared her experience in holding free and fair elections with many friendly developing countries. We have done this through the UN, through the Commonwealth Secretariat and directly on a bilateral basis. Should there be the interest and the request we would be more than happy to do the same and share our experiences with Bangladesh.
9. We firmly believe, as India's External Affairs Minister, speaking in Dhaka in August, 2005, said, that "a stable, prosperous, secular and democratic Bangladesh is not just in the interest of its people but clearly in the interest of India and the region as a whole".
10. During the year gone by, the impetus for regional cooperation within South Asia has been considerably strengthened. The successful 13th SAARC Summit in Dhaka in November 2005 led to important initiatives like expansion of membership to include Afghanistan and grant of Observer Status for Japan and China. SAARC countries signed 3 significant Agreements which will greatly facilitate the implementation of SAFTA. A roadmap for broader cooperation in SAARC to alleviate poverty, build infrastructure, tackle social challenges, overcome natural disasters and focus on human resources development has been agreed to.
11. Cooperation among the countries of the BIMSTEC region was further strengthened with the 8th BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting held in Dhaka in December 2005.
12. As SAARC enters the third decade of its existence and BIMSTEC comes close to completing one decade, implementation of agreed proposals becomes critical in making SAARC and BIMSTEC effective forums for regional development and cooperation.
13. Bangladesh is currently the Chair of both SAARC and BIMSTEC. India is the incoming Chair for both SAARC and BIMSTEC. This has provided Bangladesh and India a unique opportunity for cooperation and coordination with each other in the realization and implementation of SAARC and BIMSTEC proposals for the betterment of the peoples of South and South East Asia. If this cooperation can be successfully developed it will no doubt add a strong dimension to our bilateral relationship.
14. In this context we look forward to the forthcoming visit to India in March 2006 by the Hon'ble Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Begum Khaleda Zia.
15. Our Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, in his address to the 13th SAARC Summit in Dhaka had analysed that "regional economic cooperation in South Asia has fallen far short of our expectations", adding that "if SAARC as a region is to recapture its role as a crossroads of culture and commerce, it is necessary for us to remove the barriers to the free flow of goods, of peoples and ideas within our own region. We cannot be the crossroads of Asia but remain disconnected within our own region".
16. Dr. Manmohan Singh emphasized that "if we wish the next twenty years of SAARC to be different, we should take the first decision to reconnect the countries of the subcontinent on the one hand and then reconnect the subcontinent to the larger Asian neighbourhood on the other. In pursuit of this vision, let us agree, at this Summit, that all South Asian countries would provide to each other, reciprocally, transit facilities to third countries, not only connecting one another, but also connecting to the larger Asian neighbourhood, in the Gulf, Central Asia and the South-East Asia. India, which borders each of the members of the South Asia, is willing to do so".
17. Greater connectivity among the countries of the sub-continent is vital for prosperity and well being of the people of this region. The Government of India has time and again proposed better connectivity between Bangladesh and neighbouring Indian states by road, rail and river routes. The New Mooring Terminal being built at Chittagong can serve a very useful role in development of the region if neighbouring Indian States are allowed to make use of it. The Akhaura-Agartala railway link can play a very important and useful role in movement of goods from and to the Chittagong Port. The Government of India is willing to assist the Government of Bangladesh in establishing this and other important rail and road links.
18. India has offered the opening of more land customs stations on the eastern and northern boundary of Bangladesh with India, which will help Bangladesh increase its trade with neighbouring Indian States - a subject that has been under discussion at various fora and greatly encouraged by economists and intellectuals in Bangladesh. There is also the need to make better use of our riverine connectivity by having more Ports of Call, providing increased navigational facilities, and linking the Ports of Call to important cities by road.
19. There is a growing need for encouraging, if not insisting on movement of goods across our land borders through sealed containers. Containerized movement of goods through the riverine route, land route and railways between India and Bangladesh will considerably reduce the existing heavy burden on the Petrapole-Benapole land route. It will result in faster, safer and more secure movement of goods between our two countries, and lead to greater realization of revenue by our respective governments. It would eliminate several artificial obstacles and hindrances to greater bilateral trade, that are today described by the euphemism of non-tariff and para-tariff barriers.
20. We strongly believe that it is only through dialogue held in the spirit of mutual trust and give and take that outstanding issues can be resolved. During 2005, there were a series of meetings between senior officials such as Foreign Secretaries (June 2005), Home Secretaries (October 2005) as well as the regular meetings between Director Generals of BSF and BDR (April & October 2005). A Parliamentary delegation led by our Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs, Shri BK Handique also visited Bangladesh in July 2005.
21. Senior Indian Cabinet Ministers visited Dhaka in 2005, demonstrating the high priority attached by India to its relations with Bangladesh. Our External Affairs Minister visited Dhaka in August 2005, followed by our Minister for Petroleum & Natural Gas in September 2005, and by our Minister for Water Resources also in September. Our Chief of Naval Staff visited Bangladesh in December 2005, at which time two Indian naval ships also made a goodwill visit.
22. Border management and prevention of illegal cross-border activities is critical for maintaining peace and tranquility along our borders and facilitating legitimate movement of goods and people. During our bilateral high level meetings, India has conveyed that we are building a fence along the India-Bangladesh border, in the spirit of friendship and better understanding. India has clarified that the fence is not a defensive structure, but is aimed at better border management through stopping smuggling, insurgent/terrorist activities, trans-border crimes, drug trafficking, etc. India has pointed out that along 93% of our 4000 kilometers common border, the fence is being constructed at a distance of 150 yards from the Zero Line. It is only in 7% of the border (293 kms in different sectors) that the fence has to be constructed within 150 yards of the Zero Line, due to presence of villages, human settlements or geographical features. India has informed Bangladesh about the areas in which the fencing will be carried out within 150 yards of the Zero Line and sought its cooperation. This in no way violates the informal 1975 Border Guidelines. We have seen that in those areas where the fence is in place, there has been a sharp decline in illegal cross-border activities.
23. Water is an emotive and complex issue on which our two countries must continue to engage in finding a just and equitable solution. However, constructive dialogue on this subject often gets vitiated by the manner in which this issue is politicised and exaggerated in Bangladesh. Asian Development Bank figures reveal that while India's Annual Water Resources (AWR) availability amounts to less than 1900 cubic metres per capita, per annum, Bangladesh has Annual Water Resources of almost 9000 cubic metres, per capita, per annum. More significantly, water resources utilisation in terms of total Annual Water Resources is only 1.2% in Bangladesh, while it is 26.2 % in India. Therefore, the problem in Bangladesh is not one of shortage of water resources, but rather one of water resources management. Measures such as augmenting lean season flows, prudent ground water management, extensive use of dredging and desiltation techniques, as well as creating the water reservoir capacity necessary to overcome lean season problems, while strengthening flood control measures to minimize devastation and loss of life during the monsoons will enable Bangladesh to meet these environmental challenges. India has offered to cooperate with Bangladesh in many ways to enhance its capability to manage water resources. The Ganges Water Treaty is an example of how dialogue based on trust, friendship and cooperation can result in a positive, mutually beneficial outcome. Since its signing in 1996, India has adhered fully to its obligations under this Treaty.
24. There are intense and deepening people-to-people contacts between Bangladesh and India through students, training programmes, cultural activities, media visits and the very active Seminar/Track-2 dialogue circuit. These should be further encouraged. During the last year, we organised a series of cultural events such as film shows, yoga classes, photography and painting exhibitions (on Mahatma Gandhi and on the 1971 Liberation War). We were successful in arranging several performances of classical Indian music and dance by our leading artistes.
25. India has been following a liberal visa policy for citizens of Bangladesh. The Indian High Commission issues nearly half a million visas each year (at Dhaka, Chittagong and Rajshahi) to Bangladeshi nationals for purposes of business, pilgrimage, to avail of the excellent and cost effective medical care in India, for undertaking studies in our world class educational institutions or simply for tourism. To make our visa services even more accessible, we have now outsourced the visa application process to the State Bank of India. Their Visa Application Centre started functioning in December 2005.
26. In conclusion, I would like to convey to all readers my very best wishes for a successful, happy and prosperous 2006.
High Commissioner of India
26th January, 2006