President Ram Nath Kovind on Wednesday assured the top leadership in Dhaka that Bangladesh has a 'special place' in India's 'neighbourhood first' policy and underlined that the bilateral relationship based on sovereignty, equality, trust and understanding is mature enough to handle the 'most complex of problems.'
President Kovind, who arrived in Dhaka earlier in the day on his maiden State visit at the invitation of his counterpart M Abdul Hamid to attend the golden jubilee celebrations of Bangladesh's independence from Pakistan in 1971, held delegation-level talks with him which was followed by a banquet.
"President Kovind @rashtrapatibhvn welcomed by Bangladesh President HE Md. Abdul Hamid for their bilateral meeting at Bangabhaban. Further expanding bilateral ties based on sovereignty, equality, trust and understanding that transcend even a strategic partnership,” ministry of external affairs spokesperson Arindam Bagchi tweeted.
During his meeting with Hamid, President Kovind 'reiterated that Bangladesh has a special place in India's ‘neighbourhood first' policy' and said that India's development partnership with Bangladesh is one of the most comprehensive and wide-ranging ones, according to a statement issued by the Indian President's office.
"At the same time, our relationship is mature enough to handle the most complex of problems,” he said.
Speaking about trade and connectivity, President Kovind said that connectivity forms an important pillar of India-Bangladesh relations.
“The two countries have much to gain from their geographical proximity,” he said.
Noting that Bangladesh is one of India's largest trade partners, he said that New Delhi looks forward to a more organised and seamless trade between the two countries.
He noted that there is a lot of scope in partnering in areas like space, nuclear technology, defence, pharmaceuticals and other advanced science and technology fields. He said that a formal ‘comprehensive economic partnership agreement' would give a significant boost to two-way trade.
After the delegation-level talks, President Hamid hosted a banquet in his Indian counterpart's honour at Bangabhaban Presidential Palace.
Earlier, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called on President Kovind and the two leaders discussed several issues of mutual interest and bilateral cooperation.
Both sides reviewed the progress in the multifaceted and comprehensive bilateral ties. The two leaders also recalled the spirit of the 1971 Liberation War and expressed satisfaction at the joint celebration of Maitri Diwas on December 6, Bagchi said.
Foreign minister Dr A.K. Abdul Momen separately called on President Kovind and "apprised him of the excellent progress in bilateral cooperation and of future joint projects, including in the area of connectivity," he said.
Briefing the media later in the evening, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said President Kovind's discussion with Prime Minister Hasina was “comprehensive encompassing many areas of our multifaceted relationship, including jointly preserving the legacy of Bangabandhu and 1971 war.”
"We are aspirational nations. Today, we have achieved an incredible amount of synergies in terms of connectivity, joint manufacturing and cooperation. We have set the stage for an exponential increase in ties,” he said.
Responding to a question, Shringla said that the Indo-Bangla friendship pipeline is progressing very well and “we would be in a position to inaugurate it next year.”
He also said that India has decided to review the Nutan India-Bangladesh Maitree Muktijoddha Sontan Scholarship Scheme for the heirs of Bangladesh's Muktijodhas. The scheme was launched in April, 2017 during the visit of Prime Minister Hasina to India.
On the Rohingya issue, Shringla said that India has “always called for the sustainable and speedy return of displaced persons to the Rakhine state of Myanmar. We have always worked with Bangladesh and Myanmar to resolve this issue."
He said President Kovind will also inaugurate the renovated Sri Ramna Kali Mandir, which was completely destroyed by Pakistani forces during Operation Searchlight in 1971.
On his part, President Hamid described India as “a very close and faithful friend” of Bangladesh and recalled the overall cooperation of India in the 1971 Liberation War. He thanked the government and people of India, according to Bangladesh president's press secretary M Joynal Abedin.
President Kovind called Hamid a 'war hero' and gifted him two replicas -- a Russian made T-55 tank and Mig-21 vintage aircraft used during the 1971 war, Abedin added.
President Hamid was a muktijoddha (freedom fighter) and served as Sector commander of Mujib Bahini in Meghalaya state during Bangladesh's independence war.
Hamid said over the past one decade, relations between the two countries have expanded in the areas of security, border demarcation, power and energy, trade and commerce, infrastructure and communication and eventually the relations between the people of the two countries have strengthened.
Bangladesh premier's press secretary Ihsanul Karim said that President Kovind told Prime Minister Hasina that he was very happy to be part of the celebrations of three mega events -- birth centenary of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Golden Jubilee of Bangladesh's independence and diplomatic relationship between the countries.
Hasina described India as a “great friend” and recalled the then Indian government and people's crucial role during Bangladesh's War of Liberation in 1971.
"Exchange of visits between the countries even amid the COVID-19 situation is the testimony of warm relationship between the two countries," she said, acknowledging her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi's “historic and successful” Bangladesh tour in March this year when the celebration of the three events were opened.
Hasina said after the 1965 India-Pakistan War, when Bangladesh was Pakistan's eastern wing, the commutations between the two countries were snapped in various routes and called for restoring those routes.
She expressed satisfaction over the ongoing cooperation in various areas even in the current pandemic situation.
The Indian President hoped that under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina Bangladesh will be more prosperous and developed and appreciated Bangladesh's support to India in different international forums, Karim said.
Hasina told the Indian leader that Bangladesh believes in secularism and "all are free to perform their own religious rites and rituals. There is no barrier here. Religion is for individuals, and festivals for all", Karim added.
President Kovind, who is in Bangladesh on a three-day visit, is the only foreign head of state invited to join the celebrations which also coincides with birth centenary celebrations of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and 50 years of Dhaka-New Delhi ties.
It is President Kovind's first trip abroad since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. He will represent India as the guest of honour in Bangladesh's 50th Victory Day celebrations.
In a reflection of close ties, India is also hosting a number of events to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1971 India-Pakistan war that led to the liberation of Bangladesh.