President Ram Nath Kovind on Wednesday assured the top leadership here 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 here 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 (MEA) 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.
Shringla said that the Indo-Bangla Friendship Pipeline is progressing very well and we would be in a position to inaugurate it next year."
Responding to questions on situation of minorities in Bangladesh and the border issue, Shringla said the discussions between the two sides encompassed all issues of importance to both countries.
"Obviously those discussions did include issues that are important to both countries and it included questions that are topical and needless to say, I think, we are on the same page on these issues," he said.
"We do appreciate that certain issues are internal matters for Bangladesh. But they are important for both countries. We are handling these issues and in many senses, very satisfactory. And we do believe that whatever actions are being taken as a goal is in the best interests of Bangladesh, in the best interest of our countries, he added.
On the border issue, he said it was discussed briefly. The idea is that many of these issues that involve the border would be discussed at a higher level. We will try and work out how to resolve them, he added. "We have a comprehensive water management plan. Effective management of the border is very, very critical. And this is something that we will be both working on."
On the issue of hydropower, he said, "We are fully with you on that issue. We have just issued a cross border power policy and this policy essentially allows India to be used as a transit point for the exchange of power between our neighbours. And there are no regulatory issues regarding the export of power from Nepal and Bhutan through India into Bangladesh."
"We also have a project to connect the 716 kV line from northeastern India through Bangladesh which will provide the scope for hydroelectric power also coming to Bangladesh...And I think the potential is huge.," he said.
On a question about purchase of the defence related items by Bangladesh from around the world, Shringla said, we have extended the line of credit for defence items for (Bangladesh) to USD 500 million and I am told that under this line of credit several items have been identified."
They're in fairly advanced stages of being processed and I think we will see certain defence items exports from India coming to Bangladesh and this is something that we would like to see..Essentially, the entire gamut of cooperation, whether it's training, exchanges, manufacturing, the defence sector, this is something that we'd like to see enhanced."
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.
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.
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 said.
President Kovind, who is here 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 here.
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.