Sheikh Hasina attended the Visva Bharati University’s convocation on May 25 and received an honorary degree from Kavi Nazrul University in Asansol on May 26. Over the two days she was in West Bengal, the Bangladeshi premier also held informal meetings with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The three leaders also inaugurated Bangladesh Bhavan, a centre of research and cultural exchange.

Speaking at the programmes, they steered clear of the Rohingya refugee crisis and the botched Teesta Water Sharing Agreement, subjects on which India, Bangladesh and West Bengal have differing positions. The Bengali media reported that the thorny matters were also avoided during delegation-level talks.

Instead, the talk around Hasina’s visit was largely rooted in cultural diplomacy, with all sides emphasising the shared histories of the two countries. Hasina, Modi and Banerjee reminisced about old times and connections, and quoted Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam and spoke of how the bards, who lived and worked on both sides of the border, fired imaginations and brought communities together.

Personal stories

Modi has been roundly criticised for turning his address at the Visva Bharati convocation into a campaign speech, but he was not alone in doing so. Hasina also highlighted her government’s achievements in education and poverty eradication. More importantly, both anchored their speeches in their own selves, sometimes conflating their personal histories and positions with those of their countries.

Modi spoke about the greatness of the Vedas and Indian values, and laced his speech with references to his position. “I am here by virtue of being the prime minister, since it is the prime minister who is the chancellor of the university,” he said. “While walking here, I was thinking that Gurudev Tagore would have walked and composed his works on this very soil…I felt a certain energy here, the kind you feel when mantras are recited in a temple.”

On another occasion, he said, “As prime minister, I have travelled to various countries and seen people’s love for Tagore. In Afghanistan, everyone knows Kabuliwala.” Kabuliwala is a celebrated short story by Tagore.

Launching into campaign mode, Modi said Tagore and his “Bharatiyata” – roughly, Indianness – was the fuel for his government’s flagship projects for rural electrification, connectivity, biogas and such.

He asked students to imbibe the values preached by Tagore and empower villages by making use of the government’s schemes. “If you walk one step,” he said, dabbing his index finger into his chest several times, “the government will walk four steps.”

Hasina, on the other hand, recalled the assassination of her father, Bangladesh’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rehman in 1975, in a heavy, wavering voice. “I and my sister who is also here were the only ones who survived in our family, and Indira Gandhi intervened to provide us refuge. India has always stood by us,” she said, conflating her family’s history with Bangladesh’s. She emphasised the association that Tagore and Islam had, through her father, with her family and the country she leads. She quoted from the two poets, underlining that theirs were the values that inspired her family and party to defend Bangladesh’s secular traditions.

At the inauguration of Bangladesh Bhavan, Hasina veered off her scripted speech to reminisce about her times spent in India. The event also offered a glimpse of her bonhomie with Banerjee. The prime ministers were posing for a picture when Modi gestured Banerjee to join them. She stepped into the frame gingerly, taking a place behind Modi until Hasina called her. In a jiffy, she crossed over to the other side and the two of them held hands for brief while.

Amnesty International had urged Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi to address the Rohingya refugee crisis but they reportedly did not discuss the matter. Photo credit: AFP

Muted references

On May 24, the human rights organisation Amnesty International issued a statement urging Hasina and Modi to address human rights concerns in their respective nations. In particular, it called attention to the Rohingya crisis.

Although Hasina had early this year called on India to persuade Myanmar to take back the Rohingya refugees from her nation, she did not reiterate the request during her visit, at least publicly. In Santiniketan, she said cooperation of all countries, including India, was essential for the repatriation of the Rohingya. In Asansol, she stressed the humanitarian aspect of the crisis. “Tagore, Nazrul...they taught us the values of being human and that is something you must remember, to be human in these times of communal polarisation and terrorism. We have opened our doors to 11 lakh Rohingya even though we have very little resources ourselves…We are sharing our food with them, and will continue to do so.”

Hasina’s government has faced wide criticism for seeking to move the Rohingya refugees to isolated islands even as her ministers say there is little space to take in more refugees. The Modi government is unwilling to open its borders to the Rohingya refugees, labelling them as a security threat and a drain on India’s resources, and is defending in the Supreme court its plan to deport nearly 40,000 Rohingya. Most of them live in camps in West Bengal and Banerjee, differing with the central government, has called for supporting the persecuted community.

The botched Teesta Water Sharing Treaty also did not feature in the discussions. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was due to sign the deal in 2011 when Banerjee’s opposition shelved it. Water being a state subject makes Bengal’s role in the treaty pivotal. Speculation was rife that Banerjee, Modi and Hasina would discuss the deal this time. More so because general elections are due in both India and Bangladesh next year and signing the treaty would give Modi and Hasina bragging rights.

The Bengali media quoted anonymous officials as saying the “issue must have been discussed” in informal meetings, although there was no official confirmation. In public, no more than two references were made to “problems” that the two countries need to resolve. “A lot of water has flown down the Padma, Jamuna, Meghna rivers and a lot of water will flow in future as well,” Banerjee said at Bangladesh Bhavan on May 25. Hasina followed suit later that afternoon. “There are some pending issues between the two countries,” she said. “But on an occasion like this I don’t want to talk about them.”

Hasina and Banerjee refused to be drawn into the specifics of their informal conversations, merely saying the meetings went well and they discussed everything. They refrained from making statements that could have drawn the ire of their respective constituencies, as indeed did Modi. Instead, they chose to talk about and display personal involvement.

Inside Bangladesh Bhavan in Santiniketan. Photo credit: Aritra Bhattacharya

‘Pilgrimage centre’

Hasina and Banerjee called Bangladesh Bhavan in Santiniketan a place of “pilgrimage” for it showcases “amity” between the two countries and their peoples. The land for it was donated by the Visva Bharati University and the Bangladesh government spent Rs 25 crore to design and construct the building. It has pledged another Rs 10 crore for maintenance and upkeep in the coming years.

The centre has panels showcasing Bangladesh’s history and freedom struggle, particularly the role of Rehman. There are panels about the country’s shared relations with Tagore and India, alongside some artefacts donated by Bangladesh. Hasina and Modi both hoped it would promote cultural exchange and provide scholars rich material on the region’s history.

But it is not yet fully operational. The much-promoted library was closed through the day of inauguration, with officials saying it will be days before it is opened to the public. A planned cafeteria is also yet to start and facilities such as toilets are not functional.