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Bar, lobby on talks venue list to Dhaka

New Delhi, Sept. 16: When Bangladesh culture minister Abul Kalam Azad arrived here last week to meet his Indian counterpart Kumari Selja, his team was surprised at the talks venues it was successively offered: first a hotel’s lobby, then its bar lounge and eventually a dining hall.

Even this was apparently an afterthought: Indian officials claimed they didn’t know that talks were on the agenda and were themselves surprised when the visitors asked about the venue.

They said they had thought that Azad, who had stopped over in Delhi on his way to Santiniketan for a Tagore event, had sought a meeting with Selja only to have lunch with her. So they offered the lobby just outside the five-star hotel’s banquet hall where the lunch meeting had been arranged.

When the visitors balked at the idea of an international dialogue in a hotel lobby, culture ministry officials suggested a bar lounge on the hotel’s top floor, scandalising the Bangladeshi team of eight delegates some more. Eventually, the Indians zeroed in on a dining hall. The tables were removed, a sofa was arranged and the two ministers and their teams met there for about half an hour.

Sources who cannot be quoted said the Bangladeshi delegation was left fuming at the casual treatment.

“Dhaka had not at any point clearly indicated that it wanted talks,” a senior Indian official said.

Bangladesh high commission spokesperson Enamul Hoque Chowdhury declined to comment on the treatment of the delegation or to clarify whether Dhaka had indeed failed to communicate its intention to hold talks.

The visit was to cap the yearlong celebrations of Rabindranath Tagore’s 150th anniversary. The Bangladeshi team had come with miniature Padma boats to gift them to Visva-Bharati at an event on September 12. A lot of Tagore’s work is known to have been written from houseboats on the Padma.

Selja was to attend the event in Santiniketan but her office twice caused it to be postponed citing her unavailability on the scheduled dates.

“First, she could not go because of her mother’s death. Then, the rescheduled event clashed with the monsoon session of Parliament,” an official in Selja’s office said. Eventually, it was decided that Azad would stop over in New Delhi to meet her.

Among those invited to the lunch were Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) director-general Gautam Sengupta, National Archives chairperson Mushirul Hassan, Nehru Memorial director Mahesh Rangrajan and National Gallery of Modern Art director Rajeev Lochan.

During the talks, the visitors asked for ASI help towards upkeep of monuments in Bangladesh. New Delhi and Dhaka had signed a cultural agreement in December 1972.