The Telegraph
Wednesday , October 3 , 2012
Since 1st March, 1999
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Bikram on charm-Dhaka drive

Former Bangladesh army chief General Muhammed Abdul Mubeen takes a salute at Amar Jawan Jyoti during his visit to India last year. (Fotocorp)

New Delhi, Oct. 2: Army chief Gen. Bikram Singh reached Bangladesh today, bolstering New Delhi’s prolonged charm offensive on Dhaka.

But symbolism can overtake substance in the warm exchanges between India and Bangladesh that began peaking from last year.

India’s charm offensive has been reciprocated in full measure, though New Delhi would still like transit rights through Bangladesh and explore the possibility of tapping natural gas for Indian industry. Parliament is also yet to ratify a land boundary agreement.

In giving a high profile to the general’s visit, New Delhi is also signalling that it wants to put some muscle into the decorations marking India-Bangladesh relations. The visit to Bangladesh is only the second foreign trip by Gen. Singh after taking over as army chief. Traditionally, the army chief visits Nepal first.

Apart from meeting his Bangladeshi counterpart, Gen. Iqbal Karim Bhuiyan, Gen. Singh is slated to meet Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and President Zillur Rahman during his three-day trip. The Bangladeshi Prime Minister is due for a visit to India in early 2013.

Gen. Singh is the first post-1971 war officer to become army chief. He was commissioned after the war that midwifed the birth of Bangladesh. He visited Dhaka in February last year as the Eastern Army commander based in Fort William, Calcutta.

Later this month, Dhaka is expected to confer the “Friend of Bangladesh” Award on Colonel Ashok Tara, an Indian officer who rescued Hasina and her family in the 1971 war.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Dhaka in September last year. But Mamata Banerjee stole the Prime Minister’s thunder on that visit by scuttling the agreement on sharing of the waters of the Teesta. With Mamata now no longer a partner of the UPA, the Centre is seeking to strengthen ties with Bangladesh despite protests in Bengal.

“The (army chief’s) visit assumes special significance in the light of improving military co-operation between the two countries in consonance with our growing relationship with Bangladesh,” a defence ministry statement said today.

Gen. Singh is likely to expand military co-operation by increasing the intake of Bangladeshi cadets/officers in Indian military schools. A series of joint military exercises may also be institutionalised. Indian and Bangladeshi special forces have a joint drill.

“The visit will further cement the defence relationship with Bangladesh and add impetus to our ongoing defence co-operation. Maintenance of enhanced military-to-military contacts is mutually beneficial to the strategic interest of both the inseparable neighbours,” the defence ministry statement said.

As the Eastern Army commander, Gen. Singh facilitated the visits by Mukti Joddhas (Bangladesh liberation warriors) to mark the 40th anniversary of the war.

In November last year, in a rare honour to Bangladesh in the 40th year of its liberation and symbolic of New Delhi’s reach-out to Dhaka, the then chief of the Bangladesh army, Gen. Muhammed Abdul Mubeen, reviewed the passing-out parade of the National Defence Academy in Khadakvasla near Pune. He was only the third foreigner after the late Chinese Premier Chou En Lai and the chief of the former Royal Nepal Army, Gen. Pyar Jung Thapa, to be given the honour.