In this photo taken on July 4, 2016, Indian Ambassador to Bangladesh Harsh Vardhan Shringla, who is now the foreign secretary, bows his head after placing a wreath near the casket of a Bangladeshi policeman during a memorial service after armed terrorists stormed an upscale restaurant in a bloody siege in Dhaka. Photo: AFP

India’s foreign secretary said he was “very satisfied” with his two-day visit to Dhaka, the neighbouring country’s capital, where he sought to improve relations and keep China from getting a toehold in bilateral disputes.

Harsh Vardhan Shringla said he conveyed a message from Prime Minister Narendra Modi about improving bilateral relations, and offered to prioritize Bangladesh when India produces a Covid-19 vaccine, which it plans to do on a large scale once it is fully developed by the UK’s Oxford University.

Shringla held meetings with Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed on Tuesday and with Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen on Wednesday. Modi sent him to Dhaka to highlight the excellent relations between India and Bangladesh, even during the pandemic, he told journalists in Dhaka.

China’s offer of a $1 billion investment to develop a water management system involving the Teesta River is seen by foreign affairs experts as a key reason for the visit, though there was no official word from either Dhaka or New Delhi on the matter.

The foreign secretary didn’t say anything about the contentious issue of the two countries sharing the Teesta River’s water. About two-thirds of the upstream 414 km Teesta River is in India, which uses it to produce electricity and irrigate agricultural land. Bangladesh says it gets a raw deal because the river is reduced to a trickle once it empties its monsoon season floodwater.

Relations between the two South Asian countries soured over the past couple of years, mainly because of India’s move to change its rules in order to weed out foreigners and grant quick citizenship to Hindus fleeing from religious persecution in Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The use of unsavory words to describe illegal migrants from Bangladesh by India’s ruling party politicians have vitiated relations.

The two countries plan to start a virtual version of their Joint Consultative Commission to improve communication between their foreign ministers. Addressing concerns expressed by Bangladesh, India is also opening an air travel corridor with direct flights between the two nations for business travellers and those needing medical care.  

The Indian emissary was the first overseas visitor that Sheikh Hasina met since the outbreak of the pandemic. For Shringla, a former envoy to Bangladesh, the trip was his first overseas destination as the foreign secretary since India imposed lockdowns from March 25 to contain the coronavirus.  

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