Everyone makes a loud and happy din while talking about the Samjhauta Express that connects Lahore and Delhi by train. The oddity of not having a similar ‘running’ connection between India and its eastern neighbour Bangladesh strangely never quite became a talking point in post-Partition — or post-1971 — conversations. Well, now with the reopening of direct rail links between Dhaka and Kolkata after a 43-year break, people are talking. The Maitree Express picks up where the World War II vintage train service left off in 1965 during the India-Pakistan war. Although the service was revived after the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971, the ‘Friendship Train’ remained frozen on its tracks for an unduly long time — till last year, when New Delhi and Dhaka decided to increase connectivity between the two countries by upgrading land and rail links. This couldn’t be happening sooner, given the several irritants and thorny issues that block improved India-Bangladesh ties.
For instance, Dhaka still seems to be in denial about the use of Bangladeshi territory by insurgents for staging attacks on Indian targets. The military-backed interim government of Fakharuddin Ahmed is yet to act on dismantling Islamic religious schools inside Bangladesh, near the border, which provide training facilities to anti-Indian insurgents. Having said that, there’s no denying the fact that the caretaker administration in Dhaka has adopted a refreshingly friendly attitude towards India. This is unlike some of the previous administrations that tried to create anti-India sentiments among the Bangladeshis. This new ‘positivism’ has evidently played a major role in arresting the startling decline in India-Bangladesh relations. As a result, both sides could finally agree on several issues like sharing security information on cross-border crimes and data on water resources.
On its part, New Delhi is apparently keen to continue with the ‘Gujral doctrine’ — giving more to smaller neighbours and expecting less from them. India made this clear during the last Saarc summit, when it unilaterally decided to give certain benefits to the Least Developed Countries of the region. Bangladesh was an obvious beneficiary. Plans to reduce duty level to zero, and the removal of the ‘non-tariff’ barrier — vociferously criticised by Bangladesh — all attest to this. So the Maitree Express could also chug a long way in improving bilateral ties between Bangladesh and India.