President Pranab Mukherjee inspects a guard of honour after arriving at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka. AFP photo
President Pranab Mukherjee landed in the Bangladesh capital on Sunday smack in the middle of escalating violence, which claimed 20 mores lives and had an immediate political fallout as opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia called off her meeting with the visiting Indian dignitary at the very last moment.
The three-day state visit, Mukherjee’s first overseas, also coincided with a two-day strike called by the Jamaat-e-Islami, protesting the conviction of its leaders for war crimes during the country’s 1971 independence war. Bangladesh has been rocked by protests and counter-protests and the death toll now stands at 76.
Mukherjee’s meeting with Zia, whom India has been wooing hard of late, was scheduled for Monday, the day he is to receive the ‘Bangladesh Liberation War Honour Award’. “The meeting was planned much in advance and we were looking forward to it,” said foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai, adding that Zia, in an email, cited security concerns due to the strike.
The Jamaat is an ally of her Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the main opposition, and was part of her government in 2001-06.
The former prime minister has also called for a strike on Tuesday and her party has always flayed the Sheikh Hasina government for being too pro-India.
Zia seemed to have warmed up to India a bit after she visited the entire spectrum of the Indian leadership in New Delhi last year. When external affairs minister Salman Khurshid visited Dhaka in February, he too called on her. Mukherjee, for his part, has always met Zia whenever he has been in Dhaka in various official capacities.
The rest of the leadership, however, gave Mukherjee a rousing welcome, since it is the first visit by an Indian president since 1974. Mukherjee was received at the Hazrat Shahjalal airport here by his counterpart Zillur Rahman, and a 21-gun salute. He later met Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina and also paid tribute at a memorial for the 1971 war martyrs.
New Delhi is very keen on taking bilateral ties to a new high. Mukherjee assured the leadership that India wants to resolve all outstanding boundary issues at the earliest, Mathai said.