Newspaper Article 11/12/2022
Participation in the “Bay of Bengal Conversation” (21-23 November) under the auspices of the Centre for Governance Studies (CGS), Bangladesh, provided a rare opportunity to visit Dhaka for the first time. It was an exhilarating experience with mixed feelings of déjà vu and remorse. I was 13 years old when former East Pakistan became Bangladesh after a bloody war. With no exposure to a Bengali fellow till I became a journalist and met a Bengali diplomat visiting Quetta in the early eighties, my knowledge of Bangladesh or Bengalis was limited to books like “Witness to Surrender”, or some odd discussions at forums taking stock of the debacle of Dhaka. One could discern the acknowledgement of guilt by Pakistani scholars or politicians. Such talks would generate heated arguments, but in the end, everyone dispersed with a sense of loss, a loser.
However, my exposure to Bangladeshi friends grew when I entered the Foreign Service. I came across several Bangladeshi diplomats whom I found suave and sophisticated. There were a few occasions when the Bangladeshi diplomatic colleagues would share their thoughts during one-on-one meetings. Irrespective of the fact to whom one met, the common refrain from the Bengali friends was the atrocities committed by the West Pakistan authorities against the Bengali population. They would blame the army and civil bureaucracy, treating East Pakistan as their colony or as second-rate citizens.
From Pakistan’s perspective, especially for the post-1971 generation, Bangladesh has been a brotherly country whose separation from Pakistan, although painful, was accepted as a fait accompli. The military dictatorship in Pakistan may have catalysed the secession process, but politicians were equally responsible for sorting out differences with their Bengali counterparts in a mature manner. Bangladesh may have been an independent country, but its political scene portrays a divided society because of the Indian factor. Indian influence increased in the country when the Awami League came into power.
In power since 2009, Sheikh Hasina entertains a grudge against Pakistan. During the past 14 years, she has consolidated her power and influence; the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP) is fighting a survival battle as its leader Begum Khaleda Zia, in a frail condition, has been under house arrest for the past many years. Her son lives in London and has been declared an absconder by the Sheikh Hasina government. For the time being, Sheikh Hasina faces little competition from her political rivals.
Since Pakistan has resisted Indian hegemony, the latter has tried to isolate Pakistan in South Asia. It has blocked the hosting of the SAARC summit in Pakistan since 2016. The Indian journalists and scholars attending the Bay of Bengal Conversation (21-23 November) described SAARC as dead. Bangladesh under Awami League would have no qualms in consigning SAARC to the dustbin of history as it carries former president Zia Ur Rehman’s legacy. The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) appears to be an alternative to the SAARC as five (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka) out of eight countries are members of the SAARC.
Bangladeshi hosts of the Bay of Bengal Conversation did not raise anything anti-Pakistan. The event mainly focused on the Indo-Pacific alliance, which Bangladesh is under increasing pressure to join. An exclusive session dedicated to the Indo-Pacific Alliance was addressed by the ambassadors of the US, Japan and high commissioners of the UK and Australia, highlighting the need for such an alliance to counter China’s growing influence. Surprisingly, China was missing from the conclave, which made the whole show a one-sided affair. It may be a tough call for Bangladesh as it would not want to damage its relations with China which has made a valuable investment in the country. How Bangladesh maintains a balance between China and India would be the test of its diplomacy.
Regarding Pakistan-Bangladesh relations, the Bangladeshi interlocutors privately raised the issue of apology. They maintained that an apology from Pakistan might turn the tables to improve relations between the two countries. Since Bangladesh will be heading for general elections by December 2023, an apology from Pakistan would be considered by the Awami League as its triumph. It would pave the way for friendly relations.
However, when reminded of the historical facts whereby the apology issue was settled in April 1974 when the Tripartite Agreement was signed between the foreign ministers of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh in New Delhi, Bangladeshi interlocutors changed the subject. It was also pointed out that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, like a statesman, made a candid statement that “he wanted the people to forget the past and to make a fresh start, and that the people of Bangladesh knew how to forgive.” However, it has become apparent that Sheikh Mujib’s declaration has been ignored by the leadership of the Awami League which continues to hold an anti-Pakistan brief.
Does one wonder what the wording of the apology should satisfy the ego of Sheikh Hasina? Should there be a dialogue between Pakistan and Bangladesh and bring warmth back into the relationship? During his visit to Bangladesh in July 2002, President Pervez Musharraf recorded his regrets over the 1971 incidents at Savar, the martyrs’ monument on the outskirts of Dhaka. He repeated the same at the banquet hosted by Prime Minister Khaleda Zia. When asked whether Bangladesh would reciprocate Pakistan’s apology for the killings of non-Bengalis by the Mukti Bahni, the Bangladeshi friends were non-committal. There is another problem with Bangladesh’s history; Awami League claims that over three million Bengalis were killed during the “War of Liberation”, while objective scholars such as Sarmila Bose dispute the claim as grossly exaggerated.
For the time being, Pakistan will have to contend that, in geopolitical terms, India has substantive influence over Bangladesh. This realisation is discernible in the Bangladeshi power corridors and intellectual circles. Any attempts by Pakistan to improve relations would face resistance at the most or reluctance at the least in Bangladesh unless the Pakistan-India relationship improves. Therefore, prudence demands a “wait and see” approach.
Note: This article appeared in BOL, dated 11 December 2022.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are of the author and do not necessarily represent Institute’s policy.