Revisiting Core Issues

Bangladesh-Pakistan relations

Dr. Syed Anwar Husain

By voting overwhelmingly in favour of the Pakistan issue in 1946, Muslims of Bengal became instrumental in translating an inchoate political dream into a geopolitical reality. But from its very birth the state of Pakistan, with its two wings separated by about one thousand miles of the territory of an adversarial neighbour, had the appearance of a geopolitical monstrosity. Despite its founder Jinnah's oft-quoted smug future projection of this state that “Pakistan has come to stay,” the staying power of this state was open to many questions from the early days. But most of the questions threatening the vitals of this queer state were the creations of those who presided over the destiny of this state from inception. Despite divergence of history, society, and culture, the common factor of Islam provided the political convergence of interests between Muslims of Bengal and those of the territory now constituting the present-day Pakistan, under the spectre of Brahmanical domination in a united India.

But, immediately after the birth of this state following decolonisation in 1947 the bond of Islam proved tenuous under the onslaught of the internal colonialist mode of domination of East Pakistan by the ruling elite located in West Pakistan. The gradual but inevitable rift that came off in 1971 had been preceded by a series of stand-offs and face-offs. The post-1971 evolution of relations between these two erstwhile wings of the could-notstay Pakistan proved, for easily understandably reasons, the problematic from the beginning. What was new in the changed scenario in the post-1971 period was that these two wings had to start afresh as two independent and sovereign entities, and that too with a historical baggage full of bitter legacies. But over the years, of necessity, under conditions of bilateral imperatives these two states have edged towards each other by meandering through love-hate syndromes. There are unresolved issues that still have the potential to strain the tenuous bilateral relations, as well as venues to better the existing state of this relationship. Luckily, however, since the inception of this relationship the bilateral issues have never assumed any such highly contentious character as to dangerously strain this relationship.

Repatriation of Stranded Pakistanis
Although a bilateral problem with a unique humanitarian dimension the question of repatriation of the non-Bengalees is now at a level of priority much lower than what it was initially. From the management perspective, it is literally a four-dimensional question involving as it does the two countries, relevant Muslim countries/ organisation and international community/organisation. But the external dimensions have been added in the backdrop of severe resource constraint of both Bangladesh and Pakistan and the inability of both to bear the huge expenses involved in repatriation. But the present position of the issue is apparently one of nobody's child. Contrarily, however, the non-Bengalees have remained insistent and consistent in demanding to be repatriated.

Unofficial figures put the number of stranded Pakistanis between 2,37,000 and 3,00,000 sheltered in as many as 70 refugee camps now reduced to 66, across Bangladesh. But the anomaly is that the generation of these people born in the post-1971 period is reported to be not enthusiastic about repatriation, as they do not have any idea of Pakistan. Moreover, this generation has grown over the years in the process of assimilation with the local people.

By 1974, the Pakistan government repatriated, about 108,000 people. In 1982, some 4,600 were evacuated. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf countries funded this $1.5 million airlift. The operation was overseen by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Since 1982, the repatriation has been stopped. But as per the tripartite agreement signed by India, Bangladesh and Pakistan in 1974, all the stranded Pakistanis in Bangladesh were to be taken back by Pakistan. But, at least, on paper and in rhetoric Pakistan does not seem to have gone back on such a treaty-obligation. Since the repatriation process got stalled, late President Ziaul Huq, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the incumbent President Pervez Musharraf never made any statement to the effect that the repatriation process was over, and that Pakistan would not take over these non-Bengalees. Moreover, during his visit to Bangladesh President Musharraf categorically undertook to deal with this humanitarian issue on a priority basis, but no initiative is recorded till today. Indeed, sentiment and rhetoric aside, in the wake of 9/11 and 7/7 Pakistan's hands are so much full as well as tied by issues of enormous security importance that such a tiny issue as this repatriation hardly has any space in Pakistan's external policy-map.

But, if left unresolved this issue would sit on Pakistan-Bangladesh relations as an irritant with no possibility of going away, and the suggested imperative is to sort it out by any means feasible under the circumstances. For Bangladesh it would be a risky proposition to remain inactive vis-à-vis an issue involving some good number of people not owing allegiance to its statehood. The issue is unique as it is potentially dangerous for the internal security of Bangladesh. The pragmatic solution appears to be a joint Bangladesh-Pakistan move to motivate these people to accept the nationality of Bangladesh and settle to live decently. Financial assistance for proper rehabilitation of them may be sought from sources including international and Muslim. Moreover, some funds of the Rabita-i-Alam-i-Islam for the purpose of evacuating these people are reportedly lying idle over the years, which can be put to good use under such a project. But to get such a project under way, Pakistan has to stop its rhetoric of raising vague hopes for the non-Bengalees, and make categorical statements that it would not take over any more of these people. On the other hand, if successful Bangladesh stands to gain a lot by integrating these people as they are a good workforce, and that too with proven ingenuity.

Division of Assets
Unlike an apparent consensus of the two countries on the stranded Pakistani issue their views on the more vital question of division of assets have been divergent ab initio. Immediately after independence Bangladesh came up with a demand for Tk. 257 crore and 57 lac as its share of the united Pakistan's assets. On the other hand, Bangladesh was liable to pay Pakistan Tk. 10 crore and 88 lac. But in 1974, a Pakistani writer got across an altogether different perspective on this tricky issue. As he wrote “…...the fact that Pakistan's claims would far exceed BD's by way of governmental and non-governmental investments, it is to be hoped that Bangladesh will not adopt any rigid attitude in this regard. The assets left by Pakistani businessmen in Bangladesh alone are estimated at RS. 460 crore. As regards foreign debts liability, the World Bank has already absolved Pakistan of the responsibility for the repayment of the project aid utilized in East Pakistan” (Rafiq Jabir, “Trading with Bangladesh under the changed conditions”, the Morning News, Karachi, March 17, 1974.)

As of today Dhaka and Islamabad have not yet reached any agreement on the question. But it is undeniable that the question continues to hamper growth of normal diplomatic relations. It is reported that Bangladesh perceives Pakistani strategy of foot-dragging as the one intended to wear Bangladesh down until the stage when it would be compelled to lose any interest. On the other hand, Pakistan considers the issue highly technical and complex, and suggests resolution through painstaking negotiations. But that Bangladesh is yet to be worn down on the issue became apparent during Pervez Musharraf's visit to Dhaka when Bangladesh Government raised the issue. But Pervez Musharraf's diplomatic retort comprised harping as usual on the complicated and technical nature of the issue and an advice to the effect that the two countries would have live with the issue in the years to come.

But considering the sensitiveness of the issue with its public opinion fall-out and negative ramifications on the bilateral relations it would be diplomatically unwise to drag foot on it. Perhaps both the countries should agree on a common imperative to work jointly on a realistic solution. In this context the 1975 Jeddah Islamic Foreign Minister's Conference proposal mooted by Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dr. Kamal Hossain for arbitration by Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and Kuwait or any one of the three may appear to be a proposition worth giving a try. Alternatively, a third party facilitation of negotations may be sought, and for which purpose, the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) appears to be the pertinent body.

The Question of Pakistan's Apology for Genocide in 1971
This question has a two-phase history: up to 1971 and post 1998. In 1974, in the backdrop of Dhaka's reported intention to try 195 Pakistani POWs kept in Indian military camps, Pakistan included a statement of it's the then Minister of State for Defense and Foreign Affairs, Aziz Ahmed in the text of the tripartite agreement of 9 April 1974 in which it condemned and regretted the crimes that might have been committed by Pakistani soldiers in Bangladesh. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the then Prime Minister of Bangladesh, reciprocated the Pakistani regret by saying that “he wanted the people to forget the past and make a fresh start”. To all the watchers of the then South Asian scenario it appeared that Pakistan had been compelled to make the statement of regret when the proposed trial of the POWs was reported.

Up to 1998 the question of apology remained the concern of only the pro-liberation elements in Bangladesh; and the governments that took power between 1975 and 1996 did not have anything to do with this emotive issue. In 1998-99, two specific incidents revived the issue both at public and government levels in Bangladesh. The first was the then Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's public speech in January 1998 at Karachi following his Dhaka trip wherein he said, “his government would take action against all those who played foul during the previous governments and acted against the stability and integrity of the country”. Following this speech Dhaka pressed Islamabad for a categorical official apology. Secondly, the apology issue was sensitised when in 1999, a mass grave of people killed in 1971 was discovered at Mirpur.

During his visit to Dhaka Pervez Musharraf did not have to face the issue officially, but he himself volunteered to express regrets about the Pakistani atrocities in 1971. Interestingly, following this statement 51 Pakistani civil society groups asked their government to tender an unconditional apology to the people of Bangladesh. By doing so these groups represented the bulk of the Pakistani public opinion and reciprocated pro-liberation sentiment of the people of Bangladesh.

Despite the present official disinterestedness in this sensitive issue from both sides pro-liberation public sentiment in Bangladesh still considers it with undiminished emotion and remains insistent on an unconditional apology from Pakistan. This state of mind was manifested in November 2001 in Dhaka, when, Irfan Raja, Pakistani Deputy High Commissioner, while in a seminar tried to counteract the demand for apology that had been raised on the floor stated that the liberation war of Bangladesh had been the work of some miscreants. This derogatory remark created a public outcry in Bangladesh, and the question of apology was further reinforced. Irfan Raja was declared a persona non grata and eventually withdrawn. This incident, although small, did leave a bad taste in Dhaka-Islamabad relations. But both sides, and even public in Bangladesh subsequently demonstrated quite of deal of maturity, and the apprehended standoff did not take place.

But a hard-headed perusal of the issue would convince any discerning observer that Pakistan would gain a great deal of political and diplomatic mileage by coming up with a categorical apology. Pakistan has at least three supporting reasons for such a little action with huge significance. First, Pakistani public opinion largely supports such an action. Second, there have been examples across the world at different times of offering such an apology, and Pakistan's would not be a unique one. Third, Pakistan's image would certainly gain a great deal by offering such an apology.

Prospects for Cooperation
Since the start of full diplomatic relations in January 1976 the two countries have made some progress in strengthening the bilateral relations by identifying such areas of cooperation as trade, commerce and culture, and by signing requisite agreements. But whatever progress that has so far been made may still be considered to be in the realm of thawing only following a total face-off. The Bangladesh-Pakistan relationship is yet to be at a level that may be called warm. On the whole, for any watcher of this specific bilateral relations it would appear that there is indeed a great deal of scope for improvement; and for which both sides have common imperatives to come up with ideas and strategies.

The idea to start off with is to take lesson by both the countries from the fact that in external relations the best strategy is to seek friends and turn enemies into friends. But, considering the bitter historical background of this relationship, learning of the suggested lesson by the stakeholders may prove to be very difficult. As it is, in this case, the past hinders the present, and obstructs the future. In fact much of this bilateral relationship remains hostage to the past; and the worst manifestations are writ large over all the core contentions issues. But perhaps the most emotive and sensitive such issue is the one relating to Pakistan's apology. So, as the promising starter in improving bilateral relations is to de-link the same from the bitter past and craft a forward-looking strategy. The single most important goal of this strategy would be to retrieve this relationship from its present backward-looking state. But this de-linkage from the past and crafting of a forward-looking strategy do not imply an absolute forgetting of the past; which may be welcome for Pakistan, but would not be acceptable to Bangladesh. In fact, the involved exercise means diplomatic ingenuity and farsightedness on both sides.

Moreover, whatever inventive is done this has to be carried with public opinion in both the countries. Especially, the case of apology is the one that bears direct linkage to public opinion fall-out; and fortunately, there is a convergence of public opinion in favour of an apology by Pakistan in both the countries (in the case of Pakistan, by the statement of 51 civil society groups following Pervez Musharraf's visit to Dhaka) Finally, civil society groups in both the countries can play a contributory role in Track two and three diplomacies.

The author is Professor of History, Dhaka University.

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