Pakistan recently declared a female Bangladeshi diplomat ‘persona non grata’ in a tit-for-tat act. The diplomatic ruckus is not an isolated happening between the two foreign ministries but the row is not an easy one to settle this time around.
Dhaka never stops hitting the headlines whenever Hasina Wajid comes to power, be it the mid-1990s or 2009 onwards. She won a key two-thirds majority six years ago and took office with the promise to take on political rivals like the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI). True to her words, Wajid started the controversial process of settling scores with dissidents of the 1971 liberation war. The War Crimes Fact Finding Committee, tasked to investigate and find evidence, completed its report in 2008 and identified 1,600 suspects. Instead of moving an international court, Wajid created one at home in 2009. She named the domestic judicial panel the ‘International’ Crimes Tribunal but the bench was only mandated to try Bangladeshi citizens.
Of the 24 sentenced to death so far, JI’s Obaidul Haque, Ataur Rahman and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid and BNP’s Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury are a few prominent leaders who have been hanged for their support for Pakistan in the 1971 war of independence.
Moreover, Bangladesh has banned Wajid’s political rival Jamaat-i-Islami ahead of the 2014 general elections, which were boycotted by the main opposition party BNP for alleged rigging and strong-arm tactics of the ruling party. Over 500 people have been killed in political violence during the past three years. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other international organisations have openly questioned the transparency and fairness of these so-called war crime trials in Bangladesh.
The executions come amid repeated calls by Awami League MPs for severing diplomatic ties with Pakistan, alleging Islamabad’s attempts to instigate militancy and terrorism in the country.
During his official visit to Bangladesh a year after Wajid’s stint, General Pervez Musharraf expressed regret for the atrocities committed in 1971. “Your brothers and sisters in Pakistan share the pain of the events in 1971. The excesses committed during the unfortunate period are regretted. Let us bury the past in the spirit of magnanimity. Let not the light of the future be dimmed,” he said.
While the government of Bangladesh welcomed the gesture, Wajid-led opposition denounced the regret as inadequate. Even prior to the setting up of the so-called international tribunal, Wajid frustrated Islamabad’s attempts to normalise relations.
In 2009, Dhaka turned down Dr Khawaja Alqama’s nomination as ambassador of Pakistan. His father Khawaja Khairuddin was the mayor of Dhaka in the 1960s and the best-known face of the Muslim League too. The Awami League ideologues criticised Pakistan’s choice of an ethnic Bengali for his father opted against living in Bangladesh. Later, appointed as ambassador to Yemen, Alqama could have changed the course of Pakistan-Bangladesh ties had Wajid opted for a more pragmatic policy. Ironically, his cousin was serving Bangladesh’s envoy in Islamabad at the time.
After the August 15, 1975 coup in Bangladesh, independence architect Sheikh Mujeebur Rahman and most of Wajid’s family members were assassinated. Wajid and her sister Sheikh Rehana could escape the mayhem for they were already abroad. They later spent much of their exile in India. She continued her politics there until 1981 before returning to Dhaka. As Bangladesh’s premier since 2009 her friendship, nostalgia and thankfulness to India continue to have enormous influence on policies. Her critics see her as more hawkish and revengeful than her own father.
By opening Pandora’s box of the 1971 war of independence, the Bengali premier is violating the Tripartite Agreement signed between Islamabad, New Delhi and Dhaka on April 9, 1974. Without any provocation from Pakistan, Bangladeshi leadership has opted to worsen the bilateral relations by opening settled issues of the past. Observers believe that Wajid has shown little seriousness to extremist trends in the country, including the rise of Daesh, instead she has routed out the militants from the mainstream political arena.
Many analysts believe that Wajid is settling political scores by reviving the memories of 1971 and bringing Pakistan back to the discussion table. Her re-election has paved her way for political revenge against rivals like BNP and JI.
Interestingly, India is neither concerned with shrinking political space in Bangladesh nor the growth of extremism in the country. Islamabad has so far resorted to caution but watched the developments with enormous attention.
Naveed Ahmad is a Pakistani investigative journalist and academic with extensive reporting experience in the Middle East and North Africa. He is based in Doha and Istanbul. He tweets @naveed360