How to positively transform ties with Bangladesh?

Enough tears have been shed on the separation of East Pakistan and it is time to move on


Dr Moonis Ahmar December 26, 2021
The writer is former Dean Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Karachi and can be reached at [email protected]

Finally, after fifty years of Bangladesh’s inception, a discourse about the prospect of improving relations with Pakistan has presented itself. Getting over the bitterness of the past and moving from an uncertain present to a pleasant future is not only a daunting task but also reflects a possible paradigm shift in BangladeshPakistan relations in the year 2022.

After several years of a standoff in relations between Pakistan and Bangladesh, one can visualise some breakthrough in the bilateral ties. Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina accepted Prime Minister Imran Khan’s invitation and agreed to visit Islamabad. This may usher a new chapter in relations between the two countries especially if she addresses a joint sitting of the parliament of Pakistan. Yet, it may be an uphill task for mending fences in Pakistan-Bangladesh relations because of deep-rooted schism and polarisation engulfing the two countries since the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent country in 1971.

Back-to-back events may, however, reflect some positive transformation in Pakistan-Bangladesh relations in the recent past. Dhaka has positively responded to overtures from Islamabad, particularly the initiative taken by Prime Minister Imran to reach out to his Bangladeshi counterpart and extend an invitation to visit Pakistan. As a gesture of reciprocity, Sheikh Hasina invited Imran Khan to visit Bangladesh and strengthen trade and commercial ties. The high commissioner in Dhaka, Imran Ahmed Siddiqui, also made efforts for a paradigm shift in Pakistan-Bangladesh relations and held comprehensive meetings with Sheikh Hasina. The high commissioner also presented memorable pictures of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, the founder of Bangladesh, from when he visited Lahore in February 1974 for the second Islamic Summit.

Will the year 2022 lead to a paradigm shift and mending of fences in relations between Pakistan and Bangladesh? How can the possible visits of Sheikh Hasina and Imran Khan to each other’s countries help transform stagnant bilateral ties? What are the steps that Dhaka and Islamabad should take to restructure their ties on a solid footing? Will India play the role of a ‘villain’ to prevent a positive shift in Pakistan-Bangladesh relations? These are questions that are raised by those who are monitoring changes in the ties between the two countries and are mindful of impediments which, like in the past, can again derail the normalisation process.

Positive transformation in the relations between the two countries is difficult but not impossible and needs to be analysed from three perspectives.

First is the historical hangover which has, since 1971, been responsible for impeding the normalisation process. The three issues that Dhaka has raised with Pakistan are the question of apology of what Bangladesh calls ‘genocide’ of the Bengali population during the military operation in March-December 1971. This is followed by a demand for division of assets and repatriation of stranded Pakistanis or ‘Biharis’. Pakistan’s stance on the three issues is clear. These matters were resolved in the April 1974 tripartite agreement in which Pakistan had offered deep regrets of the painful events of 1971 and had fulfilled its pledge to accept 140,000 stranded Pakistanis in Bangladesh. For Pakistan, division of assets is a complicated issue as it should also include liabilities. Yet, Pakistan cannot undermine or ignore the sensitivity of Bangladesh, particularly when Awami League is in power, about resolving the three issues, which according to Dhaka still obstruct the normalisation process. The hangover of the past is certainly a reality in the ties between the two countries and must be taken seriously particularly in terms of textbooks of the two countries that generate either indifference or hostility towards each other. In Pakistani textbooks, there is a blackout about united Pakistan and the blame of disintegration of the country in 1971 is squarely put on India. The books disregard the sense of deprivation among Bengalese and unjust handling of matters – particularly, the refusal of West Pakistan-dominated power elite to accept the results of the 1970 general elections.

Second, if the past was rather unpleasant and the present is uncertain, the two countries must focus on the future by demonstrating will, determination and political realism for a paradigm shift in relations. Without a forward-looking approach, Pakistan and Bangladesh cannot move on, particularly in terms of maximising their trade, commercial, cultural, educational and scientific relations. The future of the ties must also consider the role of a new generation of the two countries and how youth exchanges can ensure a paradigm shift. The bitterness of the past and the uncertainty of the present can be mitigated if a liberal visa regime and better connectivity in terms of travel are taken seriously by the two governments. Bangladesh, while reacting to the statement of Pakistan’s Federal Interior Ministry and its National Assembly resolution condemning the hanging of ‘collaborators’ belonging to the defunct Jamaat-e-Islami of Bangladesh in 2014-15, imposed visa restrictions on Pakistani nationals. They are required to seek clearance from the Ministry of Interior for the issuance of a visa. The Pakistani high commissioner drew attention to the visa restrictions for Pakistani nationals to visit Bangladesh during his meeting with the Bangladeshi PM. He also informed his Bangladesh counterpart that as a sign of friendly gesture Pakistan had lifted such restrictions, which were imposed as a matter of reciprocity.

Third, the positive transformation of PakistanBangladesh relations must also be looked at from the Indian perspective. Certainly, New Delhi will never allow any activity in relations between Pakistan and Bangladesh, which can result in the mending of fences and paradigm shift. But it is now up to the people and government of Bangladesh to demonstrate their sovereignty and political will, and resist pressures from New Delhi. It is India’s consistent drive to remind Dhaka that it should remain obliged and indebted to New Delhi for the help and assistance, which was rendered for their liberation from Pakistan. The deep-rooted influence of RAW in Bangladesh, particularly among its elites, is a reality. Whenever there is some headway in mending fences with Pakistan, the pro-Indian lobby plays the 1971 card to derail efforts for reconciliation and normalisation.

To pre-empt the Indian strategy of not giving any space to Pakistan in Bangladesh, Islamabad must address issues raised by Dhaka, particularly rendering an official apology. It can be done by the parliament of Pakistan with a note that it expects the sad chapter in their relations with Bangladesh to be over once and for all. This will unburden the future generations of the two countries from carrying the baggage of bitterness of the past. In the last 50 years, enough tears have been shed on the separation of East Pakistan and it is time to move on.

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