When Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar visited Dhaka in November to invite Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajid to attend the D-8 summit in Islamabad, a demand was put forward that Pakistan apologise over “crimes committed by the state in 1971.”
Khar responded with the standard reply: Bangladesh should move on, build cordial relationships and “bury the past”. Days later, Bangladesh announced Wajid would not attend the summit.
This renewed insistence on an apology may, on the surface, seem like nothing but political gesturing by Bangladesh’s ruling party, the Awami League. However, from government to bureaucracy to civil society, most in Bangladesh feel it is time Pakistan officially apologises to Bangladesh.
This demand at the official level is a foreign policy continuation since the Awami League-led government came to power in 2009. It was raised in 2009, during foreign minister Dipu Moni’s meeting with the Pakistan envoy Alamgir Bashar Khan Babar.
“Our demand has never been sidelined,” Moni told The Express Tribune this week. “We will keep pressing the issue, expecting that the Pakistani policymakers apologise at some stage.”
According to an official at the ministry’s South Asia Division, “pressing the issue in every bilateral meeting and keeping it noted in official minutes is an appropriate diplomatic process.” Issuing an official letter from the Bangladesh foreign ministry to the Pakistan foreign ministry, he added, is not mandatory.
The intelligentsia in Bangladesh comments that Pakistan should have tendered an official apology much earlier. Former commerce minister Farukh Khan, currently Minister for Tourism & Civil Aviation, told a public rally that this would strengthen bilateral trade.
To prominent historian and a professor at the Dhaka University Muntassir Mamoon, the apology is more important now than at any time in the past because, according to him, Bangladesh is now in a stronger position to claim it. “Both economically and politically, Bangladesh has great importance in this region,” Mamoon said.
Referring to Pakistani’s growing interest towards Bangladesh’s economic growth, especially in the readymade garments industry, he added “Pakistan now needs Bangladesh more than Bangladesh needs its distant neighbor.”
However, Shahriar Kabir – writer, filmmaker, journalist, activist and a member of the national committee formed to prepare a list of foreign nationals for their contributions in the 1971 War – believes it is more than just trade.
Responding to Khar’s statement he said, “Her response was a repetition of Pakistan’s policy of ignorance.” A formal apology would mean that Pakistan as a state “accepts its responsibility for a mistaken policy.”
Kabir says that the people in Pakistan must know how the then government and army dealt with its eastern part from 1947 to 1971. “If they (Pakistani people) know the facts, pressure for an apology will come from within.”
The apology issue is consistently raised by the Awami League in particular. Soon after independence, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, then prime minister of Bangladesh, demanded this. He also tried to convince international bodies to make Pakistani government pay compensation.
There has been some private acknowledgement. President Musharraf, during his official visit to Bangladesh in 2002, personally apologised. Bangladeshis still praise Musharraf for that gesture. But they want an official apology, with some explaining why it is not happening.
Pro-vice chancellor of Jahangir Nagar University, Farhad Hossain, says “Pakistan knows it will have to pay a large sum in compensation as per international standards if it apologises.” Once a formal apology is made, Pakistan would be legally bound to accept all that Bangladesh might claim as a victim – something that the Pakistani government is reluctant to do, he added.
The issue of stranded Pakistanis in Bangladesh is directly associated with the apology, Professor Mizanur Rahaman, Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) believes. According to Refugee International, some 200,000 Urdu speaking persons are still living in more than 100 overcrowded refugee camps across Bangladesh. Since independence, many of them want to be repatriated to Pakistan but only a handful has been. An apology from Pakistan would positively address this issue as well, Rahaman said. “But does the Pakistan government want to solve it, that is a question now,” he said.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 16th, 2012.