Pakistan’s apology to Bangladesh is a thorn in the throat. Neither can overcome it

WWhatever the mistake, excuse us both. This is a line from Pakistan’s last and first commercial film Khel Khel Mein on the dismemberment of East Pakistan in 1971. More than a dialogue, it summarizes the direction in which Islamabad wants to orient its relations with Dhaka. There is a desire to mend barriers and reconnect with a nation for which average members of Pakistan’s ruling elite have found new respect, lacking in the past, especially when “Operation Searchlight” was launched. in 1971.

Senior journalist Amir Mateen recently performed with the idea of a possible confederation between Pakistan and Bangladesh. Although his tweet was noticeably disputed by journalist Kamran Shafi, Mateen’s idea reflects the phantasm of Pakistan’s establishment since it lost the former East Pakistan to its great rival, India. The army that returned to power in Pakistan in 1977 appears to have recovered from the initial hurt of loss of territory to think about it in terms of turning it into a geostrategic opportunity, without the burden of having to rule the place. and its inhabitants. .

Talks led by Dhaka in the early and mid-1980s for the establishment of SAARC created links between the Pakistani and Bangladeshi servicemen led by General Ziaul Haq and General Hussain Muhammad Ershad respectively. The links were repaired to the point that in 1994 the Pakistani Air Force chief raised the possibility of parking PAF planes in Dhaka for possible use in the event of a conflict between Pakistan and the India. I attended the seminar held at the Institute for Strategic Studies in Islamabad where the right-hand man of the military establishment, Ikram Sehgal, also spoke and discussed the idea of ​​confederation. It is possible that dialogue and communication helped mend some of the differences between the Pakistani military and Bangladesh officers, the majority of which consisted of those who were repatriated from West Pakistan in 1970 and after Bangladesh’s independence. in 1971.

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A thorn in Pakistan-Bangladesh relations

The idea of ​​confederation may be a fantasy, but the strategic improvement of relations with Bangladesh is one possibility that keeps the Pakistani establishment engaged. Bilateral relations had improved considerably during the reign of Khalida Zia until they collapsed after the victory of Sheikh Hasina and his Awami League in 2009. The lowest point in Dhaka-Islamabad relations was 2013 and 2016, when the Pakistani parliament officially protested against the death sentence passed on Jamaat-e-Islami leaders for their involvement in war crimes. In addition, Sheikh Hasina was considered close to the government of Narendra Modi in India. This added to the burden of the key problem in Islamabad’s relations with Dhaka – its reluctance to apologize for the 1971 murders and its hesitation over the issue of negotiating the repatriation of the Biharis (known as Pakistanis in Bangladesh ) who have been stuck there since 1971.

The last time the issue came to attention was during General Aslam Beg’s command of the Pakistani Army in the early 1990s. However, the issue is very emotional as it worries all forms of Sindhi nationalists from across the country. the negative impact of such migration. Fear of becoming a minority in their own province with the possible influx of additional Urdu speakers.

But the other outstanding issue – Pakistan’s apology to Bangladesh – is even more serious, stuck like a thorn in its throat that does not allow the two countries to move forward in strengthening bilateral relations. This despite the fact that Dhaka-Islamabad relations appear to be gradually re-establishing themselves, in large part thanks to China’s increased presence in South Asia and the benefits gained from Beijing’s deep pockets as well as the shortsighted approach of India towards the Muslim countries and the populations of its neighborhood. .

While Delhi is eager to reach out to wealthy Muslim states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, its attitude towards Afghanistan and Bangladesh, or even Pakistan, is determined by the ideology of the country’s domestic politics. Modi government. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 affected Delhi-Dhaka relations. Islamabad saw it as an opportunity to reconnect and wean Bangladesh from India. The slowly brewing negativity in India-Bangladesh relations is a major element of Pakistan-Bangladesh relations which can eventually be expanded through increased trade ties.

Currently, Dhaka has a negative trade balance with Pakistan, which could improve as Islamabad appears willing to open bigger doors for Bangladesh. In 2020, Prime Minister Imran Khan called Sheikh Hasina and lifted visa restrictions for Bangladeshi citizens. The ease of obtaining a visa does not necessarily translate into increased traffic between the two countries, unless direct flights are launched or the two countries improve their business potential. Most Pakistani exports to Bangladesh currently include cotton yarns and fabrics, and from Bangladesh these are jute and jute products. The removal of the visa restriction has certainly facilitated access for ideologically inclined Bangladeshis, some of whom have recently been Point by economist Kaisar Bengali in a madrassa in Thatha, a town on the outskirts of Karachi.

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A story Pakistan wants Bangladesh to accept

As stated earlier, a better movement of people between the two countries will only occur if there are greater economic opportunities. Bangladeshis are not necessarily overwhelmed by the thought of 1971, which was also my own experience when I first visited Dhaka in 2006. I had been there to study comparative civil-military relations and was worried. the treatment I might receive because of my nationality. I was surprised to see Bangladeshis not talking about Pakistan but seeming more concerned about India and the treatment of its citizens by the Border Security Force (BSF).

However, progressive Pakistanis, including myself, have always insisted that Islamabad formally apologize for what it did in 1971. But the Pakistani military and its inter-service public relations (ISPR) instead tried to build a story that Pakistan does not need to apologize because committed by both parties: the Pakistani military and the Mukti Bahini.

This story first appeared in Sarmila Bose’s book in 2011 Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War, which questioned the veracity of Bangladesh’s claims about millions of people who died and raped during the civil war and military operation. This perspective was exposed on a large scale through the recent military media exercise, most openly seen in filmmaker Javed Jabbar’s documentary, Separation of East Pakistan: the untold story, who even tends to whitewash General Yahya Khan and presents the military operation as a necessity because, he argues, the Mukti Bahini – allegedly trained and supported by India, as the documentary claims – had started targeting non -Bengalis who made military action inevitable.

The media blitzkrieg around 1971 also aims to silence progressive voices in Pakistan who seek to highlight how the Bengalis of post-1947 Pakistan were dismissed as someone who should be taught a lesson, thus justifying the basis of a war. civil in the East. The Pakistani military has historically viewed the situation in its former eastern wing and the 1971 war purely as an “Indian conspiracy”.

The film Khel Khel Mein is built around this idea and actually applies this argument to the troubles in Balochistan using the separation of Bangladesh or East Pakistan as an example. It should be remembered that no one, including the famous poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, was allowed to question the fact that Bangladesh’s independence was the fault of West Pakistan’s policy. Some of the surviving men of the time I spoke with claimed that Faiz issued a statement in April 1971 condemning India’s involvement in allegedly stoking separatism because it was threatened with consequences. he didn’t.

What seems to help the Interservice Public Relations (ISPRE) narrative now is the fact that it tends to draw heavily on the nationalist narrative of Bangladesh – the argument that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the first president of Bangaldesh , always wanted an independent state. The rearrangement of facts in state-sponsored documentaries, films and talks in Pakistan focusing on Bengali violence, in some ways, reinforces the aforementioned claim. What goes hand in hand is that Bangladesh should now stop waiting for Pakistan to apologize and accept the violence of 1971 as its political legacy and the basis of its separation from West Pakistan, and then is working to renew ties with Pakistan. Instead of delving into the past, Islamabad would like Dhaka to recite Faiz’s famous poem: “Hum ki thahre ajnabi”. Even when it was written, the poem echoed the sentiments of the state.

We remain strangers to each other
Despite our warmth and hospitality;
Let’s try to be friends again
Now after all these encounters.

The Pakistani army, which resented Bengali nationalism in 1971, now sees it as a useful tool to justify its actions and prove to national skeptics that its own acts of violence have always been right.

Ayesha Siddiqa is Senior Fellow in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. She is the author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter. Opinions are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)