Dec 2022

Enduring disconnect

More than half a century since the bitter War of Liberation,   Syed Badrul Ahsan contemplates the still fraught and inimical relationship between Islamabad and Dhaka

For two and a half years after its eastern province broke away from it through a guerrilla war in 1971, Pakistan continued to refer to it as ‘East Pakistan’. Then, at a point where such a position was verging on absurdity, the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto switched to the idea of calling Bangladesh the ‘Dhaka administration’. Bhutto and his followers, along with political rivals, kept up the fiction of Bangladesh still being part of Pakistan in the fond hope that someday the Bengalis would return to the old country.

That hope was, of course, put paid to when, in February 1974, Islamabad was compelled to acknowledge Dhaka’s position as a sovereign entity. Having called a summit of Islamic nations in Lahore, principally as a means of realigning a defeated Pakistan with the Muslim world, Bhutto was prevailed upon by many of his guests to invite Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to the conference. Bhutto, still unwilling to accord diplomatic recognition to Bangladesh, expected Mujib to accept his invitation with alacrity and fly to Lahore.

Mujib saw in the invitation an opportunity to play his cards well. Bangladesh was a secular nation-state and yet it was not possible for those invited to the Lahore summit to ignore the fact that a very large majority of Bangladesh’s citizens were Muslims. The Bangladesh Prime Minister made his presence in Lahore conditional on Pakistan’s formal recognition of his country. That recognition came on 22 February and the following day Mujib travelled to Pakistan at the head of a Bengali delegation, to the summit of Islamic leaders.

That said, soon after the end of the Bangladesh War of Liberation in December 1971, and the transfer of Pakistani prisoners of war to India, the Bangladesh authorities made known their plans to put a number of Pakistani military officers on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity, committed during the conflict. With the return of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from incarceration in Pakistan in early January 1972, Dhaka prepared a list of 195 Pakistani officers to be tried in Dhaka.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto
Mohammad Khurshid, Pakistan’s first ambassador to Bangladesh

That, of course, did not go down well with the Bhutto government in Islamabad. The Pakistan authorities warned, for no good reason, that if the officers were tried by Bangladesh, Islamabad would take measures to try a number of Bengali civil and military officers, at the time stranded in Pakistan on charges of treason. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s government went on a diplomatic offensive against Bangladesh, dispatching some Bengali political leaders – who had collaborated with the Pakistan army and later been stranded in Rawalpindi at the outbreak of direct military conflict between India and Pakistan in early December – to Middle Eastern countries. The objective was to spread misinformation about politics in Bangladesh, to inform countries such as Saudi Arabia, Libya, Sudan and others that Muslims in Bangladesh were being subjected to repression and murder by the secular Mujib government in the new country.

Pakistan’s friendship with China led to another complication when Beijing exercised its veto against Bangladesh’s application for membership of the United Nations in 1972. In the event, it would not be till September 1974 that Dhaka would enter the world body.

In February 1974, Islamabad was compelled to acknowledge Dhaka’s position as a sovereign entity

Bangladesh’s Pakistan policy immediately after the war and during the entire period of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s government rested importantly on its demand for a settlement of the assets and liabilities of pre-1971 Pakistan, through a reasonable division of them between the two countries. Prior to Bangladesh’s liberation, Pakistan’s major foreign exchange earners were tea and jute, produced in its eastern province. Sadly, though, economic development in the united country remained by and large confined to the western wing. Disparity widened the cleavage between the two provinces.

It was expected that when Prime Minister Bhutto visited Dhaka in June 1974 for talks with his Bangladesh counterpart, a solution could be thrashed out to the satisfaction of the two countries. In the event, the Pakistani delegation’s dogged refusal to discuss the issue resulted in a stalemate. No joint statement or communique was issued. A grim Mujib bade farewell to an equally grim Bhutto. It was the last time they would meet.

Despite Pakistan’s recognition of Bangladesh in February 1974, the two countries did not exchange ambassadors till 1976, when, following a series of coups and counter-coups in Dhaka, General Ziaur Rahman emerged as Bangladesh’s strongman. When news of the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family reached Pakistan, a clearly cheerful Bhutto quickly announced the recognition of what he believed to be a new and Islamic Bangladesh, headed by Mujib’s commerce minister Khondakar Moshtaq.

In Pakistan, Mujib’s assassination was cheered by people and politicians, to the extent that Bhutto swiftly dispatched rice and cloth to Bangladesh in the aftermath of the coup. The political change in Dhaka also signified a change in Bangladesh’s attitude to Pakistan in that the issue of assets and liabilities was gradually pushed under the carpet. The trials of the 195 prisoners of war had earlier, through the Delhi-Islamabad-Dhaka tripartite agreement of April 1974, already been set aside and all Pakistani POWs in India and all Bengalis stranded in Pakistan had returned to their respective countries.

Beijing exercised its veto against Bangladesh’s application for membership of the UN in 1972

Interestingly, the first ambassadors (the office was not that of high commissioner since Pakistan had left the Commonwealth in protest at Britain’s diplomatic recognition of Bangladesh in 1972) exchanged by Dhaka and Islamabad had been influential figures in the Awami League prior to the war. Mohammad Khurshid, the Pakistani ambassador to Bangladesh, was a leading Awami League politician in Punjab in undivided Pakistan; and M. Zahiruddin, until he was sidelined in independent Bangladesh, was sent off as Bangladesh’s ambassador to Pakistan by the new rulers in Dhaka. The year was 1976.

All said and done, however, relations between Pakistan and Bangladesh have always been fraught. Bangabandhu’s assassins, fugitives from the law in Bangladesh, are to this day suspected to be travelling to and back from Pakistan. Although a number of Pakistani leaders, notably Bhutto, General Ziaul Haq, Benazir Bhutto and General Pervez Musharraf, have been to Dhaka, none of them has ever expressed any apology to Bangladesh for the genocide committed by the Pakistan army in 1971. For its part, Bangladesh has seen its two military rulers, General Ziaur Rahman and General Hussein Muhammad Ershad (both men were once officers in the Pakistan army), as well as Khaleda Zia, visit Islamabad when they governed in Dhaka.

NO REGRETS: While Pakistani leaders including Benazir Bhutto (l) and Gen. Pervez Musharraf visited Dhaka, none has ever apologised to Bangladesh for the 1971 genocide

The Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina since May 1981, has predictably not had comfortable relations with successive Pakistani governments. This is due to Islamabad’s refusal to express contrition over the atrocities committed in 1971, and the interference by governments such as the one led by Nawaz Sharif in the war crimes trials, undertaken inDhaka, of the old Bengali collaborators of the Yahya Khan junta. The Sharif government adopted a resolution in Pakistan’s national assembly condemning the trials, a move which did not go down well in Bangladesh.

A sense of disconnect underlies relations between Pakistan and Bangladesh. Old suspicions linger, given Islamabad’s reluctance to explain to its young people the history of the conflict which led to its eastern province breaking away from the western wing. The war of 1971 is yet portrayed in Pakistan as a conspiracy by Indian and Bengali political classesagainst Islamabad. No reference is made to the subverting of the results of the general election of 1970 and the subsequent genocide launched by Pakistan’s army in Bangladesh in March 1971.

Pakistanis have not been told of the atrocities their soldiers committed in Bangladesh. In bizarre manner, however, at the museum of the Pakistan army, posters and statements are prominently on display, informing visitors that it was the Mukti Bahini which committed genocide in 1971, and that the Indian government was instrumental in the rise of ‘terrorists’ in the shape of the Mukti Bahini.

The diplomatic missions of Bangladesh and Pakistan in Islamabad and Dhaka remain isolated, unable to interact fruitfully with the political and intellectual classes in the capitals they are based in.

The bitterness engendered by the long-ago war lingers. Bangladesh remains convinced that as long as Pakistan does not acknowledge the truth of what happened, of what its political and military leadership once did to undermine the aspirations of Bangladesh’s people, not much of an improvement can be expected in the ties between the two nations.

Disconnect remains the theme.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a Bangladeshi journalist and political commentator based in London. He is the author of biographies of Bangladesh’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the country’s first prime minister Tajuddin Ahmad