On the eve of Bangladesh’s 50th anniversary of independence, the issue of Bangladesh-Pakistan relations has arisen again. Both countries have undergone expansive changes in the meantime, but relations haven’t moved forward. The major reason for this is the various unresolved issues carefully tucked away behind the scenes. There is also the constraint of nationalistic emotions. The question is whether the political leadership of the two countries can overcome all this and take the new generation along a new path. How can that come about!
Renewal of relations for the days ahead
In 1970, the population of the two wings of Pakistan together was around 130 million (13 crore). Now this stands at 380 million to 390 million (38 to 39 crore), and 88 per cent of the present population did not see 1971. In Pakistan, 89 per cent of the citizens are below the age of 50. In Bangladesh, 86 per cent are in this age group. In both countries, the number of persons who have witnessed ‘1971’ first hand, is dwindling. But nationalism is a fiery emotion that remains alive among the youth. All the unresolved issues need to be sorted out at first in order to normalise relations between Bangladesh and Pakistan.
In the past, when various ways to build ties were sought, the unpleasant issues were simply were brushed under the rug. That model didn’t work. A fresh friendship can only be built by addressing the baggage of the past with a give-and-take mindset to reach a consensus on these issues. That will be a matter of relief to the new generation of both countries. Both sides need to draw close for the sake of this youth.
There is no way that 1971 can be forgotten and no need for it to be forgotten. But it is possible to move ahead at the same time. That is essential. That is the call of the day.
Bangladesh and Pakistan together make up 5 per cent of the world population. The market value of these two populaces is naturally huge. Yet trade between these two countries of 390 million people is only USD 6 million to 7 million. That is hardly a drop in the two countries’ exports. In 2019-20, products worth only USD 50 million went from Bangladesh to Pakistan. There is tremendous scope to increase this. The industrial sectors of both countries have expanded exponentially over the past 50 years. The industrialists of the past had a good understanding of the people and the market. The industrialists of the next generation are failing to put that experience to use due to the lack of political measures.
India and China have been on war footing for the past year. And yet amid all this, they have trade between them amounting to around USD 109 billion. Perhaps the example of Pakistan and India is even more relevant. These two countries exchange bullets every single week. They have had three large scale wars between them. Yet the buying and selling of goods continues. Even in the 2019-20 fiscal, goods worth USD 300 million went from India to Pakistan. It was four times more in the previous year and in the future it may increase again. If, despite the fragile political relations between Pakistan and India, business can continues, Bangladesh can do the same with both these countries. It is necessary to do so. It is essential for Bangladesh to build up a market in South Asia in order to shield itself from Europe and America’s political dictates.
In 2019, Pakistan kept Bangladeshis on its priority list for visas. Both countries can simplify these things to give export trade added impetus. This will be a boost to Bangladesh’s jute, tea and tobacco market and also increase Pakistan’s exports of cotton, sugar and other products. But Pakistan’s support is required in order to ensure that the trade balance, now leaning towards once side, leans a bit more towards Bangladesh.
After a long interval, Pakistan has sent a high commissioner to Bangladesh, displaying a desire to develop diplomatic ties. They need to come forward further. Many Pakistani policymakers want Bangladesh to make things easier by forgetting 1971 and moving head. But that is not easy for Bangladesh, it is not even possible. It would be more practical to immediately address and resolve the problems created by the 1971 chapter. Those cannot be evaded.
How bold can Imran Khan be?
Since independence, Bangladesh had pursued a foreign policy of friendship towards all. In the global arena, even amid the tensions between the US and China, and in the Muslim world, the cold war between Riyadh and Tehran, Bangladesh continues to maintain fairly balanced relations with all. This has been no easy feat. The creation of SAARC in South Asia was also from proposal of Bangladesh. Pakistan can be drawn into these instances of Dhaka’s good sense. Through Pakistan, Bangladesh can spread its reach into the expansive world of Central Asia.
Our main export destinations at present are Europe and North America. This can be expanded on a long term basis to Asia’s Eurasian Economic Union. There are more countries outside of this region. Even 50 years since independence, Bangladesh still relies on Russia when it comes to Central Asia. Business opportunities await Bangladesh in the other countries of this region. The Muslim majority population in these countries can be an added advantage for Bangladesh.
Bangladesh’s ties with Uzbekistan go way back and there is scope to increase diplomatic interaction with the other countries in that region. Good relations with Pakistan will make access to Central Asia easy for Bangladesh. In exchange, Pakistan will gain further foothold in Bangladesh’s market.
All this can be done if Pakistan, from its top level, expresses regret for the events of 1971 and seeks apology. The Justice Hamoodur Rahman commission report proves that many members of that country’s military were responsible for the oppression, repression and excesses on the civilians of Bangladesh. Many such soldiers are no longer living. Even if the government wants, perhaps they will not be able to put them on trial. But in light of the Hamoodur Rahman commission report, Pakistan’s politicians can formally seek apology from Bangladesh. This can melt the ice between the two countries to a great extent.
During his Bangladesh visit in 2002, President Pervez Musharraf did express his regret in this regard. In 1998 Nawaz Sharif referred to the events of 1971 as ‘political injustice.’ These certainly are due acknowledgements of Bangladesh’s pained feelings. But such general expressions of regret will not heal the wounds of 1971. This is not enough. That is why, for obvious reasons, relations did not gain ground. It will be better not to take up the same path in future. The people of Bangladesh expect a bold decision in no uncertain terms from the present leadership of Bangladesh. Pakistan must definitely take the political liability of the army’s role in 1971, which clearly will be through an apology, not just an expression of regret. It is not just for those who have lost their loved ones. These two words have a huge difference in significance and impact in diplomacy too. This culture of apologising will give strength to political power and human rights as opposed to militarization throughout Asia.
Japan’s relations with China and Korea are an example before Bangladesh of how to take relations ahead from past brutalities of war. Germany and Israel are another example. The Queen of England apologised for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. All these are nothing but expressions of the sincere desire to take relations forward in light of new realities
Japan’s relations with China and Korea are an example before Bangladesh of how to take relations ahead from past brutalities of war. Germany and Israel are another example. The Queen of England apologised for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. All these are nothing but expressions of the sincere desire to take relations forward in light of new realities. In this manner, on the eve of 50 years since 1971, Bangladesh and Pakistan can open new doors for their future generations. Will 2021 be such a year?
Altaf Parvez is a researcher of South Asian history. This column appeared in the online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir