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Pakistan-Bangladesh: Rethinking the paradigm

Saad Rasool

This month will mark fifty years of Bangladesh’s “independence” (read: separation), from Pakistan. The moment is a painful memory in Pakistan’s national history; just as, undoubtedly, it evokes horrors of war for the people of Bangladesh. And over the course of these fifty years, the scars of war and hostility from December 1971, have festered an ambiance of mistrust and animosity between two brother who, once upon a time, gathered (together) under the banner of Muhammad Ali Jinnah to seek their collective independence from the British Raj and Hindu majority of India.

This journey of pain, unfortunately, started much before December of 1971. In fact, within just a few years of independence from the British Raj of India, the Bengali Language Movement started in 1952.

Under the flag of this movement, leaders of the Awami League (initially formed as the All Pakistan Awami Muslim League in 1949), demanded recognition of the Bengali language as an official language of the Pakistan, allowing government affairs, education, media, currency and official stamps to be issued and conducted in the Bengali script.

While the issue of language was settled, in part, on May 7, 1954, when the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan resolved to adopt Bengali (along with Urdu) as the official language of Pakistan, the struggle left a festering scar of distrust between East and West Pakistan officials.

The tainted politics of the 1960s deepened this scar. During General Ayub Khan’s era, Pakistan saw much economic progress, but its results were unevenly distributed between the East and the West of the country. Specifically, the people of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) lamented the government’s prioritising the demands of West Pakistan, at the cost of ignoring the Bengalis.

Adding fuel to fire, the rise of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in West Pakistan, and Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman in Bengal, led to a political tussle which ripped apart any semblance of harmony between the two federating units. This tussle, leading up to the 1970 general elections, reached fever pitch.

While Bhutto won a majority in West Pakistan (winning 81 out of 160 seats), Mujib-ur-Rehman swept across all of East Pakistan (winning 162 seats out of 165 seats). And naturally, having simple-majority, Mujib-ur-Rehman’s Awami League expected to form the government. This, sadly, did not rest well with Bhutto and the political powers in West Pakistan, resulting in Mujib-ur-Rehman’s Awami League declaring “independence” on March 26, 1971.

In response, the State of Pakistan launched an operation to counter the ‘separatists’, which resulted in many excesses being committed. India—Pakistan perennial enemy—pounced on the opportunity, and extended military as well as material support to the Mukti Bahini guerrilla fighters. As the situation worsened, during the course of 1971, Indian military launched an all-out offensive, resulting in the fall of Dhaka on December 16, 1971.

Half a century on from the painful events of 1971, Pakistan as well as Bangladesh now have a new generation (youth), who neither precipitated nor participated in the tragic events of that time. And it is pertinent to ask how this new generation, distant by the horrors of the past, can work together towards building a new and lasting partnership in the region.

This probability—of a new regional partnership between Pakistan and Bangladesh—has recently gained more traction, as Bangladesh crawls out Modi’s fascist Indian camp, and edges towards a stronger alliance with China and her allies.

Triggered by a backlash against Modi’s draconian Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019—which has stripped thousands of Bengali-origin Indians of their nationality, and promises to cast them out of the country—Bangladesh has gradually started to move away from its excessive Indian influence. For the first time since 1971, the news of Indian premier (Modi) visit to Bangladesh was received with hostility and violence. In the lead-up to Modi’s planned trip to Dhaka, earlier this year, riots broke out in Bangladesh, and the resulting clashes between protesters and the State claimed more than 12 innocent lives.

India’s posture of disenfranchisement towards the Bengalis, coupled with aggressive diplomacy and economic cooperation from the Chinese, has opened the possibility that Bangladesh may gradually shift out of the Indian camp, and closer to China and its allies (including Pakistan). In this regard, in March of this year, Pakistan extended its hand of friendship towards Bangladesh, when Prime Minister Imran Khan congratulated Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her country on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of its independence. Dhaka reciprocated, with Hasina writing that “Bangladesh is committed to peaceful and cooperative relations with its neighbouring countries, including Pakistan.”

This sentiment must now be followed-up with a concerted cooperation plan, by both States as well as their citizenry. Pakistan’s foreign office, in collaboration with other State organisations, must formulate a policy for Bangladesh, which aims to usher in a new age of friendly relations between the two countries.

This includes, economic cooperation, business collaboration, student exchanges, sporting events, and reinvigorated tourism efforts. The people-to-people exchange between the two countries, fostered through enabling State measures, will help a new generation of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis (who had nothing to do with the events of 1971) to dispel mutual distrust, and create constructive bilateral exchanges.

The commonalities between the people of Pakistan and the people of Bangladesh—which united them under the banner of Muhammad Ali Jinnah—still hold true today.

Yes, we speak a different language. But we believe in the same religion; have common cultural sensitives; foster common dreams of growth; harbour common ideals of a liberal Muslim state; and share a common history spread over thousands of years in the Indian sub-continent. These bonds cannot be allowed to be broken, permanently, because of mistakes made by a generation many decades ago.

It is time for Pakistan, and Bangladesh, to move past these decades of distrust. It is time for us to recognise that collaboration and union, in economic and strategic matters, will benefit all concerned.

That, in the years to come, our region will likely serve as the arena of a new Great Game… between East (China) and West (United States). India has already picked its side with the West. But the interests of Pakistan and Bangladesh rest with the East. That our dreams and aspirations, our fears and favours, are tied to this region, and its well-being. And only together—as partners in peace—can we realise our collective dreams.