Fifty years have gone by, yet the deep-seated animosity between Bangladesh and Pakistan has not eased the memories of the massacres — some call it genocide — by the Pakistan Army still haunt Bangladesh, albeit most of them who witnessed the carnage during the Liberation War of 1971 are no longer alive.
Bangladesh is yet to come out of her traumatic past, and the gruesome killing of almost 3 million Bangladeshis and rape of more than 400,000 Bengali women by Pakistani troops is a scar that is yet to heal. Meanwhile, the linguistic state scales newer heights gaining huge reputation and respect worldwide. Touching the $300 billion mark in GDP, the youngest state of South Asia has leapfrogged Pakistan in economic and many other social development parameters and indexes.
Since the middle of 2020, a few moves by Islamabad led to speculation and debate over the defrosting of Bangladesh-Pakistan relations. In a stunning move, Pakistan has lifted all the restrictions on visas for Bangladeshi applicants in January. Another significant development is the telephonic dialogue between Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan and Sheikh Hasina Wajed of Bangladesh.
Hasina’s political rival, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party led by Khaleda Zia, maintains cordial relations with Pakistan. During their terms, they even sheltered anti-Indian insurgent groups in Bangladesh.The temperature of Dhaka-Islamabad bonhomie started decreasing since the Hasina-led Awami League assumed office in 2009. In December 2013, the International Crimes Tribunal of Bangladesh convicted nine persons of genocide and war crimes and hanged Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abdul QuaderMolla, which irked Islamabad immensely. All the criminals weresympathizers of Pakistan.
Soon after assuming office in 2018, Prime Minister Imran Khan sought to smooth relations with Bangladesh. Two years later, his attempts and efforts brought some amount of satisfaction. After rounds of email exchanges between the foreign ministries of Bangladesh and Pakistan, Imran Khan finally rang up and conversed with his Bangladeshi counterpart over the telephone in July 2020. Signalling Pakistan’s eagerness to strengthen relations with Bangladesh, Khan invited Hasina to visit Pakistan and discussed Covid management as well as revitalizing SAARC.
Pakistan initiated the process of creating harmony at a time when anger mounted in Bangladesh against India’s decision to rescind Article 370 in Kashmir, the Ayodhya verdict and the citizenship revision plan NRC-CAA announcement.
Speculation and suspicion have harmed the diplomatic relations between Bangladesh and Pakistan. Over a long period, there was no Pakistani High Commissioner in Bangladesh. Even in the past, Pakistani diplomats were allegedly involved in unlawful activities in Bangladesh. Islamabad was forced to withdraw her envoys and expelled Bangladeshi diplomats from Pakistan as well. The Bangladeshi diplomats serving the missions in Pakistan are shadowed by intelligence personnel.
However, last year, Pakistan’s newly appointed High Commissioner Imran Ahmed Siddiqui caught up with Bangladeshi Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen prior to Imran Khan’s telephonic conversation with Hasina.
The Pakistani envoy also engaged with other Bangladeshi ministers and officials to push the agenda of normalizing ties between Bangladesh and Pakistan. Foreign minister Momen has clarified that without a proper apology, Bangladesh won’t consider deepening her relations with Pakistan. Momen’s deputy Shahriar Alam, minister of state for foreign affairs, too made it clear that apart the apology from the top most official, Pakistan should complete the repatriation of stranded Pakistanis in Bangladesh. He also demanded a settlement of the disputes over the division of assets.
In January, the Pakistani envoy sat with Tipu Munshi, commerce minister of Bangladesh, who urged Pakistan to withdraw the anti-dumping duty on export of hydrogen peroxide. The present generation entrepreneurs on both sides lack business connections which is an irritant in trade relations. It is expected that the Joint Economic Commission, set up between the two states will address the issues and challenges businesses facing in both states.
Bangladesh is the second largest exporter and one of the biggest manufacturers of garments. Bangladeshi textile and some other goods have demands in Pakistan. Ceramic items manufactured in Bangladesh are widely used at Pakistani government departments. Pakistanis use ready-made garments, leather items and pharmaceutical goods manufactured in Bangladesh. Pakistan also imports jute and jute items in huge quantities from Bangladesh. Bangladesh mostly imports cotton and machinery from Pakistan. In the 2019-20 financial year, the bilateral trade between Bangladesh and Pakistan stood at $543.90 million. Bangladesh counted exports worth $50.54 million in Pakistan. The import from Pakistan in the same year was estimated to be worth $493.36 million.
At the Dhaka Chamber of Commerce & Industry, Ambassador Siddiqui approached Bangladeshi businessmen to collaborate with the Pakistanis on research and technology as well as expertise transfer. On the other hand, Bangladesh appealed to Pakistan to permit access to more Bangladeshi goods under the South Asian Free Trade Agreement and remove all the trade barriers.
Recently, Pakistan has expressed interests to resume direct flights and establish maritime connectivity to boost trades with Bangladesh. An Islamabad based think-tank has been hosting a serial webinar on the new equations between Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Bangladesh and Pakistan are home to 390 million, 5 percent of the total human population. If Dhaka and Islamabad are on good terms, Bangladesh can explore the tremendous business opportunity in the Central Asian states via Pakistan. Pakistan will be able to mine the burgeoning market of 180 million in Bangladesh, and bilateral trade between the two will reach a significant level.
China’s influence and interests are not invisible in Pakistan’s pursuit of wooing Bangladesh. After Pakistan, it’s Bangladesh who got commitments from China to attract the second largest investment in South Asia. Beijing may slowly sway Dhaka to get along with the China-Pakistan team for her own strategic interests, which could in turn rattle New Delhi. In addition, Malaysia and Turkey will most likely cajole Bangladesh to establish deeper ties with Pakistan. Apart from the Organization of Islamic Co-Operation (OIC), Pakistan, Malaysia and Turkey are in the D-8 club in which Bangladesh also holds a membership.
The incumbent Awami League under Sheikh Hasina won’t certainly become chum up with Islamabad, knowing it will disturb New Delhi. But if Pakistan takes credible action on Hamoodur Rahman Commission reports and offers an apology to Bangladesh for the genocide, Dhaka could embrace Islamabad leaving the bitter past behind. From involvement in terrorism in India to holocaust in East Pakistan, Pakistan can’t verbally deny all the allegations every time and expect normal relations with the neighbours. If Islamabad’s move is genuine, it must resolve all the issues and fulfil demands of Bangladesh completely. But will the GHQ, the stubborn military establishment in Pakistan, agree to acquiesce in any situation?
(Ayanangsha Maitra is a freelance journalist and Junior Fellow at the Centre for Governance Studies, Bangladesh. He tweets at @Ayanangsha. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Outlook Magazine)
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