Pakistan and Bangladesh – Time to Move On

With the global and the regional power balances changing, new options for openings are available for both Pakistan and Bangladesh to use all the opportunities arising. Reforging a diplomatic and economic alliance between our two countries could be a priority.

Posted on 12/14/20
By Ikram Sehgal | Via ViewsWeek
Pakistan’s High Commissioner Imran Ahmed Siddiqui in conversation with Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed.

Fifty years should be a sufficiently long time to go beyond the recriminations, hurt and feeling of revenge that has been part of our history. Fuelled by discrimination of the worst kind grievous mistakes were made, culminating in the violence of 1971. While both countries have their problems with history writing, it is time to acknowledge that and to move on. At one time for a 25 year period during the ’80s and into the early 21st century, the relations were well on the mend. The publication of the Hamoodur Rahman report would be by itself a major step in the rapprochement process.

The resumption of the 1971 ‘war crimes’ trials, sent a number of people siding with Pakistan during the crisis to the gallows, this has poisoned the relations between our countries. The Awami League must critically examine not only their own conduct as a majority political party but all those of Bengali origin in then East Pakistan. My book ‘Blood over different shades of green” co-authored by Dr. Bettina Robotka did not please some in either Pakistan or Bangladesh. So be it. However, many more congratulated us for being brutally frank in stating many facts hitherto conveniently overlooked. With a Punjabi father and a Bengali mother who could be more objective than me?

Resolution of the pending problems include the repatriation of stranded Pakistanis or the full citizenship of them in BD, helping not only in the political rapprochement but an unfinished business giving relief to the unfortunate residuals of the events of 50 years ago through no fault of their own. In sharp contrast to her earlier tenure, our relations with BD have turned rather hostile since Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s election in 2009. India’s instigation to conduct the war crime trials brought anger and bitterness into the relations.

Take the example of the German-French rapprochement. France and Germany are the two leading European economies today, why? For over a century both countries and nations regarded each other as archenemies. Part of the rivalry was political, part was territorial and each war was fought for the land or the ‘honor’, this badly damaged the economies and cost thousands of people’s lives. Above all the animosity renewed a yoke to economic program. The latest quarrel went from the 19th century till 1945 when Germany was finally defeated. France became one of the occupying forces to make sure German militarism would not reappear. But for a change, they avoided a narrative embedded in the Versailles Treaty after World War 1 and which directly led to World War. This changed dramatically by the Elysée Treaty signed on 22 January 1963 by France and the Federal Republic of Germany. Following several decades of rivalries and conflicts, Germany and France sent a message of reconciliation and laid the groundwork for close bilateral cooperation to support European integration. The signatories considered it important that the Treaty not simply be a document between Heads of State but that it involves citizens so they could learn to get to know one another, speak to one another and appreciate one another. This Treaty brought the two peoples much closer together, why should something on these lines be impossible in our region?

During his visit to Bangladesh in 2002 Gen Pervez Musharraf, the first Pakistani army ruler to visit Bangladesh since the independence of this country in 1971, paid homage at the National Martyrs’ Memorial, near Dhaka, describing the events of 1971 ‘unfortunate’ and the excesses ‘regrettable’. Bangladesh welcomed visiting Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf’s statement of regret over ‘excesses’ during its liberation war. A few years before that I accompanied the then Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif to Dhaka and to the same memorial at Savar.  As we stood silently commemorating the dead, the GOC of the Infantry Division at Savar came and saluted me, saying “I am from your unit, Sir!” That gesture was very telling and very symbolic. During 1971 there were three and a half underequipped Pakistan Infantry Divisions in then East Pakistan, with only one depleted armor regiment (detachments detached all over) at Rangpur.  Today there are nine Bangladesh infantry divisions (and a tenth coming up in Barisal), most with integral medium tank regiments, and an armored brigade at Bogra, my mother’s hometown. If Pakistan had this ORBAT in 1971, with Indian lines of communications and major cities with few miles of the border, can you imagine what the result would have been? One can fantasize about it but the Bangladesh ORBAT today 2020 is a reality.

Pakistanis should be proud of what Bangladesh has achieved economically. Freeing the economy military rulers Gens Ziaur Rahman and Ershad in their turn “let a hundred flowers bloom”, Shaikh Hasina has now taken the economy to extraordinary heights in the last decade, a remarkable achievement.  As far back as March 1988, to quote “The Economies of Togetherness” I had written “Disparate economies have a natural propensity to blend, particularly in this world of hard economic choices. Bilateral relationships between nations are apt to be increasingly bound by commerce, ties which are far more pragmatic and lasting rather than those based on ideological symmetry. What brings nations together are common interests, starting with religion, culture language etc but the glue that binds them together must be economic. Every nation ultimately falls back on its own national interests but it is the trade that gives an opportunity to “give and take”. To build our relations realistically we must readjust our “demands” to fit the other’s “supply” potential.” Unquote

To quote from my 2002 article “Two Countries One Nation”, Pakistan and Bangladesh must have free trade without any tariffs. Pakistan can export to Bangladesh raw cotton, cotton textiles, fertilizers, Basmati rice, irrigation pumps, railway wagons, ocean-going vessels, sugar mills, cement plants, fruits, etc, and a whole range of consumer items. Bangladesh can export to Pakistan, raw jute, jute goods, tea, jute machinery spares, jute batching oil, fruit, etc. Exporting to each other will take the pressure of exporting to other countries, as demand will exceed supplies, moreover the masses will benefit from having competitive prices. Direct free trade is the future of these two countries” Unquote. One of my closest friends, Maj Abdul Mannan, is a tremendous entrepreneur.  His ventures in garments include factories not only in Bangladesh but far away locations like Cambodia, Madagascar, etc (I was privileged visiting his factory in Phnom Penh). He has always given preference to buying textiles from Pakistan. For many years in the past Bangladeshi military officials were trained in Pakistan. While one believes this was revived by Shaikh Hasina despite strong Indian objections for the last few years, there was a near-complete absence of people-to-people contact. For progress in relations between the two countries, drastic measures include the Visa system being abolished and all mutual tariff barriers removed, allowing free movement as was done pre-1971.

To quote my article of March 26, 1990, “The AESSA Concept, “The term Bangladesh literally means land of the Bengalis, Muslims and Hindus included. Given the major ports of Calcutta, Chalna and Chittagong, this area by itself can exist as an effervescent economic region without facing chronic shortages of food and other necessities. India is aware of an important geopolitical home truth, BD’s pivotal economic location is extraordinary. However, looking at historical and ethnic realities existing in the area, one finds that there exist many nation-states, West Bengal, Bangladesh, Gorkhaland, Sikkim, Bhutan, Meghalaya, Bodoland, Nagaland, Mizoram, Assam, Tripura, etc, all fiercely independent in their outlook. Even the Hindu Kingdom of Nepal would cease to be endlessly land-locked by India (geographically and economically). More than anything else, India’s undue interference has contributed to increasing the poverty and suffering of the Bangladeshi people. A possible “Association of Eastern States of South Asia”, (the AESSA concept) is comprising an economic (if not political) confederation of almost 500 million people.  Instead of being ruled by remote control from New Delhi, these are effective geographical and economic units that can have a form of a Common Market without anybody’s hegemony, Bangladesh will be the dominant economic and sovereign entity in this region.” Unquote.

In July Prime Minister Imran Khan’s call to his counterpart in Dhaka Shaikh Hasina made a welcome new beginning. In the follow-up by Pakistan’s High Commissioner in Dhaka, who by all reports is held in great esteem (coincidentally so is the present High Commissioner for Bangladesh in Pakistan), called on the Bangladesh Prime Minister. The “meeting was held in a cordial atmosphere, with both sides agreeing to further strengthen the existing fraternal relations”. Incidentally, extraordinary diplomats give rise to an extraordinary opportunity to solidify mutual relations.  BD has started to develop strained relations with India over the new citizenship laws, Indian PM Modi has declared almost 2 million Muslim Bengalis living in Assam, etc as “aliens” and threatened their deportation into Bangladesh. The sharpening Indo-Chinese problems could be another reason with BD preferring to be part of Chinese BRI investments rather than standing alone in the fight with India for water. While BD’s relation with India is BD’s prerogative, and Pakistan should not get involved in any manner whatsoever, similarly, the Pakistan-BD relationship cannot remain hostage to India’s whims and caprices to foster their ambitions of regional Hindu hegemony.

The post-Covid world has devastated our economies, we need to find out-of-the box solutions for recovery. With the global and the regional power balances changing, new options for openings are available for both Pakistan and Bangladesh to use all the opportunities arising. Reforging a diplomatic and economic alliance between our two countries could be a priority. (the writer is a defence and security analyst).

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