It’s time Bangladesh and Pakistan buried the past to forge an economic alliance
Fifty years should be a sufficiently long period to go beyond recriminations, feelings of hurt and a desire for revenge that have marked Pakistan-Bangladesh relations. Discrimination of the worst kind culminated in the violence of 1971. While both countries have their problems with history writing, it is time they buried the past and moved on.
For 25-years during the 80’s and into early 21st century, bilateral relations were on the mend. The publication of the Hamoodur Rahman report would by itself have been a major step towards rapprochement. But the resumption of the 1971 ‘war crimes’ trials, sent a number of people siding with Pakistan during the crisis to the gallows. This poisoned relations between the two countries.
The Awami League must critically examine not only its own conduct as a majority political party but all those of Bengali origin in the then East Pakistan. My book 'Blood over different shades of green" co-authored by Dr Bettina Robotka did not please some both in Pakistan and 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 I?
The resolution of pending problems would include the repatriation of stranded Pakistanis or the grant of full citizenship to them in Bangladesh, thus giving relief to a people who have been punished for no fault. In sharp contrast to her earlier tenure, our relations with Bangladesh have turned rather hostile since Sheikh Hasina's election in 2009. India’s instigation to conduct the war crimes 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? They had buried the hatchet and moved on to have a cooperative economic relationship. For over a century both countries regarded each other as archenemies. A part of the rivalry was political, a part was territorial. Each war was fought for land or ‘honour’, badly damaging the two economies besides taking the lives of thousands. In 1945, Germany was defeated and 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 II. This was 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 involved citizens so they could get to know one another, speak to one another and appreciate one another. This Treaty brought the two peoples 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 that country in 1971, paid homage at the National Martyrs' Memorial near Dhaka, describing the events of 1971 as 'unfortunate' and the excesses 'regrettable'. Bangladesh welcomed the visiting Pakistan President statement of regret over 'excesses' during its liberation war.
A few years before that I accompanied the then Pakistan Prime Minister 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.
In 1971 there were three and a half underequipped Pakistan Infantry Divisions in the then East Pakistan, with only one depleted armour regiment at Rangpur. Today there are nine Bangladesh Infantry Divisions (and a tenth coming up in Barisal), most with integral medium tank regiments, and an armoured brigade at Bogra, my mother’s hometown. If Pakistan had this ORBAT (Order of Battle) in 1971, with Indian lines of communications and major cities within a few miles of the border, can you imagine what the result would have been?
Pakistanis should be proud about what Bangladesh has achieved economically. Freeing the economy military rulers Gen. Ziaur Rahman and Gen. H.M. Ershad “let a hundred flowers bloom”. Sheikh 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 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."
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."
One of my closest friends, Maj. Abdul Mannan, is a tremendous entrepreneur. His ventures in garments include factories not only in Bangladesh but in faraway Cambodia, Madagascar, etc. (I was privileged to visit 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 Sheikh 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 including abolition of Visas, removal of tariff barriers, and free movement as was the case prior to 1971 are necessary.
To quote from my article of March 26, 1990 entitled 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 geo-political 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 sufferings of the Bangladeshi people. A possible “Association of Eastern States of South Asia”, (the AESSA concept) is comprising 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."
In July, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s call to Sheikh Hasina made a welcome 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 extraordinary opportunities to solidify mutual relations. Bangladesh has started to develop strained relation with India over the new citizenship laws, Indian Prime Minister Narendra 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 for Bangladesh preferring to be part of Chinese BRI investments rather than standing alone in the fight with India for water. While Bangladesh’s relations with India is its prerogative, and Pakistan should not get involved in any manner whatsoever, similarly Pakistan-Bangladesh relationship cannot remain hostage to India’s whims and caprices to foster its ambition to establish regional Hindu hegemony.
The post-COVID world has devastated our economies. We need to find out-of-the box solutions for recovery. With global and the regional power balances changing, new openings are available for both Pakistan and Bangladesh. Re-forging a diplomatic and economic alliance between our two countries should be a priority.
(The writer is a defence and security analyst.)