Pakistan, Bangladesh – what next?

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By Abdul Basit

Let me begin by felicitating the recently appointed Pakistani High Commissioner to Bangladesh, Imran Ahmed Siddiqui. In diplomacy, individuals do matter. His proactive approach has helped break the ice between Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Now the challenge would be to build on this through a sustained process, rather than to sit on one’s laurels and to lose the momentum as has happened in many other areas of Pakistan diplomacy.

It was a pleasant surprise to learn that Prime Minister Imran Khan called Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed on July 22 to convey condolences on the material and human losses due to the recent flooding in Bangladesh and the lives lost during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a press release issued by the Pakistan Foreign Office, Prime Minister Khan also expressed Pakistan’s commitment to “deepening fraternal relations with Bangladesh on the basis of mutual trust, mutual respect and sovereign equality”. He also invited her to visit Pakistan. 

DHAKA: Pakistan High Commissioner Imran Ahmed Siddiqui presenting his credentials to Mohammad Abdul Hamid, President of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh in a ceremony held at the Presidential Palace on July 20.

Besides bilateral relations, the two leaders also reportedly reaffirmed their commitment to revitalizing the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

Prime Minister Khan also apprised his Bangladeshi counterpart of the prevailing tense situation in Kashmir following India’s unilateral and unconstitutional steps that stripped the state of its special status.

Interestingly, in response to the mentioning of Kashmir, India’s foreign office spokesperson commented that New Delhi appreciated Bangladesh’s position that changing the status of Kashmir was India’s internal matter.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Hasina Wajed who is the daughter of Bangladesh’s founding father, Sheikh Mujeebur Rahman, has always been seen in Pakistan as pro-India, while retaining personal grudges against Pakistan.

It was almost a given that as long as she was at the helm, Pakistan-Bangladesh relations could never take a turn for the better.

Her insistence to put on trial many pro-Pakistan Bangladeshis, after almost 50 years of separation between the two countries, further compounded the relationship.

Several septuagenarians and octogenarians were hanged, raising eyebrows in Pakistan. After East Pakistan split from Pakistan and became Bangladesh in 1971, Pakistan took almost three years to recognize Bangladesh as a sovereign independent country.

That helped the Bangladeshi leader to attend the second summit of the Organization of Islamic Conference held in Lahore, Pakistan in February 1974. However, things were not to normalize easily and quickly.

Bangladesh continued demanding that Pakistan formally apologize to the people of Bangladesh for the alleged atrocities committed by the Pakistan army in the then East Pakistan. In contrast, Pakistan would contend that the tripartite agreement signed between Bangladesh, India and Pakistan on April 9, 1974, had taken care of all such issues.

Paragraph 15 of the agreement read: “In the light of the foregoing and, in particular, having regard to the appeal of the Prime Minister of Pakistan to the people of Bangladesh to forgive and forget the mistakes of the past, the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh stated that the Government of Bangladesh had decided not to proceed with the trials as an act of clemency.”

Pakistan had also thought that a formal apology would also open the Pandora’s Box of the division of assets as well as many other attendant issues.

Be that as it may, President Pervez Musharraf during his five-day official visit to Bangladesh in July/August 2005 did publicly regret what happened in the run-up to the creation of Bangladesh. But that visit took place when Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, considered to be pro-Pakistan, was the Prime Minister of Bangladesh.

While the two prime ministers have now spoken, it is important for Pakistan to avoid creating too much hype around this significant development. The nature of inter-state relations, mired in mistrust and unhelpful past legacies, cannot be changed with one telephone call alone.

The first and foremost task for the Pakistani leadership would be to not see its relations with Bangladesh through the prism of India, and keep the process of augmenting its relations away from the zero-sum calculus.

Yes, there are issues between India and Bangladesh, including the National Register of Citizens, which might leave almost two million Bengalis stateless in the state of Assam, in northeastern India, alone. 

But that is for the two countries to sort out; it would be prudent for Islamabad to stay clear of this issue unless Bangladesh itself brings it up with Pakistan.

There will still be many a slip, and India will unlikely let the two countries come closer to its diplomatic and economic advantage. China can and will likely play a significant role behind the scenes to make the two countries bury the hatchet and make a new beginning.

It is still to be seen how far Bangladesh goes in insisting on a formal apology from Pakistan. I would strongly recommend to Prime Minister Imran Khan to appoint former Ambassador Burhanul Islam as his special envoy and send him to Dhaka to personally deliver his invitation letter to Prime Minister Wajed.

Ambassador Islam is originally from erstwhile East Pakistan, speaks Bengali impeccably; and knows Bangladesh extremely well. We must utilize his services to put in place a tenable process of improving bilateral relations between the two brotherly countries now that the prime ministers have been able to break the ice.

(The author is former Ambassador of Pakistan to India and Deputy High Commissioner to the UK. Presently, he is President, Pakistan Institute for Security and Conflict Studies (PICSS), Islamabad.)