Senior journalist Amir Mateen recently toyed with the idea of a possible confederation between Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Although his tweet was sensibly challenged by journalist Kamran Shafi, Mateen’s idea reflects the fantasy of Pakistan’s establishment since it lost former East Pakistan at the hands of arch-rival India. The military that returned to power in Pakistan in 1977 seems to have recovered from the initial hurt of losing the territory to thinking of it in terms of turning it into a geo-strategic opportunity, without the burden of having to govern the place and its people.
Dhaka-led talks during the early and mid-1980s for the establishment of SAARC created links between Pakistan and Bangladesh militaries under General Ziaul Haq and General Hussain Muhammad Ershad, respectively. The links were repaired to the degree that in 1994, then-Pakistan Air Force chief spoke about the possibility of parking PAF aircraft in Dhaka for possible utilisation in case of Pakistan’s conflict with India. I sat through the seminar held at the Islamabad Institute for Strategic Studies where the military establishment’s right-hand man, Ikram Sehgal, also spoke and discussed the idea of confederation. Its possible that dialogue and communication helped repair some of the differences between Pakistan military and Bangladesh’s officer cadre, majority of whom consisted of those that repatriated from West Pakistan in 1970 and after Independence of Bangladesh in 1971.
A thorn in Pakistan-Bangladesh relations
The idea of confederation may be a fantasy but improving relations with Bangladesh strategically is a possibility that keeps Pakistan’s establishment engaged. Bilateral relations had improved significantly under Khalida Zia’s rule until it nosedived after Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League’s victory in 2009. The lowest point in Dhaka-Islamabad relations was 2013 and 2016 when Pakistan’s parliament officially protested the death sentence awarded to Jamaat-e-Islami leaders for their involvement in war crimes. Also, Sheikh Hasina was viewed as being close to Narendra Modi government in India. This added to the burden of the key issue in Islamabad’s relations with Dhaka — its unwillingness to apologise for the killings in 1971 and dithering on the issue of negotiating the repatriation of Biharis (known as Pakistanis in Bangladesh) who are stuck there since 1971.
The last time the issue got some attention was during General Aslam Beg’s command of the Pakistan Army during the early 1990s. However, the issue is highly emotive as its gets all forms of Sindhi nationalists worried about negative impact of such migration. The fear being turned into a minority in their own province with the possible influx of additional Urdu speakers.
But the other outstanding issue — of Pakistan’s apology to Bangladesh — is even a bigger matter, stuck like a thorn in the throat that doesn’t allow the two countries to move forward in furthering bilateral ties. This is despite the fact that Dhaka-Islamabad relations seem to be recovering gradually, largely owed to China’s increased presence in South Asia and to the benefits accruing from Beijing’s deep pockets as well as India’s short-sighted approach towards Muslim countries and populations in its neighbourhood.
While Delhi is eager to reach out to the rich Muslim states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, its attitude towards Afghanistan and Bangladesh, or even Pakistan, is determined by the ideology of the Modi government’s domestic politics. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2019 has affected Delhi-Dhaka relations. Islamabad viewed it as an opportunity to re-initiate ties and wean Bangladesh away from India. The slow-brewing negativity in India-Bangladesh relations is a major building block for Pakistan-Bangladesh relations that can possibly be expanded further through increasing trade ties.
Currently, Dhaka has a negative trade balance with Pakistan, which could improve as Islamabad seems willing to open bigger doors for Bangladesh. In 2020, Prime Minister Imran Khan called Sheikh Hasina and lifted visa restrictions for Bangladeshi citizens. The ease in getting visa may not necessarily see increase in traffic between the two countries unless direct flights are started or both countries enhance their trade potential. Most of Pakistan’s exports to Bangladesh right now comprise cotton yarn and fabric, and from Bangladesh it is jute and jute products. The removal of visa restriction has certainly given ease of access to the ideologically inclined Bangladeshis some of whom were recently spotted by economist Kaisar Bengali at a madrassa in Thatha, a city on the outskirts of Karachi.
A narrative Pakistan wants Bangladesh to accept
As stated earlier, a better flow of people between the two countries will happen only if there are greater economic opportunities. Bangladeshis are not necessarily burdened with the thought of 1971, which was also my own experience as I visited Dhaka for the first time in 2006. I had gone there to study comparative civil-military relations and was worried about the treatment I may get due to my nationality. I was surprised to see Bangladeshis not talking about Pakistan but sounding more concerned about India and treatment of its citizens by the Border Security Force (BSF).
However, progressive Pakistanis including myself have always insisted on Islamabad to formally apologise for what it did in 1971. But Pakistan military and its Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) have instead tried to build a narrative that Pakistan needn’t apologise because violence was committed by both parties: Pakistani military and the Mukti Bahini.
This narrative first emerged in Sarmila Bose’s 2011 book Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War, which questioned the veracity of Bangladesh’s claims about millions dying and getting raped during the civil war and military operation. This perspective has been expounded full-scale through the military’s recent media exercise, most overtly seen in filmmaker Javed Jabbar’s documentary, Separation of East Pakistan: The Untold Story, which even tends to whitewash General Yahya Khan and presents the military operation as a necessity because, it argues, the Mukti Bahini — allegedly trained and propped up by India, as the documentary claims — had begun to target non-Bengalis that made military action inevitable.
The media blitzkrieg around 1971 is also meant to silence progressive voices in Pakistan that seek to highlight how Bengalis in post-1947 Pakistan were rejected as someone who ought to be taught a lesson, thereby justifying the basis of a civil war in the East. Pakistan’s military has historically seen the situation in its former eastern wing and the 1971 War purely as an “Indian conspiracy”.
The film Khel Khel Mein is built around this idea and in fact applies this argument to the unrest in Balochistan using Bangladesh or East Pakistan’s separation as an example. It’s worth remembering that no one, including the famous poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, was allowed to question that Bangladesh’s independence was the fault of West Pakistan’s politics. Some of the surviving men from those days that I spoke with claimed that Faiz had issued a statement April 1971 condemning India’s involvement in allegedly fanning separatism because he was threatened with consequences if he didn’t.
What seems to help the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPRE) narrative now is the fact that it tends to borrow heavily from Bangladesh’s nationalist narrative – the argument that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangaldesh’s first president, always wanted an independent state. The re-arrangement of facts in state-sponsored documentaries, films and discussions in Pakistan by focusing on Bengali violence, in some ways, furthers the aforementioned claim. What goes hand in hand is the expectation that Bangladesh should now stop expecting Pakistan to apologise and accept the 1971 violence as its political legacy and basis for separation from West Pakistan, and then move towards building ties with Pakistan afresh. Instead of delving into the past, Islamabad would like Dhaka to recite Faiz’s famous poem: “Hum ki thahre ajnabi”. Even when it was written, the poem echoed sentiments of the state.
The Pakistan military that resented Bengali nationalism in 1971 now sees it as a useful tool to justify its actions and to prove to domestic skeptics that its own acts of violence were always right.