For a Bengali, a visit to Pakistan generally is occasion for quite a few questions to be raised, some of them of a rather intriguing kind. This is especially so in the case of one, such as yours truly, who has spent a significant part of one’s life in Pakistan through acquiring education in a missionary school. In the years since Bangladesh emerged as an independent nation through a War of Liberation, Pakistan has for many of us in Bangladesh been a subject of intense as well as curious study given the many pitfalls it has been up against. And, yes, where a recapitulation of the history preceding the liberation of Bangladesh is the issue, along with the genocide committed by the Pakistan army, much curiosity is there in a Bengali who happens to be visiting Pakistan. The curiosity is there in the Bengali who has had reason to live in Pakistan (this writer was in Baluchistan for sixteen years prior to 1971) as also in those who have never been there, not in pre-1971 times, not in the years since we broke free of Pakistan forty six years ago.
My visit to Pakistan this time around was the fourth since late 1995, when I was part of a journalists’ team at a media conference in Lahore organized by what was then known as the South Asian Media Association (SAMA), headed by the respected Javed Jabbar. In 2000 and again in 2004, I was in Pakistan, on these two occasions as a Bangladesh delegate to a media conference organized by the South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA), a body into which SAMA had evolved and which was administered with finesse by the Pakistani journalist Imtiaz Alam. But this fourth or latest visit was different, for the invitation came from the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad. As part of a team of five members, all invited by the ISS, I travelled to Pakistan in the latter half of March this year.
For me, every trip to Pakistan or every discussion on Pakistan revolves around the old question of how history might have shaped up had the Yahya Khan junta not repudiated the results of the 1970 general elections. As I told one of our hosts in Islamabad, when asked about my feelings of being in the city, it was a place where Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, our Bangabandhu, ought to have taken over as Pakistan’s prime minister. So what went wrong? And why did it all go wrong for Pakistan in 1971? Those were some of the questions which followed. Come to think of it — if the junta had proceeded to transfer power to the Awami League soon after the election, history would be different. But, then again, there was that stumbling block of a Legal Framework Order (LFO) which precluded the inauguration of a civilian, elected government until a Constitution had been drafted for the country. That too would hardly be a problem had not the Pakistan People’s Party muddied the waters. The rest, as they say, is history. And blood-drenched history it was.
So how do Pakistanis today assess the role of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in Pakistan’s history? In Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore, it was my observation that not many Pakistanis were willing to talk about him or his party, perhaps because the PPP has now been relegated to being a regional party, in Sindh. But the few who did talk made it known to me that with the passage of time the impression has grown that Bhutto was the man responsible for the break-up of the country. That was a refreshing, though for us in Bangladesh unexpected, discovery, but it did not quite tally with the history young Pakistanis have been taught, or not been taught, all these years since Bangladesh defeated Pakistan on the battlefield to transform itself into a sovereign, secular republic. On all my visits to Pakistan, including this new one, it has been my impression that the truth of what transpired between March and December 1971 has not been conveyed to Pakistanis, especially the young among them. An interaction with a vibrant group of young research fellows at the ISS was revealing. They were unable to comprehend the reasons for what they thought was Bangladesh’s hostility toward Pakistan in recent times, at least not until they were informed of such Pakistani moves as the adoption of a resolution in the national assembly, piloted by none other than Pakistan’s interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, condemning the war crimes trials in Bangladesh. Like Bhutto in earlier times, Nisar happily muddied the waters.
A meeting with Pakistan’s new foreign secretary Tehmina Janjua was a pleasant encounter, though it left unanswered the question of whether Islamabad and Dhaka were ready to engage with each other in a normalization of relations. It was clear the Pakistani establishment remains miffed about the postponement of the SAARC summit in Islamabad. But to persistent questions on whether Pakistan was ready to offer an apology to Bangladesh over the atrocities committed by the Pakistan army in 1971, the response was waffling — and more waffling. Understandably, the foreign secretary was not in a position to clearly and unambiguously state her government’s policy as long as the political authorities in Islamabad did not sketch a clear strategy on the issue. The hint was clear — and it came from some of our interlocutors — that Pervez Musharraf’s expression of regret some years ago about the genocide was the limit Pakistan was willing to go. The question of apology is one many Pakistanis shy away from. That is again a barrier to normal relations. It should not be or have been there.
Constructive engagement between Islamabad and Dhaka is, if one may add, commensurate with the times. But there are at the same time the impediments that first must be got out of the way. The Pakistan High Commission in Dhaka remains worried about the long delays in visas being granted to new diplomats posted in Bangladesh. For its part, the Bangladesh High Commission in Islamabad is unhappy that its interaction with the Pakistan authorities is at a minimum, that the rejoinders it mails to newspapers in protest against articles unfavourable to Bangladesh do not get published. Foreign secretary-level talks between the two countries have not materialized, which in effect has pushed ties between the two nations into an imbroglio. The Bangladesh Home Minister has not been to the SAARC Home Ministers’ conference in Islamabad. Pakistan has declined to be part of the Inter Parliamentary Union meeting in Dhaka. The Bangladesh Cricket Board has decided not to send a team to Islamabad owing to security concerns in Pakistan. Matters have not been helped by the enthusiasm with which the Pakistan authorities recently distributed copies of a maliciously written work by Junaid Ahmad, a book that vilifies the entire struggle by Bengalis for liberation from Pakistan in 1971.
In simple terms, an absolute wall of silence has descended between Dhaka and Islamabad.
The wall needs to be breached.
And the first step toward reconciliation is clearly one that ought to be taken by Islamabad, given that the current low in Bangladesh-Pakistan ties has been a direct offshoot of the action of its political leaders in relation to Dhaka’s internal politics. The Islamabad authorities will be demonstrating wisdom through expressions of interest in the possibility of talks between the foreign secretaries of the two countries. On a higher plane, both nations can explore the chances of a meeting between their foreign ministers and, improbable though it may seem at the moment, a summit meeting between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
There is history to fall back on here.
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto met in February 1974 in Lahore and in June of the same year in Dhaka. General Ziaur Rahman and General Ziaul Haq met in Islamabad in 1978. General H.M. Ershad and General Ziaul Haq met, notably in Dhaka in 1985 in the aftermath of the Urir Char devastation and subsequently at the first SAARC summit in December of the year. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif held talks on the sidelines of the Commonwealth Summit in Edinburgh in October 1997. General Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Khaleda Zia met in Dhaka in 2002.
These meetings did not resolve the outstanding issues between Bangladesh and Pakistan, but they did keep links open. Against the background of this record, Islamabad and Dhaka should be ready and willing to inaugurate a fresh new phase in their relations at the diplomatic level — through placing all outstanding issues on the table and tackling them in light of the demands of modern-day diplomacy. Pakistan and Bangladesh are significant players in South Asia, which is why they cannot at the end of the day ignore each other.
Smart diplomacy is here called for. That way, through a comprehensive understanding and acceptance of past history, younger generations of Bengalis and Pakistanis can reconfigure their links in the future.