India’s veteran politician and former deputy prime minister L.K. Advani surely must have been speaking from his heart when he solicited Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s help in improving relations between his country and Pakistan. Perhaps he was reminded of the times in the late 1990s when, in the aftermath of the detonation of nuclear bombs by Delhi and Islamabad, Sheikh Hasina offered to broker a peace deal, or mediate, between the two countries in an effort to have them come together. At the time, neither Nawaz Sharif nor Atal Behari Vajpayee made any response to her suggestion. One quite does not know how conditions would have turned out in South Asia had the Bangladesh leader been taken seriously by her counterparts in India and Pakistan. History, you see, is never a question of what might have been.
Advani’s suggestion that Sheikh Hasina take the lead in healing the rift between Pakistan and India introduces a sense of irony into the entire political equation in the subcontinent. Given the fraught state of relations between Bangladesh and Pakistan at this point of time, one is not quite sure if Advani was being simplistic or naïve or serious in his proffering of his new idea. In these past few years, relations between Pakistan and Bangladesh have been on a steep decline, to a point where practically no contacts exist at the official and political levels between the two countries. In Islamabad, ruling Muslim League politicians have gone out of their way, indeed beyond diplomatic norms, to meddle in what have plainly been issues of an internal nature for Dhaka. For its part, the ruling dispensation in Dhaka has made it abundantly clear that it is in little mood to strike a new tone in its approach to ties with Islamabad. Bangladesh diplomats in Islamabad have little, if at all, any contact with the Pakistani authorities. In Dhaka, Pakistani diplomats are ignored by the powers that be in Bangladesh. None of this is a healthy state of affairs.
The irony is this — that Advani is asking the leader of a nation that is itself disturbed by the doings of the Pakistan government to play the role of a mediator between India and Pakistan. Beyond the irony, of course, is the nobility ingrained in the suggestion. Advani’s suggestion leads to a broadening out of the idea of how inter-state links happen to be in the subcontinent at this time and how they could improve and develop in the times ahead. Delhi and Islamabad do not speak to each other, the reasons being all out there, basically in relation to Indian charges of terrorism being grown and nurtured in Pakistan before being directed at India. Indian concerns about Pakistan’s role in attempts to destabilize conditions in Delhi are too deeply entrenched to be handled easily, while Pakistan’s repeated emphasis on such issues as what it calls India’s occupation of Kashmir precludes any chances of the two countries coming together in the near future. It is one thing for Narendra Modi to drop in at Nawaz Sharif’s home in Lahore to wish him on his birthday. It is quite another for Delhi and Islamabad to stay rigid in their positions on the issues that go on widening the chasm between them.
For Sheikh Hasina to take up L.K. Advani’s offer seriously, therefore, is an intellectual challenge. It requires some deft maneouvering aimed at an improvement first of relations between Dhaka and Islamabad. The glaring, ugly truth today is that India and Pakistan have stopped talking to each other and Pakistan and Bangladesh have turned their faces away from each other. Such realities or the possibility of these difficulties coming up were far from the minds of the South Asian leadership which gave shape to the Simla agreement of July 1972 and the India-Bangladesh-Pakistan tripartite agreement of April 1974. The formation of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in the mid-1980s, one might add, was looked upon as the turning of a new page in the region through bringing the three nations — India, Pakistan, Bangladesh — into an alliance along with Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Maldives and later Afghanistan that would present a unified face to the world. Never mind that the SAARC charter promised an organization somewhat retarded at birth, owing to the absence of any mechanism for a discussion of bilateral issues within the councils of the regional body. The bigger truth is that for all its limitations, SAARC has played a definitive role in a re-evaluation and reinvention of links among its member-nations over the years. It may be in a state of the comatose at present, but the enthusiasm it once aroused and the doors it once opened have given a positive tweak to history in our part of the world.
And history, at this point, remains frozen in South Asia. Advani surely knew what he was talking about when he sought Sheikh Hasina’s good offices in breaking the stalemate between his country and Pakistan. But then the question comes up: how aware was he of the depths to which diplomacy between Bangladesh and Pakistan has plunged in the last couple of years? The Bangladesh leader, as her recent visit to Delhi has demonstrated all too well, enjoys extremely good rapport with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But for her to undertake the mission of a normalization of Indo-Pakistan ties, indeed to play a role in bringing the two nations together, presupposes a restoration of active diplomacy between Pakistan and Bangladesh. To what extent the Nawaz Sharif government is prepared to make a peace offering to Dhaka, after all the unnecessary chaos it generated through its knee-jerk reaction to the war crimes trials in Bangladesh, remains to be seen. Obviously, any first move toward an improvement of Bangladesh-Pakistan relations will need to be made by Islamabad since it was Pakistan’s interior minister who played a pivotal role in fresh wounds being inflicted on ties with Dhaka.
That said, diplomats in Bangladesh and Pakistan, encouraged by their political leadership, could begin to explore the possibility of back channel contacts being initiated, all aimed at breaking the ice between Dhaka and Islamabad on one hand and between Islamabad and Delhi on the other.
The pain of 1947 will always be there. The wounds of 1971 will not go away. But there is the future to be taken care of as well, a thought precious to L.K. Advani, one that we can ignore at risk to ourselves.
The subcontinent, when the day is done and the stars begin to light up the sky, is the home all of us share — in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.