Pakistan and Bangladesh have much to learn from each other 50 years later

Prime minister Benazir Bhutto visited Bangladesh in 1989. She had asked for that visit, which the then Bangladesh President Irshad accepted …

“The independence day of Bangladesh March 26, 1971 and Dec 16 is seen by that country as the day of liberation. In Pakistan around this time the mood is generally sombre with reflection of the past,” said former foreign secretary Riaz Khokhar on Thursday.

He was delivering his keynote address at a conference on ‘50 Years Later: The Future of Pakistan-Bangladesh Relations’ at The Pakistan Institute of International Affairs (PIIA).

“We have to acknowledge that the Bengali leaders made enormous contributions to the making of Pakistan, which was also acknowledged by Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah. The resolution of Pakistan was also moved by A.K. Fazlul Haq. If Jinnah were alive and if he had been asked the worst decisions of Pakistan, he would have said that it was to refuse and deny the results of the 1970 elections along with deploring the action that was taken on March 24, 1971 by West Pakistan,” he said.

The former diplomat said he is often asked about his best assignments during his career to which he has to say from 1986 to 1989 when he served as ambassador of Pakistan to Bangladesh. “It was the best time. I got to meet all leaders, intellectuals, people in the media and civil society. We did discuss serious matters, but objectively and without anger though the differences of 1971 are still there,” he said.

“As a former diplomat, I’m not blaming any political party but every time the Awami League is in power, we have issues. The government under the Awami League has raised serious allegations and questions. They also demand an apology from Pakistan for the atrocities of 1971. But an apology is not that simple. The 1974 documents clearly address deep regret of events and atrocities. Bangladesh demands war reparation, distribution of assets, etc.

Experts discuss future of Islamabad-Dhaka relations at PIIA conference

“While I was the ambassador in Bangladesh, former late prime minister Benazir Bhutto visited Bangladesh in 1989. She had asked for that visit, which the then Bangladesh president Irshad accepted. The issues did come up but such things cannot be decided just like that. Such issues are an impediment to the progress and relations of both countries.

“It is sad that despite sharing the history of 1947, there’s so little interaction with Bangladesh here. The culture of Bangladesh is extremely rich in art, music, dance, etc. Why not have cultural exchanges? Pakistan would be happy to have an exchange programme for students. We can also offer hundreds of scholarships in various fields and Bangladesh, too, can reciprocate,” he said.

‘Let’s resume communication’

“Yes, the impediments are serious but there is no reason why we can’t be talking. There is an absence of debate not at the public and private level or the diplomatic level. But Pakistan and Bangladesh relations do have a future. I appeal, let’s resume communications. We have much to share and much to learn from each other,” he concluded.

Earlier, while reminding the significance of Dec 16, 1971, PIIA’s chairperson Dr Masuma Hasan said that it was when Pakistan was dismembered and Bangladesh formally became an independent and sovereign state. “The date is etched in the minds of millions of people in Pakistan and Bangladesh. History has few parallels to the events of 1971, which led to the second partition of the subcontinent and changed the political landscape of South Asia,” she said.

“In the last 50 years, much water has flown under the bridges of the Indus and Brahmaputra. The global and regional landscape has changed, with a multi-polar world, the phenomenal rise and outreach of China, an assertive India, and the continuing role of the United States. In the regional context, rising from the ashes, Bangladesh has made remarkable economic progress. Whatever the irritants of the past, the people of the two countries share a common historical identity, strive for the same values of democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and freedom of expression. Both countries are members of Saarc and other international organisations and they vote on the same side on many international issues. For the future of Pakistan-Bangladesh relations, there are many positive trends,” she said.

‘We didn’t leave like thieves’

Syed Sikander Mehdi, former Karachi University professor and chairperson of the Department of International Relations, said that the personal memories of West Pakistanis who went to East Pakistan for business and educational purposes are soft. These people still miss Bangladesh. But their memories are not recorded here. “The people from East Pakistan who settled down here before the break-up or after 1971 also have oral memories that have not been published. I did my schooling, college and university education in Dhaka. I was an activist in my student life. I remember us students protesting the Vietnam war, the dictatorship of Ayub Khan. Our family lived in the Bengali area till our migration from Dhaka in late 1972. I had very close relations with my Bengali teachers before and after the military operation. I had a job, my father had a job, too and we had no economic compulsion. When I told my teachers that we were leaving, they hosted a dinner for my family. So we didn’t leave like thieves. But after coming here we saw a headline in the newspaper, which read Bihari na khappay. We cannot wish away the past but we need to write more and talk more about all this,” he said.

Former Professor at the Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka, M Shahiduzzaman said that he was a former student of Sikander Mehdi. “We were sad when he left. Many years later when my students and myself visited the University of Karachi we found him like he has always been, a human being whose soul lies with us,” he said.

Meritorious Professor of International Relations and former Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Karachi, Dr Moonis Ahmar, observed that Pakistan and Bangladesh relations were seeing a paradigm shift in 1974 with the signing of the agreement in Delhi but then this paradigm shift stopped. 

“We have been moving two steps forward and four steps backward,” he said, while adding that Sheikh Hasina Wajid, the daughter of the man denied premiership here, should be invited over and asked to address a joint session of the Pakistan parliaments. And Pakistani PM Imran Khan can do the same when he visits Bangladesh. 

Ambassador Rafiuzzaman Siddiqui and Dr Raunaq Jahan also spoke.

Published in Dawn, 17 December 2021, written by Shazia Hasan

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Filed under Bangladesh, Discussion, Events, Pakistan, Politics

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