Dialogue with Dhaka | The News, Pakistan

16 December 2015

44 years after the two halves of Pakistan separated, acrimony rather than reconciliation marks the relationship. We recall today the tragic parting of 16th December 1971. There is now an additional dimension of sorrow: we also mourn the massacre of Peshawar school children on the same day in 2014.​

Over four decades since the rupture, Bangladesh continues to convict and execute persons sympathetic to the West Pakistani perspective who were accused of murders in 1971. In contrast, there is no report of even a single individual being held guilty, leave alone being punished, for the killings of thousands of non-Bengalis in different phases of 1971-early 1972. Many affected families now resident in Pakistan or overseas who were directly affected, or witness to, the violence their own family members or friends or colleagues suffered simply because they were non-Bengalis.

On the diplomatic level, while formal statements of displeasure were exchanged between the two Governments in 2015, the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh said on 5th December that his country is “assessing“ its relationship with Pakistan. For its part, the Government of Pakistan reminded the other Government of the bilateral 1974 agreement by which Bangladesh had agreed not to proceed with war-crimes trials.

Emotional intensity is able to breach universal norms of diplomatic etiquette, as the following episode illustrates.

A dear friend called me recently, quite distraught. Nighat Mir, widow of our late distinguished artist Imran Mir, and in her own right, a woman of distinction, wanted advice following a somewhat bizarre experience. On being invited to a Dhaka event, she was thrice rebuffed at the Visa counter. She then requested an appointment with the Consul-General of Bangladesh in Karachi. As the Consul-General was away, she was courteously conducted to the room of the Third Secretary.

After initial pleasantries were exchanged, to her growing sense of shock and dismay, the diplomat suddenly commenced a soliloquy of hostility against Pakistan and Pakistanis. Opening with a query to determine whether she knew why Pakistani citizens have difficulties obtaining visitors' visas, he launched into a tirade against Pakistan's real (and fictionally magnified) atrocities against the people of East Pakistan in 1971, including purported mass rapes and killings of women. He also raged against the refusal of Pakistan to acknowledge responsibility for these mass-scale murders. And their inability to make this a part of our school curriculum like Bangladesh which had done so to let younger people know “correct history". Nighat says she attempted to respond that she was present only in an apolitical capacity as a writer of an art book, to apply for a visa and was not a party to past sins, true or vastly exaggerated, committed by Pakistan against Bengalis. With much regret she decided not to visit Dhaka, regardless of whether the visa was issued or not.

How accurately representative are such undiplomatic outbursts by a diplomat of the views of the majority of the Bangladeshi people as such extremes may be more typical of the Awami League viewpoint, rather than of all segments ?

Disturbingly, twice a day, every single day, the Government-controlled BTV replays scenes from 1971 which depict the alleged brutalities of Pakistan’s Armed Forces and indoctrinate young generations with anger and hate. This practice, along with the war-crimes trials are clearly part of a systematic campaign to demonize Pakistan. It is to the credit of many Governments of Pakistan and media that they do not project our own grievances and complaints against Bangladesh on a daily basis.

The Sonar Bangla of Bangladesh and the Sohni Dharti of Pakistan comprise people with a beautiful richness of art and culture, of history and civilization, of shared dreams and visions. In times when both face the barbaric menace of violent religious extremism, extremist State policies of any kind will only create more new dangers rather than strengthen capacity to overcome the shared threat.

Political dialogue at the leadership level, official and non-official, is abysmally missing. The previous bilateral meeting between Heads of State and Government, other than ceremonial or incidental meetings at multilateral forums such as the UN or SAARC, took place almost ten whole years ago when Prime Minister Khaleda Zia visited Islamabad in February 2006. It is over thirteen years since General Musharraf visited Dhaka in July 2002 when he also expressed regrets about 1971. The Prime Ministers of Pakistan and India, and their Ministers, meet more frequently despite more recurrent violent conflicts and accusations !

Regular dialogue needs to be initiated, broadened and sustained between multiple segments of both the societies and States of Bangladesh and Pakistan. While recognizing sensitivities and reservations on both sides, only through frequent, continuous, candid communication can the two nations and States begin to come to terms with 1971--- so as to eventually achieve a mutually respectful, productive, friendly relationship.

As published in The News, Pakistan on 16th December 2015.