A New Tomorrow
Given a troublesome history, do Pakistan-bangladesh relations really have a future?
For four and twenty years before its birth, what is now Bangladesh was an integral part of Pakistan. It was the country’s eastern “wing.” It was called ‘East Pakistan’ and the people living there were “us.” But the clash of interest between the political leaders of the two wings and the exploitation of the east by the west caused a crack, very early. With the passage of time as one side remained intransigent the other became more strident. The crack therefore became a fissure; then a gulf which became wider and wider, until ultimately the Eastern “wing” cut itself adrift, adopting a new title: Bangladesh.
The “union” was jinxed from the very start. Except for a common religion, the people of the two wings were total strangers to each other in every respect: language, culture, history, dress and even their worldview.
In East Pakistan, they wrote from left to right. Rice and fish were their staple food. Their women wore sari and blouse. All in all they were plain people -- law abiding, politically conscious and disciplined. Even before
zamindari was abolished (1951), there were no feudal lords and no serfs; no waderas and haris; no maliks and kammis. There were rajas, maharajas and nawabs --such as the Maharaja of Burdwan, the Maharaja of Santosh, the Nawab of Dhaka. Despite this, no one ever paraded the womenfolk of their ryots naked in the bazaar. Disputes were settled and crimes punished through the courts of law.
In sharp contrast, those inhabiting the western wing wrote from right to left, ate roti and meat and drank lassi. Their women wore shalwar and
qameez. They were sophisticated and loved to display their wealth. Feudal lords enjoyed droit de signeur over the womenfolk of their serfs whom, when angry, they paraded naked in the marketplace. They often married their young girls to the Quran. Their society was, by and large, tribal with clans and biradris. Blood feuds lasted for generations. Local disputes were settled through jirga -- a local council of elders which often ordered giving away a minor girl of the offender’s family in marriage to, perhaps, an old man of the aggrieved, as punishment. The gang rape of Mukhtaran Mai awarded by a panchayat that received international limelight is a case in point.
West Pakistani political leaders, including Quaid-eAzam, knew very little about the people of East Pakistan. They did not know, for instance, that East Pakistani Muslims were no less ardent in their faith than their West Pakistani compatriots. Instead, for unknown reasons, they nursed the notion that Hindus exercised political influence over the Muslims in the eastern wing. Even Quaid-e-azam subscribed to this idea. That was why he declared Urdu, alone, as Pakistan’s national language; a fatal mistake that ignited Bengali sensitivities and became the catalyst for a separate Bangladesh.
If in Canada, where English and French speaking parts are physically united and can have both French and English as national languages, it was all the more imperative to have Bengali and Urdu exist simultaneously in Pakistan, where the two wings were separated by a thousand miles of alien territory.
The subsequent saga of exploitation of East Pakistan’s resources, the disdainful treatment meted out to the people that drove them to rebellion, the wanton massacre to put it down culminating in the emergence of an independent Bangladesh, is too wellknown to require detailed treatment.
Pakistan’s eternal hostility towards India also played a substantial role in the denouement. Because West Pakistan had alienated the people of the eastern wing by insulting their mother tongue, India exploited the linguistic unity of the people of the Indian part of Bengal (West Bengal) with their East Pakistani brethren. Their religions were different, but their language and literature, their poets and writers and even their songs were common.
India made an extremely favorable impression on the people of East Pakistan when it refrained from attacking the wing during the 1965 Indo-pakistan war. The Government of Pakistan had been concerned chiefly with defending West Pakistan. It left East Pakistan totally undefended. India would have had a cakewalk had it wished to
capture it. But it did not.
The people of East Pakistan felt betrayed and lost all trust in the government of Pakistan, because it appeared to cater to the interest of West Pakistan solely. The event further aggravated the bitterness of the enduring frustration on the economic front. The Agartala Conspiracy and the subsequent agitation for the Six Point demand of the Awami League were the logical offshoots of that tragic experience.
Predictably, India exploited this new development. It poured its heart out to the Bengali people of East Pakistan, by empathizing with their woes and invoking linguistic and cultural unity between the two Bengals. And finally, when the chips were down, it rendered active support in their “liberation war” and ultimately won them independence.
President Yahya reneged on calling the National Assembly session on March 1, 1971. Later he rejected the Awami League demands during nego- tiations. And when it ignited an uprising in East Pakistan, he unleashed terror to quell it. The wanton killings of people and destruction of property left a deep scar on the hearts and minds of the local people. Compounded by the lack of contrition and acceptance of the excess by the successive governments of Pakistan, the wounds continue to fester.
President Pervez Musharraf was the only one who mustered the courage of his conviction to express regrets for the events of1971 at the War Memorial in Dhaka. Only an official apology from the Pakistan government could offer the required salve to the wounds. But it is not forthcoming.
Egotistic, arrogant and smug by nature, Pakistan’s political leaders fail to acknowledge that it is a sign of nobleness of character to own one’s mistakes and express remorse. In consequence, there are issues that rankle, such as the division of assets or the repatriation of Biharis who rot in camps because they claim to be Pakistani and have not accepted Bangladeshi nationality.
Making up with Bangladesh would benefit both sides, especially by improving trade relations. Pakistan can import raw jute and jute goods, tea, betel nuts and betel leaves, newsprint, fresh fruits such as bananas and pineapples, bamboos, and so forth. It can export cement, raw cotton, cotton yarn and fabrics as well as dry and fresh fruits. In fact, Pakistan could seek overland transit facility through India to Dhaka in return for allowing similar facilities to India for trading with Afghanistan.
If President Zardari extends his well-known policy of reconciliation to Bangladesh as well, it may herald the dawn of a new day in Pak-bangladesh relations.