From celebrating different festivals to speaking different languages, the two wings of Pakistan were always two different nations.
Right from the time of creation of Pakistan, there was something odd about the relationship between its eastern and the western wings. Although the country was created as a separate homeland for Muslims of the subcontinent, and Muslims of East Pakistan had played a greater role in the Pakistan Movement, yet there were obvious and glaring idiosyncrasies between the two.
For example, while people
of the western wing celebrated the two Muslim festivals of Eidul-Fitr and Eidul-Adha with utmost religious fervor, for the people of East Pakistan it was always the occasion of ‘Pohela Boishakh’ or Bengali New Year and, historically a Hindu festival, which they celebrated with fervor and enthusiasm far exceeding that of the two Eids. So when the split came in 1971, for many in West Pakistan, it was like the poetic expression of Parveen Shakir – ‘Iss tark-e-rafaqat pe pareshan to hun lekin, ab tak ke tere saath pe hairat bhi bohat thi’.
The bitterness of the split between Pakistan and Bangladesh could be traced back to nearly a quarter century of acrimony since 1947 - first on the issue of language and later on distribution of resources. Eventually, in 1966 when Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman launched his famous six points from Lahore on the eve of Pohela Boishakh,
it was akin to triggering a chain reaction with devastating results later in 1971.
There have been serious differences of opinion between the two sides about what actually happened in 1971. Bangladesh has accused the Pakistan Army of wanton killing of civilians and has come up with figures considered as being too exaggerated by neutral observers, while Pakistan has maintained that it were Bengali nationalists aided by India who started it all when they massacred innocent non-Bengali citizens in large numbers well before the March 1971 crisis ballooned.
In the decades following independence of Bangladesh, various foreign policy initiatives were undertaken by the two sides but the goal of normalizing relations to their mutually beneficial goal of diplomatic, political and commercial interactions has eluded them due to many reasons. Foremost amongst them was the difference in perceptions in Dhaka and Islamabad about their respective national interests.
The perception in Dhaka has been three-dimensional; firstly it has insisted on an apology from Pakistan for the excesses of the army during the civil war in 1971. Secondly, the proIndia political faction represented by Awami League and headed by Hasina Wajid, daughter of Sheikh Mujeebur-Rehman, is generally perceived as opposed to any friendly relations with Pakistan because of its own close links with New Delhi. The third dimension is the general population of Bangladesh which desires brotherly relations with Pakistan.
This last-mentioned dimension is in sync with Pakistan’s foreign policy orientation which aims at countering India’s hegemonic attitude towards Bangladesh. The popular sentiments of the people are reflected most visibly in the crowd support for the Pakistan cricket team whenever it plays against India on Bangladesh soil. The man on the street in Bangladesh also despises India’s support for the insurgency movement in the Chittagong hill tracts.
This strand of public opinion feels that since the people of Pakistan and Bangladesh have jointly carried out a struggle for an independent homeland for the Muslims in the pre-partition period, in the changed environment, they have no disputed borders nor territorial disputes. It would therefore be advisable to forget the past and move on with the global tide. They have, however, remained largely captive to the whims of the pro-India forces that are in power in Bangladesh.
A thousand miles away in Pakistan, most people at the human level are sympathetic to the Bangladeshis. But that was also a period when the general population in Pakistan could do very little as it was neither fully aware of what was happening in the distant Bangladesh. The country’s electronic and print media did not report much on the events in that part of the world.
Pakistan, as a state did not tender an unconditional apology to Bangladesh for what the latter termed as ‘atrocities’ of the Pakistan Army. Foremost amongst the reasons for this that the events of 1971 were far too complex and multi-dimensional than what has been conveniently portrayed by Bangladesh as ‘atrocities’ of the Pakistan military. There are two sides to this, as of any narrative. Unfortunately, it is only one side of the tragedy which is presented to the world.
Other than the demand for an apology, there are issues of division of assets according to the size of the population of sides at the time of breakup. The repatriation of stranded nonBengalis to Pakistan is also an issue. Some progress been made in this and some 127,000 non-Bengalis have been repatriated to Pakistan but Bangladesh continues to agitate for repatriation of more people. Obviously, there is a limit to what Pakistan can do in this regard.
Also, while Bangladesh calls them ‘stranded Pakistanis’, it has been consistently notified by Pakistan that they are citizens of Bangladesh and it has a responsibility to treat them as equal citizens in accordance with its constitution. Millions of people who have lived in the country for generations cannot be deprived of their homes and lands overnight simply because they speak a different language.
The political leadership of the Awami League also violated international laws of non-interference in the internal matters of sovereign and independent state when it sought military assistance from India for fulfillment of its political objectives. The UN charter and the post-1945 global world order was violated. There is also the view held by some that after the 1971 war, the newly born country could have called itself the Republic of East Pakistan but by changing its identity and calling itself Bangladesh, it has no legal standing for claiming assets and resources.
Ironically, the issue of division of assets also goes back to the period of the common history of Pakistan and Bangladesh when the eastern wing felt deprived of its fair share of resources of the combined Pakistan for developmental activities.