By Rajeev Sharma
It was a five-hour visit to Dhaka but it was long enough to bring Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar face-to-face with a reality that she and her countrymen have long tried to gloss over but the people of Bangladesh have not. Her host, foreign minister Dipu Moni surprised her by bringing up the 1971 genocide committed by the Pakistani armed forces and said that Bangladesh was still waiting for an official ‘apology’ from Islamabad. She added that Bangladesh was not satisfied with the ‘regrets’ expressed by Pakistan over the crimes perpetuated as a part of deliberate official policy of teaching a lesson to the then East Pakistani Bengalis.
Khar tried to wiggle out of the situation by using the familiar refrain that she uses with Indian leaders: forget the past and move on. She had used the same line with S. M. Krishna, her Indian counterpart at the time (since changed) as she told him that that the two countries should ‘move on’ without looking back. Krishna was probably a patient listener. Not so Dipu Moni who insisted that future relations with Pakistan depended on the awaited official apology from Pakistan .
The Bangladeshi minister probably saw through the hollowness of the ‘move on’ plea advanced by her petite Pakistani counterpart. It was only a few months ago that Islamabad was making such a hue and cry about an ‘apology’ from Washington for a drone attack on Salalah post on Pakistani side of the Pak-Afghan border. The US President and others had expressed ‘regrets’ over the incident that claimed the lives of several soldiers. But Pakistan would not accept anything less than an official ‘apology’.
Eventually, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tendered some kind of ‘apology’ although it was not paraphrased as apology. Cash-starved Pakistan , desperate to come out of an awkward situation it had created, accepted the‘apology’ and went to town about it, much to the amazement of many at home and abroad.
Dipu Moni was aware that the Pakistani leadership which talks of ‘forget and move on’ does just the opposite in regard to the so-called Kashmir dispute. Whatever one might say in the current simulated atmosphere of Indo-Pak bonhomie, the fact remains that Pakistan makes it abundantly clear that it was not going to ‘forget’ Kashmir even if it stalls further movement in bilateral relations.
Be that as it may, there is a very strong case for Bangladesh insisting on an official apology from Pakistan . The pogrom ordered by General Yahya Khan, as the military ruler in what was then known as East Pakistan has few parallels in recent history, except perhaps the holocaust of the Jews ordered by Adolf Hitler in Germany .
Though it was the Pakistani military which had unleashed unspeakable atrocities on the Bengalis, the civilians of West Pakistan were equally enthusiastic supporters of the mass murder plan. The reason was the contempt the West Pakistanis had for the Bengali speaking fellow citizens; they were seen as inferior in physique and intellect and, in addition, were considered not Islamised enough.
In December 1970 general election, the Awami League of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had swept the polls in the eastern wing of Pakistan . Being more populous, East Pakistan sent more members to Parliament (National Assembly), and, therefore, the Awami League qualified to rule the country. The Punjabi military and the West Pakistanis, led by a man called Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, would have none of it. They used to call the Bengalis of East Pakistan ‘monkeys’ and ‘chickens’ who did not share their (West Pakistanis) hatred for India and the Hindus.
When Bengali nationalism, already fuelled by the neglect of their language by the ruling elite, began to assert itself, the military decided to deal with them ruthlessly. Gen Yahya Khan, generally preoccupied with his favourite mistress and a bottle of Scotch, asked his men to mercilessly crush any sign of rebellion in East Pakistan . Men, women, children, old and infirm, none was to be spared by the bullets of the‘patriotic’ Pakistanis.
The Pakistani army went on a killing spree. They did not have to think much about their target. But in many cases they were helped by local religious fanatics, who led them to the ‘traitor’ and Hindu targets. A Pakistani journalist of Goan origin, Anthony Mascrenhas, (he died in London in December 1986), who had worked for Karachi daily, Dawn, wrote a graphic account of the mass murder planned (in East Pakistan ) by Yahya Khan’s ‘Operation Searchlight’.
There is no definite word on the number of people killed but most opinions settle for a seven figure. At one time half of the then 70 million population of East Pakistan was running for the elusive safety. Ten million refugees had poured into India adding to the drain on a fragile economy and forcing the hand of the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, to take on the US-backed might of Pakistan army.
The Richard Nixon administration backed Islamabad unmindful of its grossest human rights violations. In fact, after Yahya Khan launched Operation Searchlight in March 1971, Nixon sent nearly $4 million worth of arms to Pakistan and also dispatched his naval fleet from the Pacific to the Bay of Bengal.
After the creation of Bangladesh , Pakistan continued to play tricks with the new nation. It refused to accept the Urdu-speaking ‘Biharis’ stranded in East Pakistan who were unambiguous in their allegiance towards Pakistan . That problem still remains as does the question of divisions of common assets.
Taking advantage of the presence of religious zealots, who had collaborated with the Pakistani army during the Bangladeshi war, the notorious ISI of Pakistan began to spread its wing in the new nation. It helped the ISI that the subsequent events in Bangladesh brought to the fore political forces that were opposed to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the nation. Bangladesh became a major hub of ISI activities that included helping in all possible ways the insurgent groups operating in eastern India, and pumping of fake Indian currency into India either directly or through Nepal.
The ISI network also helped the Islamist groups in Bangladesh who opposed their country wearing the ‘secular’ tag. Prime Minister Sheik Hasina’s government is under threat from the religious fundamentalists and their political pivot, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which is said to have received help from the Pakistani spy agency.
The BNP opposes almost everything that the Awami League does or says. That is why Pakistan never offered an official apology to Bangladesh for the 1971 genocide. It is the opponents of Awami League who are also vehemently opposing the current trial of ‘war criminals’, the collaborators during the liberation war of 1971. But there is a strong public opinion against the pro-Pakistani elements. It is this section that stands firmly behind Hasina. That must have been a factor behind Dipu Moni’s firmness in demanding the long overdue apology from Pakistan —and rejecting Hina Rabbani Khar’s hypocritical plea to forgive and forget. A natural corollary of this firmness was Hasina’s decision not to attend the four-day D-8 summit Pakistan convened in Islamabad from Nov 19.
D8 or Group of developing eight Muslim countries – Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria, and Turkey besides Pakistan — is a relatively low key forum which meets once in two years. Its bargaining power thus far has been limited but it is determined to leverage the fact that D 8 accounts for almost 60 percent of global Muslim population to enhance their share of world trade by 15 per cent by 2018. Already D8 has achieved trade volumes worth $130 billion, which is double its share of global trade three years ago.
Islamabad summit is geared up to discuss ways to strengthen business and trade relations, and ties between Muslim-majority states. Broadly speaking therefore, D 8 summit holds great significance for Bangladesh too since it is keen to broad base and deepen its trade opportunities. Already Dhaka has become a major investment destination even for Pakistani businessmen, and some of them are shifting their operations from volatile Karachi to Dhaka ’s neighbourhood.
The message from Moni’s snub of Khar is therefore clear. And it is that Pakistan can hope to have a turnaround in relations with Bangladesh only on Bangladesh’s terms. Pakistan must put on trial military and political personalities involved in the 1971 genocide, and tender a public apology. These terms, as Prime Minister Hasina and Foreign Minister Dipu Moni told Hina Rabbani Khar are not negotiable.
Dhaka can afford this luxury as an in-depth analysis on ‘Pakistan-Bangladesh Economic Expansion Challenges and Opportunities’ conducted by Pakistan ’s Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) in September shows. Bangladesh is miles ahead of Pakistan with a robust manufacturing base and real GDP at an impressive 6.3 per cent. In contrast, the land of the pure remains dependent on regular IMF bailout and US treasury largesse to avert defaults on loan repayments.
The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist-author and a strategic analyst who regularly writes for several leading international media outlets. He can be reached at [email protected]
About the author: SAAG
SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.