Dialogue with Dhaka

December 16,2015

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Forty-four years after the two halves of Pakistan separated, acrimony rather than reconciliation marks the relationship. We recall today the tragic parting of December 16, 1971. There is now an additional dimension of sorrow: we also mourn the massacre of Peshawar schoolchildren 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; these people 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 till early 1972. There are many families now living 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 December 5 that his country is “assessing“ its relationship with Pakistan. For its part, the government of Pakistan reminded the Bangladesh 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 an event in Dhaka, she was rebuffed three times at the visa counter. She then requested an appointment with the consul-general of Bangladesh in Karachi. Since the consul-general was unavailable, she was courteously conducted to the room of the third secretary.

After initial pleasantries were exchanged, to Nighat’s growing sense of shock and dismay, the diplomat suddenly launched into a soliloquy of hostility against Pakistan and Pakistanis. Opening with a query to determine whether she knew why Pakistani citizens find it difficult to obtain visitors’ visas, the diplomat 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 the “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? Such extremes may be more typical of the Awami League viewpoint, rather than of all segments.

Disturbingly, twice a day, every single day, the Bangladesh state-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, is clearly part of a systematic campaign to demonise Pakistan. It is to the credit of the many governments of Pakistan and the media that they do not project our grievances and complaints against Bangladesh.

The ‘Sonar Bangla’ of Bangladesh and the ‘Sohni Dharti’ of Pakistan comprise people with a beautiful richness of art and culture, of history and civilisation, 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 last 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 long years ago when the then Bangladesh prime minister Khaleda Zia visited Islamabad in February 2006. It has been over fourteen years since General Musharraf visited Dhaka in July 2002 – where he also expressed regrets about 1971. The prime ministers of Pakistan and India, and their ministers, need to meet more frequently.

Regular dialogue needs to be initiated, broadened and sustained between multiple segments of both the states and societies of Bangladesh and Pakistan. While recognising 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 – to eventually achieve a mutually respectful, productive, friendly relationship.

The writer is a former senator and federal minister. www.javedjabbar.com


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