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January 25, 2020

An apology for Bangladesh


January 25, 2020

At the 50th Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum at Davos this week, Prime Minister Imran Khan demonstrated two things, yet again.

One, that there is substance behind the generational admiration for the way he can carry himself on the international stage (in my lifetime, the only parallel Pakistan has had was Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto – another flawed, but enduring Pakistani giant). And two, that when Pakistan works at it, it has the capability to taking on and winning against whatever India is currently offering to the world.

Sadly, neither of these two factors is decisive or overwhelming in a way that will either help PM Khan and the PTI here at home, or help Pakistan and the Kashmiri people abroad. The sad truth for Pakistanis suffering the poor domestic performance of the PTI is that yet another political party in this country seems headed for the ignominy of being a failure at combining popularity with competence, or rhetoric promised with results delivered.

More worryingly, the sad truth for Pakistan on the international stage is that Pakistan can only extract very minor concessions for its seemingly very large compromises: a downgrading from the FATF grey list, and a pat on the back from President Donald Trump is a pretty cheap date, when the other side endures a massive seven year insurgency, a battered economy and a devastated global image, only to end up putting the Taliban on a platter. To add insult to injury, a third-tier official is allowed to visit Pakistan and stick a dagger into its nearest and most reliable ally, over, and over, and over again.

All of this indicates a broader direction of play. Pakistan will eventually dance. This is not because Pakistan is necessarily wrong, or guilty of any of the things it is accused of by its most passionate haters. It is because Pakistan’s elite – all of its elite – are too short sighted to manage the country’s economy in a way that ensures long-term returns and rents for the elite. Instead, the economy gets bottomed out, like clockwork, every few years. Why? Because the Pakistani elite refuse to apply some of the most basic, fundamental principles of high growth economies: avoid conflict, ensure enough fiscal space to keep the lights on, and allow a thousand Malik Riazs to flourish (instead of just the one).

So where is the wider story headed? Sooner or later, Pakistan’s argument on Kashmir (which happens to be the correct, historically accurate, morally defensible, and in-the-interests-of-the-Pakistani-people argument) will meet the cold, hard surface of reality. PM Khan’s condition to engage with India is the lifting of the curfew that was imposed on the people of Occupied Kashmir on August 5, 2019. Whether out of fatigue, or out of compulsion through the Supreme Court, this curfew will eventually be lifted. When it is, Pakistan will once again engage in dialogue with India.

The only thing standing in the way is modern Hindutva: which takes the shape of the belligerent and conflict-dependent Modi-Shah combine in New Delhi. India is more likely to initiate a war with Pakistan that helps create the illusion of victory in India (as it did after the Indian Air Force’s Balakot fiasco), than it is to roll back the material changes it has made to its legal instruments to occupy and subjugate Kashmiris. Even in that scenario, eventually, Pakistan and India will sit down and talk.

After seventy years of resisting Indian hegemony, if the deciding factor in the power relations in South Asia becomes the fiscal unsustainability of the Pakistani elite’s endless appetite for subsidy and cushy jobs, rather than the competence of its airmen, seamen, soldiers and spies to fight wars, then this represents a pretty substantial lesson. But there are less painful lessons that can be adopted and learnt more immediately. The first among these is to stop allowing India easy wins. The list is long: from Kargil to the US strategic relationship, and from Ufa to the FATF. But the easiest win Pakistan ever allowed India isn’t from the last two decades. It’s now almost half a century old: it is Bangladesh.

Bangladesh, which parochial Pakistanis tend to see as an Indian satellite state, is nothing of the sort. This is a country with whom India has serious border disputes, and whose mostly Muslim citizens are considered to be “parasites” to be herded out of India, by India’s Hindu supremacist people and leaders. This is a country that is defined as much by the Muslim identity of its people – who suffered British deception in 1905, Indian National Congress fuelled riots in 1946 – as it is by its Bangla identity – suffering the denial of an electoral victory in 1970 (informed in part by West Pakistani racism), and a massive civil war in 1971.

At every international forum, and on every major issue in the last two decades, this same Bangladesh has chosen to side with India, rather than Pakistan. Imagine just how deep the injury must be for this to happen – given the array of complex and difficult issues Bangladesh faces with India. Imagine.

Yet Pakistan’s own flexibility is not left to the imagination. People like me have spent two decades advocating normalization, trade and people to people exchanges with India – despite the continued occupation of Kashmir, and the ever growing menace of Hindu supremacist politics in that country – not to mention South Block’s unstoppable jihad to isolate and blacklist Pakistan at every juncture and every forum imaginable.

And here we are again: after the learning that the 2001 parliament attacks may have been staged, knowing that Hindutva-obsessed India will only seek to deepen its occupation of Kashmir, knowing that the Hindu extremist prime minister of India orchestrated the mass killing of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. Here we are one single curfew in Srinagar being lifted away from talking to this very India. If all that stands between better Pakistan-India relations is August 5 (2019), then what exactly stops Pakistan from moving heaven and earth to at least explore what it would take to engage with Bangladesh in a meaningful conversation?

Even in the most sympathetic accounts of 1971, the conduct of some Pakistanis in East Pakistan was deplorable. Why shouldn’t Pakistan apologize for those excesses? If the nitpicking is on the numbers killed or the language used (“three million killed in a genocide”) then let us ask ourselves: is there a number of murders and rapes that is acceptable? A number of dead fellow Pakistanis that we would deem to be worthy of being proud of, instead of being ashamed of?

Pakistan’s quarrel, even in 1971, should never have been with the people of Bangladesh – who suffered not one, not two, but three partitions. Yes, there are complexities to the war time dynamic – especially given the insurgent nature of what emerged from two decades of West Pakistani public policy toward Dhaka – but they do not constitute grounds for refusing to apologize.

A formal apology to the people and state of Bangladesh is a long overdue national moral burden that must be lifted. Pakistan’s consciousness as a leader in the region and the Muslim world, and its capacity to resist Indian hegemony is undermined by its refusal to acknowledge mistakes, and the pride of its elite. This has driven three generations of Bangladeshis into righteous and rightful rage and sorrow. They ask: “how can Pakistanis look us in the eye without feeling sorry for what they did?”

It is a question us Pakistanis must ask ourselves too. How indeed? The only answer: An apology to Bangladesh.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.