On the sidelines of Sri Lanka’s 74 th. Independence Day celebrations in Colombo in the first week of February, Pakistan’s State Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hina Rabbani Khar, sought a bilateral meeting with Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen. As per established practice, the request was granted. Media reports said that the two leaders discussed ways to improve ties. But no details were given.

A section of the media outside Sri Lanka saw signs of a thaw in the troubled relations between the two countries. But reliable sources in Bangladesh made it clear that there could be no thaw until Pakistan “officially and unconditionally” apologized for the atrocities committed by its army in the months preceding the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. Pakistan’s riposte to this assertion has been that its leaders had more than once (but not officially) regretted the happenings and that it is time the two countries buried the past and moved on.

Pakistan and Bangladesh, which parted ways in 1971 after two decades of disagreements on linguistic, economic and political issues, have subsequently made efforts to bury the hatchet and develop normal bilateral relations. But every attempt to do so has failed. This has been the case even when governments in Dhaka, like those of Gen. Ziaur Rahman, Gen.Hussain Mohammad Ershad and Khaleda Zia, were well disposed towards Pakistan.

It appears that domestic and geopolitical realties determined both the urge for a rapprochement and the decision to opt out of it. Now, with Bangladesh economically stronger and its ties with India much greater and multifarious, prospects of improved Bangladesh-Pakistan ties look dimmer than before.

However, neither side has closed the door to an understanding. For one thing, both Pakistanis and Bangladeshis share a 41-year history of fighting for an independent State of Pakistan for the Muslims of India. In fact, the Muslim League was launched in Dhaka in 1906 and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Father of Bangladesh, was a full-time worker of the Muslim League and a close lieutenant of H.S. Suhrawardy, one of the architects of Pakistan. Further, Mujib would not have opted for secession if he was not denied the fruits of his party Awami League’s decisive victory in the 1970 elections that it fought on the issue of regional autonomy (not separation). Separation became inevitable only after the Pakistani army launched its brutal crackdown in March 1971 in which thousands of civilians and also intellectuals were targeted.

Despite the traumatic birth of his country, Mujib did not raise the issue of an official apology from Pakistan at the tripartite talks held between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in April 1974 to end the conflict. According to Moonis Ahmar, author of Pakistan-Bangladesh relations – Prospects and Way Forward, Mujib even granted amnesty to those who collaborated with the Pakistan Army. Ahmar quotes from J.N.Dixit’s book, Liberation and Beyond: Indo-Bangladesh Relations to say that under Mujib’s watch, anti-Indian feelings had surged, though without India’s military intervention Bangladesh would not have come into being.

Dixit says: “Mujib had come to the conclusion by the first quarter of 1973 that the only way to neutralize negative propaganda against him and affirm Bangladesh’s independent status and capacity for freedom of option in foreign and defence related policies was to normalize and expand relations with Pakistan, China, and if possible, with the USA and simultaneously to reassert Bangladesh’s Islamic identity by becoming part of the OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation).”

Dixit also narrated the grand welcome which was accorded to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto when he visited Dhaka at the invitation of Sheikh Mujib in June 1974. Earlier, Mujib had attended the Second Islamic Summit held in Lahore, Pakistan, in February 1974. “It appeared that the two countries were on the verge of mending fences,” Ahmar says, adding that during Mujib’s rule from January 1972 to 1975, he made no demand for an official apology by Pakistan.

The successor regimes of Gen. Ziaur Rahman, Gen.H.M.Ershad and Khaleda Zia carried forward the policy of Islamization and mending ties with Pakistan. Ziaur Rahman journeyed to Pakistan and improved trade relations, and in 1977, Pakistan was Bangladesh’s second-largest trading partner after the US. President Ershad and Khaleda Zia kept up the good ties. Zia, Ershad and Khaleda looked at Pakistan as a bulwark against India, which was chafing after the elimination of its protégé, Sheikh Mujib, in 1975. The trio had serious issues with India over river waters sharing, definition of the border and the shelter given to anti-Indian terror groups in Bangladesh.

However, it did not take long for these regimes to become unpopular on grounds of non-performance. But to gain legitimacy they would play up the Islamic and anti-Indian (pro-Pakistan) card. But still, this did not lead to detente with Pakistan. Bangladesh wanted the return of its pre-liberation assets in Pakistan (more than US$ 4.5 billion) and the repatriation of 230,000 Biharis who sided with the Pakistani army during the liberation war. These issues were raised by Khaleda when the Pakistani military ruler Gen.Pervez Musharraf visited Dhaka in 2002.

Though out of power, the pro-liberation and anti-Pakistan constituency in Bangladesh was substantial. It got a shot in the arm with the return of Mujib’s doughty daughter, Sheikh Hasina, from exile in 1981. When she came to power in 1996, she demanded an unconditional and official apology from Pakistan for the atrocities of 1971. She has been keeping up the chant to date. Pakistan’s protest against the execution of Jamaat-e-Islami activists on charges of collaboration in war crimes in 1971 only widened the gap.

It became clear to all that while Bangladesh’s identity as an Islamic country cannot be questioned, it is difficult for any Bangladeshi political party to rely only on the Islamic card to have any special ties with Pakistan. Given the fact that all parties other than the Awami League exist only in the margins, the Awami League’s view of the liberation movement, the war and war crimes, is the dominant narrative.

Given the economic boom it has been experiencing and its wide-ranging social achievements under Hasina’s watch since 2009, Bangladesh can be choosy in selecting friends. Bangladesh’s per capita income crossed the US$ 2000 mark with a GDP of about US$ 355 billion. Poverty rates have plunged from nearly 43% in 1991 to 14% in 2021. Economists predict that it will “graduate” out of the Least Developed Country (LDC) status by 2026. And Bangladesh is being courted by foreign investors.

In contrast, Pakistan’s economy is in shambles, its social indices are poor, and it is going about looking for donors. And today, Pakistan cannot match India as a development partner for Bangladesh. Bangladesh and Indian are inter-twined in multifarious ways. While it cannot be denied that India and Bangladesh have issues between them such as river waters-sharing, and there is a vocal anti-Indian lobby in Bangladesh, Bangladesh would rather have good relations with a growing India than latch on to poor Pakistan which has little to offer.

India was Bangladesh’s second-largest trade partner in 2022. Bilateral trade increased to US$18.2 billion (US$16.2 billion in exports and US$2 billion in imports) in 2022 as against US$10.8 billion in 2021. In contrast, Pakistan’s exports to Bangladesh were US$ 583.44 million in 2020 and its imports from Bangladesh were U$ 61.94 million in 2020.

Any chance of Pakistan officially apologizing for the events of 1971 disappeared when army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa told a gathering in November 2022, that the army could not be blamed for the events of 1971 and that criticism of it had been indecent. Given the dominant position of the army in Pakistan, its politicians dare not let it down.



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