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OPED: Keeping the Truth & Reconciliation Train on Track in Pakistan & Bangladesh


Published by Global Affairs / June 2017

It is no secret that Pakistan’s Eastern Wing broke away or that India helped carve Bangladesh in 1971. There were weaknesses to be exploited and deep seated resentments that left sizeable fissures in between Pakistan’s East and West wing. The Indian PM Modi can now tip his hat to 1,661 Indian soldiers allied with an armed resistance – the dreaded Mukti Bahini without fear of reprisal. Of late, there have been whispers about a KGB element in the mix. But the past is over and done with. Or is it?

There was madness and mayhem and civil unrest. Both sides suffered. The figure of three million offered by Bangladesh however has been widely disputed. While there has been a lot of water under the bridge since 1971- there has not been any serious attempt at breaching the divide. But most Pakistanis have not whitewashed their history and acknowledge their errors in judgment and lack of political foresight that led to the debacle.

‘The wall between Bangladesh and Pakistan needs breaching’ by Syed Badrul Ahsan, an associate editor at the Daily Observer (Bangladesh), points at outstanding issues including apologies and misperceptions and his impression that the truth about 1971 had somehow failed to register amongst a majority of Pakistanis. He suggests the deployment of smart diplomacy asserting that “Pakistan and Bangladesh are significant players in South Asia, which is why they cannot at the end of the day ignore each other.” Easing visa restrictions for Pakistani diplomats and accommodating Bengali writers’ viewpoints in Pakistani publications was part of his proposal. A round of dialogue was another.

But what would be the terms of engagement now that the Bangladeshi Parliament has passed a resolution to mark 25 March as ‘Genocide Day’ and seeks an international stamp of approval for their new project. Since 2015, December 9 has been marked as the ‘International Day of Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of the Crime of Genocide and of the Prevention of this Crime’ by the UN General Assembly. The demand for it to be moved to March 25th, two days after the Pakistani nation observes Pakistan Day signifies that phantoms of war wield enormous power and are ready to be summoned to scuttle diplomatic missions and rollback goodwill and progress. That it is perhaps a political ploy and not a memoriam to the victims of war. The term itself has troubling implications.

Nations mark days for many reasons - to commemorate their fallen – to admit their failings so they never make the same mistakes again and can move forward. Exorcising the past should ideally be for closure. It should be a liberating call so people are able to move towards forgiveness and reconciliation. It should provide some degree of catharsis. A day that instead condemns the coming generations to forever stay imprisoned in the darkest chapters of history misses the point. To continually tend to the seeds of bitterness instead of crafting a future and rebuilding relations is a poor framework for any modern state. History traces the evolution of nations who figured a way out of conflict zones. The French and British, sworn enemies in the 100 years war put aside their differences to become allies in WWI and WWII.

President Pervez Musharraf, on an official visit to Bangladesh expressed regret for the excesses of war. 1971 remains an emotionally charged topic and apologies do not always come on cue. Japanese PM Shinzo Abe became the first to visit the memorial site for Pearl Harbor victims at an American naval base. There may have been regret but no apology. They said the purpose was to pay respect to the dead. The US has yet to apologize for dropping those atom bombs. Japan went on to build a prosperous economy despite the lack of contrition on their opponent’s part and both nations mended fences for the sake of the greater good. An observer noted that the Japanese people may have sacrificed a bit of their humanity in their bid for perfection but their resilience and discipline cannot be doubted.
Pakistan still marks 16 Dec 1971 with forensic examination of events on an annual basis. After 2014, that date has become synonymous with another tragedy – the APS massacre of Peshawar.

Both nations have shared history and common bonds. They also have unresolved issues and baggage left over from 1971 to deal with. Bangladesh pulled out of the SAARC event to be hosted in Islamabad in 2016 after Modi refused to attend and Pakistan backed out of a cricket match recently. This year Hamid Mir, a prominent Pakistani TV anchor returned the ‘Friends of Bangladesh award’ conferred to his father for opposing army action in 1971. He doubted the Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina’s sincerity and commitment to build not burn bridges. It is not a stretch to imagine why, when headlines refer to the five billion dollar Indian aid to Dhaka, and tributes to fallen Indian soldiers who ‘liberated’ Bangladesh. And Bangladesh’s war crimes tribunal set up in 2009 that doles out death sentences to Pak Army collaborators, and that reportedly has no UN oversight though it uses the term international to lend it an air of respectability. How far does this special relationship between Delhi and Dhaka inform Bangladesh’s policies towards Islamabad? Because the past continues to hold Pak-Bangladesh relations hostage, how easy is it to drive wedges?

Nations need the ability to map a future that can cater to the emergent threats and should be able to lay the ghost of to 1971to rest without creating permanent rifts. And leaders who can broker a compromise between the urge to consolidate their power base by stoking flames of resentment and the need to temper the rhetoric can open avenues of cooperation mutually beneficial to both parties. 1971 is a part of history, and that is where it should remain. 2017 is where Pakistan and Bangladesh need to be to launch the next phase of their cooperative agenda.


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