The three-day much acclaimed but widely criticized visit by the Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to Bangladesh, his expression of regrets for the excesses committed by the Pakistani army during the 1971 Liberation war, and his call to bury the past requires an analysis of Bangladesh-Pakistan relations against the backdrop of current developments; they could signal the dawn of a new entente between the two countries.
General Musharraf is the first Pakistani ruler to visit Bangladesh after 1971. Though Bangladesh’s relations with Pakistan have improved since 1976 and matured by the early 1990s, they deteriorated after June 1996, reaching an all time low in September 2000. The General had to cancel his scheduled visit to Bangladesh because of the remarks made by then Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at the United Nations Millennium Summit, condemning the military leadership in Pakistan, as part of a general request to take action against undemocratic changes of government. On her return to Dhaka, she demanded that Pakistan apologize for the atrocities committed by its army during the Liberation war, and bring to justice those involved. This led to an impasse in their relations due to Pakistan’s withdrawal of its Deputy High Commissioner in November 2000, his refusal to apologize on behalf of Pakistan, massive demonstrations in Dhaka and his departure after being declared persona non grata by the Bangladesh government.
What is ironic is Musharraf’s decision to express regrets by recording his written views in the visitor’s book whilst paying homage at the liberation martyrs memorial. In sharp contrast to the earlier government stand, the present Foreign Minister of the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party welcomed Musharraf’s statement of regret, and suggested that “we would not embarrass a guest by discussing issues like an apology for 1971. It’s the spirit of the people of the two countries that will decide that”. Moreover, according to a Pakistani daily, Bangladesh offered to sell its Mig-29 fighter planes and sophisticated frigates to Pakistan.
Bangladesh’s foreign policy is greatly influenced by pressures from within the South Asian region with Bangladesh’s domestic politics following second, and extra-regional requirements exercising the least influence. The challenge before observers of Bangladesh’s foreign policy has been to identify the characteristics unique to Bangladesh-Pakistan relations and assess how other influences are shaping the relationship between these two states.
The nine-month Liberation war that culminated with Mujib’s proclamation of independence on 26 March 1971, owed its genesis to several factors ranging from the assault on East Bengal’s autonomy before its gaining independence, erosion of democratic institutions first in Pakistan and then in Bangladesh, discriminatory treatment, imposition of Urdu in 1952 as the official language, and exclusion of East Pakistanis from centres of policy making.
The internal political scene in Bangladesh, ever since its liberation, has been marked by extreme volatility, violent changes of government, military coups, and agitational politics by the opposition, both constructive and destructive. Given the peculiar character of Bangladesh’s domestic politics and the Awami League’s belief that Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence, at the behest of Musharraf, worked towards ensuring its debacle in the October 2001 elections, the General’s visit assumed special significance. Most opposition parties in Bangladesh led by the Awami League, including the left parties, vehemently opposed his visit. The Chhatra League, the AL’s student outfit, alongwith prominent members of civil society, declared Musharraf as persona nongrata and denounced his visit as being unwarranted. Severe clashes between the police and the student wings were a precursor to a nationwide bandh that greeted Musharraf, paralysing large parts of the country, already plagued by a dismal economic performance. The student agitation finally ended with the resignation of the Vice Chancellor and the Proctor of Dhaka University, which caused greater concern to the government, given the fact that students play a key role in Bangladesh’s volatile politics.
The question that remains is whether Musharraf’s visit and expression of regret would be able to assuage the feelings and memories of a majority of the Bangladeshis, scarred by the bloody and bitter struggle for independence? The interaction between Pakistan and Bangladesh, overshadowed by historical legacies and, more importantly, the political upheavals that have occurred within these two states are factors that will play an important role in either furthering or impeding the dawn of this new era.