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Unquenched furies of 1971: To repair damaged ties with Bangladesh, Pakistan should apologise

The Times of India (India)
Syed Munir Khasru
March 7, 2016


Today is a historic day for Bangladesh. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, leader of the then East Pakistan, delivered an iconic speech to a gathering of over two million people at Dhaka’s Ramna Race Course Maidan this day in 1971, calling for a civil disobedience movement against the then West Pakistan government. After 9 months of armed struggle against the occupying army of Pakistan, East Pakistan became Bangladesh as the country achieved its independence.

The horrors of the liberation war are still vivid in the minds of many Bangladeshis. The unspeakable atrocities suffered by Bangladeshis haunt many who are still alive. They can neither forgive nor forget what happened to them and their loved ones during those eventful and sordid days.

While Bangladesh and Pakistan share regional and international platforms, their relationship has recently turned sour. On December 23 last year, Islamabad recalled a diplomat from its high commission in Dhaka at Bangladesh’s request, on allegation of financing a suspected extremist accused of spying for Pakistan. In retaliation, Islamabad expelled a Bangladeshi diplomat who was posted in Islamabad. The current spat marks one of the lowest points of bilateral relations since 1974, when Pakistan finally recognised Bangladesh.

The Bangladesh government decided to put on trial war criminals of 1971 who played a key role in the genocide, rape and arson in Bangladesh throughout the liberation war. Some of the persons tried in the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) are also charged with raiding residences, shops and temples belonging to Hindu minority communities across Bangladesh. Pakistan’s reaction to the war crimes trial in Dhaka has been negative from the beginning.

Islamabad’s concern over recent executions of war crimes convicts has not been received positively by Dhaka. This has become a source of diplomatic discontent and old wounds have resurfaced due to Pakistan’s continued refusal to apologise for the brutal genocide that claimed millions of lives in 1971. Some of the statements made by leading Pakistani politicians on the trial have instead aggravated the situation.

Many countries have formally apologised for wartime atrocities. Both Japan and Germany apologised for war crimes in World War II. China still holds Japan responsible for forcing thousands of Chinese women to become sex slaves. Decades after the war, Japan apologised for war crimes committed by its soldiers in a number of countries – China, Korea and Philippines. Germany accepted responsibility for the Holocaust.

The path to justice in Bangladesh has not been a smooth one. Many western countries, while recognising the atrocities committed by the Pakistani soldiers in Bangladesh, have questioned the legal procedure of the trial process in terms of protection of human rights of the persons under trial. This approach has become a barrier for Bangladesh, as extradition of war criminals from abroad has become problematic.

The issue of Pakistan’s apology to Bangladesh entails also the repatriation of 2, 50,000 stranded Biharis from Bangladesh, who consider themselves Pakistanis. However, a formal apology could bring down resentments between the two countries and usher a new era of regional cooperation by moving beyond decades of bitterness and hostility.

It would set a new example, much like France and Germany moving beyond the bitter experiences of World War II to become founding members of the European Union. There is considerable public support in Pakistan in favour of a formal apology to Bangladesh. Several important figures such as Imran Khan and Khan Abdul Wali Khan see merit in Pakistan’s offering such an apology. Civil rights leaders like Asma Jahangir and noted media personality Hamid Mir have repeatedly appealed to the Pakistan government to accept responsibility for the atrocities its army committed in 1971.

Yet, the Pakistan parliament has condemned Bangladesh for trying the war criminals. The refusal of Pakistan to deal with its 1971 atrocities may be partly due to its desire to save the 195 military personnel identified for war crimes. Pakistan promised to put the 195 men under trial under the tripartite Shimla accord. Yet, such a trial never took place thanks to the civil-military dynamic inside the country that has seen direct or indirect military rule for most of its seven decades of existence.

As developing nations, Bangladesh and Pakistan could begin a new chapter of bilateral and regional cooperation that would greatly benefit both states in the long run. In 2013-14, trade between the two states was on the rise. Prolonged political crisis would not only reverse the gains made in bilateral ties in the last few decades, but also adversely affect regional cooperation in South Asia.

The 19th Saarc summit will be held in Islamabad. If the bilateral spat hinders Dhaka’s participation in the summit, relations between these two states would be further strained and the very spirit of Saarc, which was built on the principle of cooperation between South Asian states, would be lost. A sincere apology from Pakistan, no matter how late and overdue, can usher in a new chapter in Bangladesh Pakistan relations, both bilateral and regional. The ball is in Pakistan’s court.

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