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Dhaka Tribune

Revisiting the 1974 tripartite agreement

A half century after April 1974, how has the spirit of reconciliation in the subcontinent worked?

Update : 04 Apr 2024, 09:31 AM

A half century ago, on April 9, 1974, emissaries of the governments of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan concluded a tripartite agreement in New Delhi aimed at an inauguration of an era of peace and reconciliation in the subcontinent.

The agreement, necessitated in the aftermath of Bangladesh’s War of Liberation in 1971, dealt with such issues as the repatriation of Bengalis stranded in Pakistan following the war to Bangladesh, the repatriation of Pakistani prisoners of war housed in Indian camps since December 1971 and the issue of a resettlement of stranded Pakistanis, otherwise known as Biharis in Bangladesh, in Pakistan.

The tripartite agreement was signed by Dr Kamal Hossain, foreign minister of Bangladesh; Sardar Swaran Singh, minister for external affairs of India; and Aziz Ahmed, minister of state for defence and foreign affairs of Pakistan. The agreement came in the wake of detailed consultations between India and Bangladesh on the one hand and between India and Pakistan on the other in 1973. The process of reconciliation had earlier been set into motion when Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan signed the Simla Agreement in July 1972.

So, what were the salient points in the tripartite agreement and to what extent has the spirit of reconciliation been carried to its logical conclusion, if at all? The Delhi talks were in a large sense crucial given the evident desire of the Indian authorities to have all Pakistani PoWs return home to Pakistan.

Of course, by the time the April agreement was reached, a very large number of the PoWs had been freed by India, with 6,000-plus remaining to be released. In light of the Dhaka-Delhi talks and Delhi-Islamabad talks in 1973, a large chunk of the PoWs had gone home. In similar manner, thousands of Bengalis stranded in Pakistan came back to Bangladesh, with the Pakistan authorities promising to ensure the safe return home of all remaining Bengalis in Pakistan.

The tripartite negotiations in Delhi came about following Pakistan’s formal recognition of Bangladesh’s sovereignty in February 1974, which recognition facilitated Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s presence at the summit of Islamic nations in Lahore. At the Delhi talks, a critical issue was the Bangladesh government’s intention to place 195 senior Pakistani military officers on trial in Bangladesh on charges of the war crimes they committed or presided over in 1971. In retaliation, the Bhutto government had made it known, with little basis in logic, that if Bangladesh went ahead with the trials of the 195 officers, it would place a good number of Bengalis on trial in Pakistan on charges of sedition.

By the time the April 1974 talks commenced in Delhi, tempers had cooled somewhat. As the details of the agreement were to show, Kamal Hossain referred to the atrocities committed by the Pakistan army in Bangladesh. Aziz Ahmed’s response came in the form of a request by his government for Bangladesh to free the PoWs in the spirit of reconciliation.

The Pakistani minister pleaded for their release on the ground that if the 195 officers were tried in Bangladesh, the new civilian government led by Z.A. Bhutto would run the risk of being overthrown by the army. The Pakistan delegation assured the Bangladesh team that if the officers were freed, the Islamabad authorities would on their own try them on the charges levelled against them by Dhaka.

It was a difficult moment for Bangabandhu’s government. Mrs Indira Gandhi was also clearly in favour of Bangladesh demonstrating a spirit of forget and forgive in order for the spirit of reconciliation to move forward. As subsequently recounted by Dr Kamal Hossain, Bangabandhu was deeply troubled that he was unable to keep his pledge to his people of putting the 195 officers on trial for the genocide they carried out in Bangladesh in 1971. Nevertheless, he eventually went along with the idea of agreeing to release the PoWs, making it known that his country believed in the inauguration of a new future, indeed a new phase of cooperation in the subcontinent. Bangladesh’s people, he made it clear, knew how to forgive.

In later times, the Bangladesh government insisted that the Pakistan government fulfil its promise of trying the 195 officers once they returned to their country. The promise was never kept. A problem with the tripartite agreement was that this promise was a verbal one and was not officially noted in the April 1974 agreement.

Obviously, the Bhutto government took full advantage of the lapse. When the Pakistani leader visited Bangladesh at the head of an 80-member team in June 1974, he showed little inclination of reassuring Bangladesh on the issue. Nor was he willing to talk about a sharing of the assets and liabilities of pre-1971 Pakistan (that was of course not part of the tripartite agreement). No joint communique was issued at the end of the visit.

A loophole in the 1974 agreement relates to the Pakistan government’s condemnation of crimes “that may have been committed” in Bangladesh by the army. The phrase “that were committed” does not occur, which was subsequently instrumental in the rehabilitation of all the 195 officers once they returned home. In effect, the Bhutto government was able to convince Pakistanis that it had successfully pulled the country out of the bind it had been caught in since the end of the war in December 1971.

A half century after April 1974, how has the spirit of reconciliation in the subcontinent worked? The brief response is: Not much. The suspicions which have for generations lingered in terms of Bangladesh-Pakistan relations and Pakistan-India ties have, in a number of instances, not only not gone away but have worsened.

The failure of the Pakistani authorities to try the 195 officers has been followed in the last five decades-plus with a failure to come forth with a formal apology to Bangladesh for the genocide committed in 1971. The adoption of a resolution by the Pakistan national assembly during the last Nawaz Sharif government condemning the trials and executions of local Bengali collaborators of the Pakistan army did not help bilateral ties at all.

Despite the fact that Pakistan and Bangladesh maintain diplomatic missions in each other’s capital, such facts as Islamabad’s reluctance to inform Pakistanis of the truth behind the 1971 story has been a disincentive to the development of friendly ties between the two countries.

Pakistan’s failure to accept all the Biharis who opted for Islamabad has always been a difficulty with not only Bangladesh but also with the tens of thousands of Urdu-speaking people who have eked out a bare existence in a situation where they are, frankly speaking, without a state.

In the sphere of India-Pakistan relations, the spirit engendered by the Simla Agreement and the tripartite agreement simply does not exist anymore. The Kargil crisis caused by the Pakistan army remains a sore point with the Indian authorities, while Islamabad has regularly charged Delhi with interfering in Balochistan. Indian and Pakistani leaders have met since the 1980s, but the meetings were all cosmetic affairs leading to little of substance. Border skirmishes have occurred with a fair degree of regularity. India has consistently pointed to Pakistan as a hub of terrorism, with the 2008 attacks in Mumbai as a point of reference.

In the years following the end of the Second World War, Germany, France, Britain, Japan and the United States moved expeditiously to reconciliation. A similar spirit, despite the 1974 tripartite agreement, has in these 50 years been elusive in the subcontinent. A broad hint of the subcontinent remaining trapped in the past comes through the state of the comatose into which the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), so cheerfully launched in Dhaka in 1985, has slipped.

50 years after April 1974, the picture is blurred in the subcontinent. Reconciliation has been stymied by factors the tripartite treaty signatories could not quite foresee. Nor could the people of the three countries of the region.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is Consultant Editor, Dhaka Tribune.



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