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The diplomacy question in South Asia

  • Published at 05:37 pm October 3rd, 2018
The only way forward is through communication
The only way forward is through communication Photo:BIGSTOCK

Lines of communication between leaders of Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan need to be open

Diplomacy in South Asia needs a shot in the arm.

For far too long, the three nations whose histories are intertwined -- Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India -- have stayed away from demonstrating the kind of interchange and interaction which have characterized some other regions of the globe. The Americas, despite all that Trumpian bluster over Nafta and the wall with Mexico, remain in contact.

In the EU, the issue of Brexit has only made interchange between Britain and the remaining 27 member states of the organization even more intense than one would have expected under the circumstances. Away in Southeast Asia, ASEAN continues to be a force in keeping diplomacy on an even keel. 

And no one should ignore the enthusiasm, for better or worse, which China’s Belt-and-Road Initiative has aroused across long stretches of Asia and Africa.

But diplomacy as it is understood in the post-modern sense remains moribund in South Asia. The Indians and Pakistanis have just had the ugly experience of seeing a projected meeting of their foreign ministers aborted. For Bangladesh, the threat of four million people the state administration in Assam calls “illegal migrants” being pushed into its territory looms large, helped not a little by some recent incendiary comments from the BJP’s Amit Shah.

And then there is the issue of the absolute absence of communication between Pakistan and Bangladesh, prompted of course by the Nawaz Sharif government’s ill-advised move to step into the war crimes issue Dhaka thought was necessary to bring closure to part of the tragedy inflicted on its people in 1971. 

There is also the stubbornness with which Islamabad has refused to offer any apology to Dhaka over the crimes committed against Bengalis by the Pakistan army 47 years ago.

The irony in all this narrative is that all three nations maintain diplomatic relations with one another through having diplomatic missions in the three capitals. But it is diplomacy which remains shrouded in suspicion, from all sides. 

The mutual bellicosity which has defined relations between India and Pakistan, despite the many terms of supposed endearment voiced in recent years by political leaders in both countries, continues to be an impediment to progress.

Where links between Pakistan and Bangladesh are the issue, instances of Pakistani diplomats’ expulsions from Dhaka on charges of interference in Bangladesh’s affairs prompted Islamabad to adopt retaliatory measures. The upshot of it all is that the Pakistani and Bangladesh missions in Dhaka and Islamabad work in isolation, with little contact between them and the governments of the host countries.

That takes one back to the idea of South Asian diplomacy needing a shot in the arm. 

Could that be done through a revival of SAARC, an organization which patently has been comatose for years? The last scheduled summit of SAARC heads of government in Islamabad came to naught when India, Bangladesh, and Bhutan declined to participate in it, for diverse reasons. 

The failure of the South Asian leadership in making efforts to reignite the idea of the summit taking place can only have paved the path to a slow, almost agonizing death for SAARC. And yet SAARC remains, despite reservations from nearly every quarter, the fulcrum around which the member-nations of the region can come together once again. There are the many reasons why that should be.

For starters, the results of the presidential election in the Maldives has propelled to office a politician who can be expected to turn the country away from the blatantly pro-China diplomacy lately pursued by the country’s fallen leader. 

Again, the emergence of a new leadership in Pakistan should be, or should have been, an opportunity for Delhi and Islamabad to begin diplomacy afresh. But that presupposes a sincere readiness on Pakistan’s part to rein in the militants it supports in Kashmir.

One does not blame the Indians when they raise the issue of cross-border terrorism as having its origin in Pakistan. While all of this cannot be wished away, it is also a sad commentary on existing conditions that the Indian government’s abrupt cancellation of its foreign minister’s meeting with her Pakistani counterpart exacerbated the situation.

And that can happen through a reference to the past, to times that were a good deal more explosive than they are today. In the fraught conditions which defined the early 1970s, Indira Gandhi and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto met in Simla in 1972 to work out a semblance of a peace agreement. 

Atal Behari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif took the train a little further ahead, though those nuclear explosions and Kargil badly came in the way. Narendra Modi dropped by in Lahore to wish Nawaz Sharif on the latter’s birthday.

These spurts in diplomacy should lead to more of the same.

And ties between Pakistan and Bangladesh remain constricted by the legacy of the past -- fetters which Islamabad, now that it has a new government in office, should be courageous enough to break free of. Not many years ago, on a television talk show, Imran Khan boldly condemned the actions of the Pakistan army in Bangladesh in 1971.

As prime minister today, he should be able to call forth the courage to go beyond what ZA Bhutto, Ziaul Haq, and Pervez Musharraf were able to offer to Bangladesh: Those three men stopped short of expressing apologies to Dhaka. 

Imran Khan does not need to emulate them. His government can reverse the negativism which his predecessor brought into Pakistan’s relations with Bangladesh by having the Pakistan national assembly adopt a resolution condemning the war crimes trials in Dhaka.

Summitry of a purposeful kind is called for if the foreign policy establishments in Islamabad, Delhi, and Dhaka are to rouse themselves into action, of the sort which defined the 1970s. Indira Gandhi and Bhutto worked out a deal in Simla in July 1972. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman travelled to Lahore for the OIC summit in February 1974. In June of that year, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto made an official visit to Dhaka. Not much was achieved by any of those summits, but lines of communication remained open.

Those lines of communication need reopening. In 2018, the prime ministers of Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan should be able to keep in touch with one another, at an individual level and with a fair degree of regularity. 

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist.