It is not a closed chapter and will not be until its present generation of leaders delinks itself from the legacy of the men who repudiated the results of the election of 1970 and subjected Pakistan’s majority population to genocide
Not too much ought to be read into it. Even so, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s call to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina last week has predictably generated interest in all the three countries which once constituted united, pre-1947 India. Policy-makers in Delhi’s South Block are peeved, for their own geopolitical reasons. In Islamabad, its diplomats look at the development as a near breakthrough for Pakistan.
In Dhaka, the reaction has been rather muted at a time when a comprehensive statement was expected from the Foreign Office on the nature of the discussion between the Pakistani and Bangladesh leaders. Imran Ahmed Siddiqui, the new Pakistani high commissioner to Bangladesh, has had a meeting with Foreign Minister AK Momen.
In Islamabad, there is about to be a change at the Bangladesh diplomatic mission, with High Commissioner Tarik Ahsan soon to be reassigned as ambassador to Portugal.
But, of course, there will be time to reflect on the issue in a broader perspective, given that diplomacy is in grave need of resurgence in the sub-continent. For now, it will do to focus on certain misplaced perceptions regarding 1971 that yet dominate thoughts in Pakistan, especially in its media.
Take Dawn, the country’s leading English language newspaper founded in 1946 with the patronage of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who would a year later see his country, based on his two-nation theory, come into existence. Commenting on Imran Khan’s call to Sheikh Hasina, Dawn writes: “Pak-Bangladesh relationship took a nosedive after Ms Wajed started her second tenure as the prime minister in 2009 and she resumed the so- called 1971 trial of the ‘war crimes’ ...
“Pakistan has always considered the bitter past of the 1971 dismemberment as a closed chapter in view of the tripartite agreement signed in April 1974 for repatriation of war prisoners. Ms Wajed’s father and Bangladesh’s founding father Mujibur Rehman had after the accord agreed that in the interest of regional peace, no one would be put on trial for alleged crimes committed during the 1971 war.
“But, Ms Wajed was bent on reviving the ghosts of 1971. She was further emboldened with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s coming to power and Pak-Bangladesh ties went from one low to another.”
The Dawn report makes us go back to the Tripartite Agreement signed by Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India on April 9, 1974: “[...] having regard to the appeal of the Prime Minister of Pakistan to the people of Bangladesh to forgive and forget the mistakes of the past, the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh stated that the Government of Bangladesh had decided not to proceed with the trials as an act of clemency. It was agreed that the 195 prisoners of war might be repatriated to Pakistan along with the other prisoners of war now in the process of repatriation under the Delhi Agreement.”
The Delhi Agreement, one might recall, was signed on August 28, 1973. Now, the Dawn report does not appear to be in touch with the facts relating to the trials of war criminals in Dhaka. As the section of the Tripartite Agreement quoted above makes clear, the act of clemency refers to the 195 Pakistani army officers indicted as war criminals by the Bangladesh government.
It has no link with what Bangladesh intended to do with the local Bengali collaborators of the Pakistan army in 1971. To invoke the Tripartite Agreement, therefore, in the matter of the trials of local collaborators by Bangladesh is a gross misrepresentation of facts by the Pakistani newspaper.
The Dawn report resorts to applying the term “so-called,” an old establishment cliché in Islamabad regarding issues it has never been comfortable with. During the War of Liberation, Pakistan’s ruling circles and its media persisted in referring to a “so-called” Bangladesh and the Mujibnagar government being a “so- called” government.
Now that Dawn has appended the term to the trials of the war criminals, it would be relevant to go back to the question of how Pakistan’s establishment has been responsible for the nosedive in Dhaka-Islamabad ties. When the trials of the war criminals got under way in Dhaka, the Pakistani government of PM Nawaz Sharif indulged in what was clearly an act of interference in Bangladesh’s domestic politics.
Interior Minister Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan introduced a resolution in Pakistan’s national assembly excoriating Bangladesh for putting “loyal Pakistanis” on trial. Extensive discussions in the Pakistani media, both print and electronic, focused on the war crimes trials. The tone was condemnatory of Bangladesh.
Moreover, the false impression was conveyed to Pakistani citizens that the trials were a violation of the Tripartite Agreement of 1974 when it was nothing of the sort. The nosedive in bilateral Bangladesh-Pakistan ties was, therefore, a consequence of that resolution brought to the chamber of the Pakistan national assembly by the country’s interior minister at the time.
Where the act of clemency for the 195 prisoners of war is the issue, at the Delhi talks Pakistan’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Aziz Ahmed -- the same individual who sent out instructions to the police, as chief secretary of the East Bengal government in February 1952, to shoot students demanding Bengali as a state language -- passed on a message from PM Bhutto to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman through Bangladesh Foreign Minister Kamal Hossain to the effect that the trial of the army officers in Dhaka could lead to a coup against Pakistan’s civilian government by the military.
Verbal assurances were conveyed to Bangladesh that the Pakistani authorities would on their own try the officers in Islamabad. Those assurances were not followed through, of course. Indeed, such war criminals as Rao Farman Ali were rehabilitated and went on to serve Pakistan in different capacities.
Farman Ali was a minister in General Ziaul Haq’s regime. The Dawn report states, at a point: “... Ms Wajed was bent on reviving the ghosts of 1971.” That again is a misrepresentation of facts. The ghosts of 1971 have not quite been buried by successive governments in Pakistan.
School textbooks in Pakistan have never explained to children the reasons behind the break-up of the country or the disappearance of its eastern province. There are yet Pakistanis of an older generation who ask if their army did anything wrong in “East Pakistan.”
On a corridor in the upper chamber of Pakistan’s parliament purporting to depict Pakistan’s history since its formation in 1947, the narrative speaks of the country’s first general election in December 1970 but does not mention the political party which swept the election.
On 1971, the bland statement that Pakistan’s first elected government -- a reference to Bhutto and his People’s Party -- took office, stares one in the face. Bangladesh’s people certainly welcome Imran Khan’s gesture of calling Sheikh Hasina. In his years in opposition, he was vocal, on television talk shows, in condemning the Pakistan army’s atrocities in Bangladesh in 1971.
Perhaps he can call forth the boldness to move on from there? Germany has been contrite about the doings of the Nazis. The Japanese have been going around with folded palms apologizing to the Chinese and the Koreans for the murderous politics of Tojo and his militarists. Willy Brandt knelt before the memorial in Warsaw in penitence.
Dawn refers to 1971 as a “closed chapter.” It is not a closed chapter and will not be until its present generation of leaders delinks itself from the legacy of the men who repudiated the results of the election of 1970 and subjected Pakistan’s majority population to genocide. Imran Khan does not have to carry the baggage of his country’s past.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.