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Dhaka Tribune

Parleys with Pakistan

Did Bangladesh ever manage to get everything it deserves from Pakistan?

Update : 27 Mar 2024, 01:06 PM

In the early 1970s, outstanding issues between Bangladesh and Pakistan included the absence of diplomatic recognition, the division of assets, the war crimes trial, and the repatriation of stranded Bengalis in Pakistan and stranded Pakistanis in Bangladesh. Pakistan’s then foreign minister Aziz Ahmed had several parleys with his Bangladeshi counterpart Kamal Hossain over these issues.

Aziz Ahmed came off as a shrewd tactician who stalled talks as much as possible. Kamal Hossain gained the moral high ground by eloquently and astutely articulating Bangladeshi interests. Bangladesh defended the right of return of stranded Bengalis in Pakistan. The war crimes trial became a focal point of Bangladeshi policy towards Pakistan. Talks over the division of assets reached a stalemate that continues to this day. The return of 195 POWs to Pakistan was a disappointment for Bangladesh, as noted by Kamal Hossain, as well as Bangabandhu himself.    

At the time, Pakistani POWs were being held in India following their surrender in December 1971.  They were treated in line with the Geneva Convention. Local collaborators of the Pakistani army were kept under detention in Bangladesh. In December 1972, Bangabandhu gave the green signal to prepare for a war crimes trial. In May 1973, the first constitutional amendment was enacted. The amendment concerned the prosecution of war crimes committed during the Liberation War in 1971.    

After completing the Constitution drafting project, Kamal Hossain was roped into the Foreign Ministry where he was needed for the difficult task of negotiating diplomatic normalization in South Asia. By September 1973, more than 100 countries had recognized Bangladesh. This increased the leverage of Bangladesh in its dealings with Pakistan. 

The first priority was to secure the return of stranded Bengalis in Pakistan. The Bhutto government threatened to prosecute 203 Bengalis on false, malicious, and politically-motivated charges, while many Bengali families were kept interned in concentration camps. Bangladesh warned against the prosecution of a single Bengali. Due to the lack of diplomatic relations, Indian mediators served as a back channel on the repatriation talks. Bangladesh was keen to repatriate stranded Pakistanis on its territory in exchange for the return of Bengalis held in Pakistan. 

The August Agreement of 1973 between India and Pakistan paved the way for repatriation. Under the supervision of UNHCR, an estimated 121,685 Bengalis returned to Bangladesh from Pakistan, while 108,744 non-Bengalis were moved to Pakistan from Bangladesh. 

OIC Summit 

The Islamic Summit in Lahore provided the chance for Bangladesh and Pakistan to normalize. Prior to the summit, the foreign ministers of Kuwait, Senegal, and Lebanon came to Dhaka to persuade Bangabandhu to join the summit. Kamal Hossain and Abu Sayeed Chowdhury visited Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon in the prelude to the summit. 

On the evening of February 22, 1974, news came via radio that Pakistan was proceeding to normalize with Bangladesh. Bangabandhu thereafter decided to join the summit. He was taken to Lahore on a plane provided by the Algerian president.  

At the summit, Bangladesh informed Pakistan of three principal outstanding issues, namely the repatriation of Stranded Pakistanis; the war crimes trial; and the division of assets. Pakistan lobbied with OIC states against Bangladesh’s plans for a war crimes trial. Many informal parleys were held with Pakistani and OIC delegates. Bangladesh impressed upon the delegates that the spirit of reconciliation and justice required that accountability be established for war crimes in 1971. Bangladesh viewed outstanding issues as part of the normalization and reconciliation process. 

Tripartite talks 

In April 1974, the foreign ministers of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh met in Delhi to discuss outstanding issues. Aziz Ahmed and Kamal Hossain negotiated late into the night. The two most contentious issues were the repatriation of remaining Stranded Pakistanis and the war crimes trial. 

When pressed on the repatriation of Biharis, Aziz Ahmed retorted “why don’t you push them into India?” When the Bangladeshis told him that was not feasible, he said “then push them into the Bay of Bengal.” The Biharis were apparently a domestic headache for the Pakistani government. 

When the talks moved to the subject of war crimes trials, Aziz Ahmed pleaded with Bangladesh to understand the political realities in Pakistan. Any trial in Dhaka of POWs would have been a red flag for the Pakistani army. This could have led to the overthrow of the Bhutto government in a coup. The Indian foreign minister Sardar Swaran Singh intervened at one point to push for a resolution. India preferred the transfer of the 195 POWs to Pakistan. 

The division of assets was never settled. As the former eastern wing, Bangladesh was entitled to a substantial share of assets of the former central government of both wings

With a heavy heart, Bangladesh agreed to the transfer of 195 POWs and made its views clear in a joint statement “the excesses and manifold crimes committed by those prisoners of war constituted, according to the relevant provisions of the UN General Assembly resolutions and international law, war crimescrimes against humanity and genocide, and that there was universal consensus that persons charged with such crimes as the 195 Pakistani prisoners of war should be held to account and subjected to the due process of law.” Aziz Ahmed suggested that an internal commission of inquiry might hold the PoWs accountable for war crimes, but this never happened. 

Division of assets 

Aziz Ahmed and Kamal Hossain met again during Bhutto’s visit to Dhaka. Bangladesh pressed on the division of assets, to which Pakistan replied that it did not bring technical experts to Dhaka to make an assessment. There was a great deal of disappointment on the Bangladesh side regarding the Pakistani reluctance on the division of assets. 

Aziz Ahmed and Kamal Hossain met again in Kuala Lumpur during the OIC Foreign Ministers meeting and at the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York in 1974. Aziz Ahmed retorted that Bangladesh was asking too much from Pakistan. The political realities in Pakistan, such as the army’s stranglehold, precluded the Bhutto government from engaging meaningfully on outstanding issues. 

The division of assets was never settled. As the former eastern wing, Bangladesh was entitled to a substantial share of assets of the former central government of both wings. According to Professor Rehman Sobhan, perhaps the most valuable asset which Bangladesh retained was the library of the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE), which is today the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS).

PIDE was shifted to Dhaka in 1970 by Professor Nurul Islam. The Dhanmondi residence of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, which housed the Pakistan Law Institute, was also retained. It was renamed as the Bangladesh Institute of Law and International Affairs (BILIA). The BILIA Library is also a rich repository of legal and political history.

Outstanding issues continue to linger between Bangladesh and Pakistan. The Bangladeshi government has called on Pakistan to apologize for the genocide in 1971. 

Umran Chowdhury works in the legal field.

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