To outsiders, and many insiders, 2015 brought good news from Pakistan. Only last week, Pakistan and India agreed to re-engage in their dialog to normalise relations. This dialog started seriously in early 1999, when I was there, spurred by the Lahore conference. But long before it could get going seriously, the Kargil incursion brought it to a halt. Since that abortive beginning, almost 17 years ago, the dialogue has followed the same up and down pattern as relations between the two countries -- mostly down. This time, we are told, the Pakistani army has invested in the idea and, according at least to one report, has been pushing the prime minister to speed up the diplomatic process to get the dialogue underway. According to this report, the army has finally come around to the idea of making co-operation on terrorism the main subject, but has not backed off Kashmir as its central issue of concern.
This apparent contradiction will not make the dialogue any easier. But skilled diplomacy on both sides will hopefully chart a path towards a normalised relationship. Not everything needs to be neatly solved to the satisfaction of both sides (and certainly never will be), before there are provisions that will allow for an open flow of goods and people, and an arrangement that gives enough time and economic incentives to ensure an inevitable evolution of mind-sets.
This is very good news to those of us who have thought for years that a normalisation of Pakistan-India relations was key to Pakistan’s future and to the long-term political, economic, and social growth of South Asia. A healthy South Asia always seemed unlikely while the two countries were at loggerheads. There is a long way to go, and there have been moments of high euphoria before, that were followed by emotional crash landings. It is far too early to start street celebrations.
There is other good news which may have more immediate effect. That is that Pakistan and Afghanistan will re-ignite talks to normalise their relations and that Pakistan will play a more active role in the peace process. Presumably, this means active diplomacy to encourage some parts of the Taliban to engage in the peace process. A fragmented Afghan Taliban, who seem to feel themselves on a roll, may not respond. But the talks toward normalisation may work out some of the kinks in the present relationship. And, though contradictions abound about the 20-point National Action Plan, the good news is that the army continues to make good progress in the Tribal Areas. Most, if not all, the extremists that controlled those areas a year ago are dead or have fled.
The ambiguities, however, are many. Does the army have a plan to deal with the centres of extremism in other parts of the country, particularly South Punjab? And if it does, why not say so? Does the civilian government have a plan, and the ability, to bring reconstruction and sustained civilian governance to the areas the army has already cleaned up, and those which still need it? Why has almost no action been taken against the known radical madrasas, and very little against sectarian groups that incite, and often perpetrate, sectarian violence? Despite all the foofaraw about trying terrorists in army courts, only a few have been tried and some of those have been freed (on what basis, one would ask). And financial flows to extremists and radical madrasas have not been visibly constrained.
Yes, violent terrorist attacks have dropped substantially, mainly because of the army’s great success in cleaning out the Tribal Areas. But the ambiguities are rather daunting. They will have to be clarified if this newfound optimism is to be strengthened into belief. I am more hopeful than two weeks ago, however, because of the opening to India and the renewed effort to get a good working relationship with Afghanistan.
The effort to work with neighbours -- which has heretofore been erratic and subject to large mood swings -- and more importantly the broadening of the mind-sets that should result if these dialogues do not meet the fate of the previous iterations, could brace the government’s resolve to carry out difficult but vital plans for a better future.
I have taken more than half my space to the ambiguously good news in Pakistan. What about Bangladesh in 2015? The news from Dhaka is neither good nor comprehensible, at least to one who has spent much time and knows the country fairly well. Murder, in one form or another, dominated the news in 2015. There were a half dozen or so high-profile murders of secular or atheist Bangladeshi bloggers and foreigners -- the latter for no reason one can discern, and the former because of religious bigotry.
The bloggers were hacked to death with machetes, which puts a particularly gruesome patina on them. Though not all the murders have been claimed by any person or group, the usual suspects, primarily ISIS, claimed those that were not clearly linked elsewhere. Some analysts believe that the blogger murders, and maybe some of the others, are a sign of growing religious intolerance in Bangladesh -- a country which has until this year been viewed, and has described itself, as a highly tolerant, inclusive, and even secular society (although AL, which came to power proclaiming its secularist past and ideology, is backing away from that). There is also concern that ISIS and like-minded groups have established presence in the country, although the evidence on that is slim.
But Bangladesh is changing, and probably in a pernicious direction. The Catholic Bishop and 37 Christian leaders received written death threats just before Christmas. In October, a Shia procession was bombed. And there is more. It appears the narrative of exclusiveness is gaining momentum, but whether it is inspired by extremist groups who have set up shop in Bangladesh or smaller unconnected cells inspired by ISIS or other social media contacts from abroad is unclear.
One home-grown extremist group that has emerged, or re-emerged in fact, is the JMB, which rose to prominence as a terrorist group by carrying out a series of bomb attacks between 2004 and 2006. But when the then BNP government finally went after the organisation and hung a number of its leaders, it went underground. It has now come back. After searching for different targets to blame for the recent violence, and accusing the political opposition and other domestic opponents of fomenting it, the government has now made the JMB its prime target, for good reason. It may be responsible for some of the killings, but it remains unclear to me whether JMB is a wing of ISIS.
The one-party AL government has sternly resisted the suggestion that ISIS has come to Bangladesh, and so far it has not been disproven. However, it seems to take no notice that its vendetta against all opposition, the spate of extra-judicial murders and disappearances or extortion of political opponents, and its suppression of dissident media or civil society voices, likely has something to do with the rise of intolerance, and of using violence as a political tool. There was a municipal election on December 30 in which the decimated BNP opposition ran a slate of candidates. The last such election turned out to be a farce. If that occurs again, some sort of trouble is likely, although by whom and for what is not self-evident.
This article was previously published in the Friday Times written prior to the municipal elections.