English News

  • youtube
  • facebook
  • twitter

How Pakistan tried to subvert Bangladesh after 1971, but failed

A historic moment when first Bengali government was formed on April 17, 1971

On 17 April 1971, the very first Bengali government in the very first armed struggle of the Bengali nation for liberty was sworn in under a Proclamation of Independence in a region close to the border with India. With Acting President Syed Nazrul Islam and Prime Minister Tajuddin taking charge of the government, a nation battered by the atrocities of the Pakistan occupation went ahead to plan and prosecute a guerrilla war against the junta of General Yahya Khan. In December of the year, a joint command of Bangladesh’s Mukti Bahini and the Indian army compelled the Pakistani military, with 93,000 soldiers, to surrender in Dhaka.

On the afternoon of 16 December 1971, with the rise of Bangladesh, half of Pakistan disappeared into the mists of history.

In the half century-plus since Pakistan’s eastern province broke away from the western part of it to emerge as the sovereign People’s Republic of Bangladesh, relations between Dhaka and Islamabad have remained pretty much uncomfortable for a host of reasons. And those reasons have largely had to do with Pakistan’s attitude vis-à-vis the circumstances arising out of the war of 1971.

Of course, Bangladesh and Pakistan are linked through bilateral diplomacy. They have maintained diplomatic missions in each other’s territory since 1976, when the military regime of Ziaur Rahman in Dhaka and the Bhutto government in Islamabad mutually decided to exchange ambassadors (at the time Pakistan was out of the Commonwealth in protest against the recognition of Bangladesh by the Commonwealth and other countries and organisations) between the two nations. For many Bangladeshis, the decision on an exchange of ambassadors was precipitate given that such crucial issues as a sharing of pre-1971 Pakistan’s assets and liabilities, a key demand of the government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, remained unfulfilled.

Pakistan was compelled by circumstances to accord diplomatic recognition to Bangladesh on the eve of the summit of Islamic nations called by Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in February 1974 in Lahore. Once it was made known that Bangladesh, with a majority of its population being followers of the Islamic faith, could not be ignored at the summit, feelers were sent out to Dhaka for Mujib to attend the conference. For his part, Mujib made it clear that unless Islamabad acknowledged Dhaka’s independent existence, Bangladesh would not take part at the Lahore deliberations. The recognition came and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman travelled to Lahore, but his government made it absolutely clear that issues such as assets and liabilities, the repatriation of Biharis to Pakistan from Bangladesh and the trials of Pakistani war criminals called for a resolution at the earliest.

Pakistan and Bangladesh engaged in formal negotiations, along with India, in April 1974 on a return of the Pakistani prisoners of war who had been in Indian custody since the end of the war in December 1971, and the trial of 195 senior Pakistani military officers on charges of war crimes. In the end, the Bangladesh government, in the interest of a new beginning in South Asia, as Dhaka put it, and on the basis of the verbal promise by the Bhutto government that Islamabad would on its own try the 195 officers, that otherwise the new civilian government in Islamabad could well be overthrown in a military coup d’etat, agreed to let the 195 officers go free. The promise was never kept by Islamabad. When Bhutto, at the head of an 80-member delegation, travelled to Dhaka in June 1974, he and his team refused to discuss the outstanding issues between the two countries. No joint communique was therefore issued at the end of the Bhutto trip. A grim Mujib saw an equally grim Bhutto off at the airport.

Where Bangladesh is concerned, the twenty-one years following Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s assassination were a period of Pakistan-friendly military and quasi military rule in Dhaka. General Ziaur Rahman and General Hussein Muhammad Ershad, both former officers in the pre-1971 Pakistan army, visited Islamabad. In their separate discussions with General Ziaul Haq, the emphasis was placed on developing ‘brotherly ties’ between the two countries. The government of Begum Khaleda Zia, Zia’s widow and his successor as the chief of the right-wing Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), did not deviate from this policy and indeed went a step further. During Begum Zia’s second stint in office, she inducted a good number of the Bengali collaborators of the 1971 Pakistan army in her cabinet. All those ministers were subsequently put on trial by the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on charges of having committed war crimes, tried by special tribunals and executed. At that point, the Pakistani government of Nawaz Sharif muddied the waters when its interior minister placed a resolution in the Pakistan national assembly condemning the execution of their erstwhile loyalists in Dhaka.

Bangladesh and Pakistan have in the recent past had diplomatic issues, owing to Dhaka’s belief that certain diplomats in the Pakistan high commission in the country have engaged in activities not commensurate with diplomatic norms. Pakistan’s diplomats have been expelled from Dhaka and in retaliation Pakistan has expelled a senior Bangladeshi diplomat in Islamabad. In simple terms, the old suspicions have remained, a reason being that in the years of the Khaleda Zia administration, Pakistan’s ISI operatives were seen playing a role in fomenting anti-Indian activities through the presence of renegade Indian militant groups in Bangladesh. Such groups were severely tackled by the Sheikh Hasina government. The ISI lost the space it had enjoyed for a long time.

Bangladesh and Pakistan are members of SAARC and other international bodies. Their trade relations are fairly good. But it is at the political and diplomatic levels that the two countries have remained wary of each other. A key complaint by Bangladesh is that successive governments in Pakistan have never expressed any contrition or apology over the genocide committed by the Pakistan army in occupied Bangladesh in 1971. When General Ziaul Haq travelled to Dhaka in 1985, he visited the national memorial honouring Bengali freedom fighters and blandly told Bangladesh’s journalists, ‘Your heroes are our heroes.’

At a later stage, General Pervez Musharraf visited Bangladesh, but would not go beyond an expression of regret regarding the tragedy of 1971. It also remains a matter of record that when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated in August 1975, the Bhutto government with alacrity recognised the usurper regime led by Khondokar Moshtaq Ahmed in Dhaka. As prime minister, Benazir Bhutto once made a brief trip to Bangladesh (General Ershad was in power), but had no comment to make on the 1971 issue.

In these fifty two years since December 1971, the lessons of history have been ignored in Pakistan. The events relating to Bangladesh’s War of Liberation have by and large been portrayed as a conspiracy by internal and external forces to break up Pakistan, with the result that Pakistanis born after the war have been left bereft of detailed knowledge of the conditions which led to the emergence of the Bengali republic. Those belonging to the generation which witnessed the lead-up to the crisis and its ramifications have largely looked away from the truth of what transpired in the nine months of Bangladesh’s war of national liberation. Only a handful of liberal Pakistani intellectuals have drawn attention to the atrocities committed by their army in what was at the time an occupied Bangladesh.

The wounds have not healed in Bangladesh. The truth has not been acknowledged in Pakistan.

Also Read: 1971: The Apology question and Pakistan’s army museum