Pakistan High Commissioner to Dhaka Imran Ahmed Siddique recently called on Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed. The meeting was seen as yet another sign suggesting easing of years-old tensions between the two countries. Remember, the Bangladeshi PM refused to meet the Indian envoy despite efforts to seek an audience with her, an unprecedented snub given the close ties between Bangladesh and India. The meeting of Pakistani envoy with the Bangladeshi PM was the result of quiet diplomacy being undertaken by the two countries for months. The ice broke first in July when the Pakistani High Commissioner held a meeting with the Bangladeshi Foreign Minister, a meeting that raised eyebrows in India. Within a few days of that, Prime Minister Imran Khan and his Bangladeshi counterpart spoke by phone. Imran invited Sheikh Hasina to visit Pakistan while expressing his government’s willingness to rest ties with Bangladesh.
These developments were important in the context of the tense relationship between the two countries since 2009. The hiccup in their ties stemmed from Sheikh Hasina’s decision to form a war crime tribunal to try her opponents allegedly linked to the 1971 incidents. Pakistan opposed the trial, insisting that events led to the creation of Bangladesh were past and closed transaction given the trilateral agreement signed by Pakistan, Bangladesh and India in 1974. But Sheikh Hasina’s government went ahead with the trial and key Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami leaders were later executed. In 2016, Pakistan’s parliament passed a unanimous resolution condemning the “politically motivated” trials. Bangladesh objected to Pakistan’s condemnation and ties only deteriorated from that point onwards. Meanwhile, the election of Narendra Modi as Indian Prime Minister in 2014 gave a new impetus to ties between Dhaka and New Delhi. Indian influence was so powerful that Bangladeshi politicians, who had a soft corner for Pakistan, had been sidelined at the behest of New Delhi. In 2016, when India boycotted the SAARC summit to be hosted by Pakistan, Bangladesh followed suit.
But the relationship between Bangladesh and India saw a dip when Modi government introduced the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act and its overall anti-Muslim policies. Amidst all that, China stepped in and deepened ties with Bangladesh. It was because of this that Bangladesh did not even issue a statement when at least 19 Indian soldiers were killed in bloody clashes with Chinese troops in Ladakh. In the middle of all this, Pakistan reached out to Bangladesh with a message that it was ready to reset ties with Dhaka.
The prevailing regional environment is believed to have compelled Islamabad and Dhaka to seek re-engagement.
Pakistan is seeking the activation of consultation mechanism at the foreign ministry level to improve the bilateral ties. The Bangladeshi PM told the Pakistani envoy that there was no ban on such regular activities. The foreign secretaries from the two sides may meet soon to take the next move. However, the statement issued by the Bangladeshi PM Office said the incidents of 1971 cannot be forgotten and forgiven. This shows that the Bangladeshi government is still adamant that Pakistan must formally apologies over the events of 1971. Islamabad nevertheless wants to bury the past and open a new chapter in ties with Bangladesh. The two sides, however, need to seek a mutual closure of bitter events that still haunt them both. In Pakistan, at least there is belief that the new generation in both sides want to move on. Increased people-to-people contact and revival of interaction between the two countries at the official level can help address misgivings. The region and the world are undergoing a transformation and this changing scenario provides an opportunity for both Pakistan and Bangladesh to start a new beginning.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 7th, 2020.