The bilateral relations between Pakistan and Bangladesh could best be described as “cold”, “uneventful”, and “static”.Despite having no territorial or even recent political conflict between the two nations, the ties could not break the threshold of resentment that stems from a shared past. On a surface level, the two governments and the peoples are not engaged in contests of rhetoric or propaganda- a point to note is the Indian politicians and media against Pakistan. This is not to say that Bangladesh’s educational curriculum and discourse do not paint Pakistan as an oppressor or accuse the country of genocide; it is just not at the same level of intensity as witnessed in India.
However, the lack of enthusiasm swings in the other direction as well, as both nations have extremely limited people-to-people contacts. Trade relations could be improved tenfold to extract maximum benefits for both parties. In 2019-2020, trade volume between the two countries stood at$700.39million despite Covid-19. Pakistan exported products worth $654.79 million, while imports from Bangladesh stood at $45.60million. Bangladesh is Pakistan’s third-largest export market in Asia. Having said that, the percentage of bilateral trade is negligible compared to Pakistan’s overall trade volume.
What does the future hold?
Facilitation and exploring new avenues of trade could see Bangladesh emerge as Pakistan’s biggest export market in Asia. The primary hurdle in the improvement of both trade and people-to-people relations is the frosty political ties between Dhaka and Islamabad. It is the constraints in political relations that deserve retrospection on the part of both countries. Shared history is not the only thing Pakistan and Bangladesh have in common; the culture and religion are quite similar to each other. Unfortunately, the historical baggage triumphs over the cultural ties and has also clipped the evolution of political relations as well.
The historical baggage prevents the relation from flourishing. Bilateral relations are such lacking luster that the Pakistani Prime Minister’stelephone call to his Bangladeshi counterpart on July 22nd last year was called a “rare occurrence of diplomacy”.The same year in December, Pakistan’s High Commissioner received an audience with Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. On the occasion of Eid ulAzha this year, PM Hasina sent Harivanga mangoes to Pakistani PM as a part of her mango diplomacy. Observers who have dubbed the entire episode assume break-in ice though not quite a breakthrough. One thing is clear that Islamabad desires to improve its relations with Dhaka.
The reasons behind Pakistan’s overtures for rapprochement could be rooted in Bangladesh’s emergence as one of the best-performing economies in the region, Pakistan’s own search for investment and trade venues, or even something more opportunistic amid some tensions between Bangladesh and India. Despite the historical nexus between the PM Hasina’s Awami League and New Delhi, the turbulence between Indo Bangladesh relations could not be avoided. The main causes behind the commotion include uneasiness of the Bangladeshi public with the rise of Hindu nationalism and Islamophobia in India, divergences on the Rohingya Refugee Crises, the construction of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya and the Citizenship Amendment Actin.
The rise of ultra-nationalism and growing religious extremism sponsored by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will raise challenges for the Bangladeshi government, particularly with regard to Islamists at home. China which has emerged as a major investment partner for Bangladesh could also complicate Dhaka’s equation with New Delhi. For Pakistan, the assumption of power by BJP in 2014 meant instability along the LOC, an increase in anti-Pakistanrhetoric, scrapping of Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomous status and an overall escalation in tensions.
When India begins to flex its muscles, both Pakistan and Bangladesh will have a common problem
Amidst political, military and economic challenges Pakistani government took a road generally avoided by the political leadership and offered subdued overtures to Bangladesh’s government. Pakistan Foreign Office last year stated that the country renewed its focus on “moving forward” with Bangladesh. The two countries can break the limbo sustained since 1971 by addressing the real elephant in the room. The partition of Pakistan, or as the Bangladeshis call it, the independence and liberation movement, is one of the most impactful and significant events in Bangladesh’snational ethe.
While Bengali nationalism had begun to take shape quite early on after the independence, the 1971 civil war and the human misery it caused still scars Bangladesh’s collective memory. The narrative regarding this war is as divergent as possible in both countries, feeding the respective nationalisms and sense of nationhood. For Pakistan1971 war, was an Indian designed and executed operation from the very beginning, while for Bangladeshis, the war was a moment of triumph against the oppressive West Pakistani regime hell-bent on exploiting their resources and undermining their rights.
To achieve a breakthrough, establish people-to-people relations and create a favorable environment for trade and investment, Pakistan has no option but to engage in a dialogue with Bangladesh on what transpired during the 1971 Civil War. Bangladesh’s discourse and popular political belief demand that Pakistan at least acknowledge the alleged genocide. Between Bangladesh’s claims of genocide and Pakistan’s refusal to admit any wrongdoings- lies the truth of the war. Besides differences in the basic facts of the 1971 War, other outstanding issues include repatriation of Biharis and division of assets between Pakistan and Bangladesh as successor states of West and East Pakistan.
Besides these issues arising out of the disintegration of Pakistan, no other political issue ever emerged between the two nations. The frosty and cold Pakistan-Bangladesh relations should transition not only for economic advantages but also to strengthen regionalism in South Asia. This feat should have been achieved a long time ago, as there is no real political conflict between the two sides besides history and a painful past. Pakistan- in order to survive in an increasingly multipolar world and along with an extremely aggressive India –must continue in its current path of rapprochement with Bangladesh. That rapprochement will only come if Pakistan enters a dialogue with Bangladesh on the shared history, all the while confronting the facts of the event.
Such a possibility is far-fetched, but so are Pakistan’s hopes for friendly relations if the core issue between the two countries remains unaddressed. There is no doubt Pakistan and Bangladesh can reap massive economic and political gains from their bilateral ties in the under transition global political order. The path to this, however, is paved with thorns.
The write is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views expressed by the writers do not necessarily represent Global Village Space’s editorial policy