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Pakistan – Bangladesh diminishing hope for better ties?

Author of ‘Creation of Bangladesh: Myths Exploded’ presents the complexity of the triangular relationship between India, Pakistan & Bangladesh and the need to grow beyond the narrative of 1971.

Bangladesh

Sheikh Hasina Wajid and her Awami League have once again won general elections in Bangladesh, held on December 30, 2018. This is her re-election for an unprecedented third consecutive term and is Prime Minister for the fourth time.

The Awami League won 288 out of 300 seats, only seven seats were won by the new opposition front, the Jatiya Okiya Front (National Unity Front), which consisted of the Gano Forum, Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal-JSD and Nagorik Oikya.

The opposition has raised serious doubts at the fairness of the December 30th elections calling them “farcical and rigged” giving renewed impetus to calls for a repoll. The Awami League controlled Election Commission has rejected the demand.

The opposition has raised serious doubts at the fairness of the December 30th elections calling them “farcical and rigged” giving renewed impetus to calls for a repoll.

There have been widespread reports of stuffed ballot boxes, voter intimidation and many other such tactics by Awami Leaguers. Unlike 2014, when Begum Khalida Zia, who is now in prison on corruption charges and her son Tarique in exile in London, boycotted the elections, this time there was a noticeable change.

The strongly anti-Indian BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami coalition found an unlikely new alliance partner in the form of Kamal Hossain, who is respected in the country and speaks for many of the disgruntled ranks.

Read more: Bangladesh’s Hasina gets landslide win as opposition demands new vote

The 81 years old Kamal Hossain formulated the constitution of Bangladesh and participated in the ‘war of liberation in 1971’. He is a secular and liberal voice in the opposition front and has the potential to hijack the very constituency that originally powered Hasina to victory.

Many in Bangladesh believe that Kamal Hossain has the ability to rally the forces of retaliation back to the streets, weakening the existing Awami League controlled democratic institutions; a scenario that holds serious ramifications for the Awami League.

World Reactions to the Elections

Immediately after the elections, many Western countries including the USA, the UK, and EU voiced their concern at the violence, killings and complaints of the opposition regarding stuffed ballot boxes and not letting opposition candidates conduct their election campaigns freely.

The Sheikh Hasina government has regularly arrested anyone who raised their voice against Awami League’s past or present corrupt practices, widespread nepotism, and have allegedly even resorted to killing rivals through fake encounters and extrajudicial killings. The US, in particular, expressed strong concern over the election day irregularities that prevented people from voting undermining faith in the electoral process.

Begum Khalida Zia, who is now in prison on corruption charges and her son Tarique in exile in London, boycotted the elections, this time there was a noticeable change.

The European Union asked the Bangladesh authorities to investigate election-related allegations of irregularities. Similar sentiments were expressed by the Geneva-based UNHCR concerned about violence and alleged human rights violations in Bangladesh, before, during and after the elections.

US State Department Deputy Spokesperson Robert Palladino on January 1, 2019, said: “We note with concern credible reports of harassment, intimidation and violence in the pre-election period that made it difficult for many opposition candidates and their supporters to meet, hold rallies and campaign freely.”

Read more: Hasina Not a Dictator: Bangladesh High Commission hits back..!

Mark Field, UK Minister of State for Asia and the Pacific said in a statement on January 1, 2019: “I am aware of credible accounts of obstacles, including arrests that constrained or prevented campaigning by opposition parties, and of irregularities in the conduct of elections on polling day that prevented some people from voting. I deplore the acts of intimidation and unlawful violence that have taken place during the campaign period and am deeply concerned by the incidents that led to so many dead on polling day”.

The EU said in a statement reported by Reuters on Jan 02, 2019: “The European Union expects the country to move forward towards democracy, respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms. The mobilization of voters and the participation of opposition in the elections for the first time in 10 years reflect the aspirations of the people of Bangladesh to democracy. However, violence has marred the election day, and significant obstacles to a level playing field remained in place throughout the process and have tainted the electoral campaign and the vote. The relevant national authorities should now ensure a proper examination of allegations of irregularities and commit to full transparency in their resolution”.

Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said, “There are credible reports of fatalities and numerous injuries on polling day alone. There are worrying indications that reprisals have continued to take place, notably against the political opposition, including physical attacks and ill-treatment, arbitrary arrests, harassment, disappearances and filing of criminal cases.

Reports suggest that violent attacks and intimidation, including against minorities, have been disproportionately carried out by ruling party activists, at times with complicity or involvement of law enforcement officers.” Brad Adams, New York-based Human Rights Watch Asia Director said in a statement, as reported by The Washington Post on January 4, 2019: “International donors, the United Nations and friends of Bangladesh should remember that elections are about the rights of the voters, not those in power.”

PM Hasina’s Politics

The December election victory is Sheikh Hasina’s third consecutive win and overall fourth term as Prime Minister of Bangladesh. This has made her the longest-serving leader of the country. She continues to be the undisputed leader of Awami League, the country’s largest political party. Sheikh Mujib ur Rahman, her father, sought help from Indian forces in the struggle of Bangladesh’s freedom movement.

Awami League’s win in December 1970 elections was credited to the similar tactics as is still being used: street violence, intimidation of opponents, killings, stuffing of ballot boxes, etc.

The mobilization of voters and the participation of opposition in the elections for the first time in 10 years reflect the aspirations of the people of Bangladesh to democracy.

And then in 1971 with Indian assistance, Awami League waged insurgency which finally led to the breakup of Pakistan and creation of Bangladesh. Unlike her father, who was killed in August 1975 by Bangladeshi army officers, she has been constantly consolidating her political position since her victory in 2009.

She has managed to acquire absolute powers after establishing an autocratic and authoritarian government. She has been criticized for transforming Bangladesh into a “single party” state through political repression and persecution. Over time she has succeeded in eliminating her opponents through various means.

Read more: Bangladesh’s democratic erosion: how democracy assistance can help

She has also enacted a number of media laws, generally known as “black laws”. She scrapped a constitutional amendment in 2011 which put an end to the practice of forming an interim administration to ensure fair and transparent elections in the country. BNP’s Khalida Zia, the arch-rival of Sheikh Hasina has been made ineffective by Hasina through power politics tools.

Khalida Zia was sentenced to 7 years in prison after being convicted twice last year on corruption charges. Her exiled son Tarique was awarded life imprisonment by a Bangladesh Court over a 2004 attack on Sheikh Hasina’s rally in Dhaka.

Bangladesh Jamat-e-Islami (BJI), another political rival of Awami League, which had opposed the breakup of Pakistan to create Bangladesh in 1971, was banned as a party for many years, causing some of its leaders to seek exile in Pakistan.

The United Nations and friends of Bangladesh should remember that elections are about the rights of the voters, not those in power.

Hasina formed the ‘International War Crimes Tribunal’ (ICT) in 2009 to persecute and punish individuals involved in ‘war crimes’ during the 1971 War. This tribunal has awarded death sentences to 9 JI leaders and 2 BNP leaders. A number of prominent JI leaders including Abdul Kalam Azad, Abdul Kadar Mullah, Motiur Rahman Nizami, Mir Qaseem Ali have been hung since 2013.

As stated earlier Sheikh Hasina’s politics are a continuation of the politics of her father Sheikh Mujeeb ur Rahman. India continues to support her in many ways: economically, financially, politically, militarily and also in subversive tactics. India has advised Sheikh Hasina in her high handed tactics with her arch-rival Khalida Zia.

Later, India, in fact, went a step further. It actually persuaded BNP leadership to contest the 2018 elections, to ensure the credibility of the election and Sheikh Hasina as the PM. Hasina’s zero-tolerance against terror and her determination not to allow her soil to be used by the ‘enemies of India’ is as crucial to contain, if not defeat, the insurgencies in the northeast as it is to crush Islamist militancy in her own country.

Read more: Biharis: Their crime was their belief in Pakistan

India is keen to have a friendly rather a client state on its eastern border that is largely free of Chinese or Pakistani influence. India continues to support Sheikh Hasina with the hope she will clamp down on the Chinese. Winning back the neighbourhood, one country at a time.

India has good reason to worry over intensified Islamist militancy by the Taliban and others who may not only jeopardise Indian interests in Afghanistan but increase action in Kashmir. The Indian security establishment is already bracing for heightened action in Kashmir in 2019.

Further, India cannot afford increased militancy in the troubled northeast. It will not be easy for India to fight a two-front war against both Pakistan and China and it will also not be easy to face a two-front insurgency. Denial of operational space to Pakistan in Bangladesh remains a strategic imperative for Prime Minister Modi, as ‘kicking Pakistan out of the East’ was for Indira Gandhi in 1971.

BNP’s Khalida Zia, the arch-rival of Sheikh Hasina has been made ineffective by Hasina through power politics tools.

It is pertinent to mention that in 1974, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India had signed a tripartite agreement to normalize their relations. Under this agreement, it was pledged to “forgive and forget the past mistakes”. Bangladesh government of Sheikh Mujeeb, Hasina’s father undertook not to try the prisoners of war as an act of clemency.

Therefore, it is no doubt, a blatant violation of this tripartite agreement as Hasina’s government has chosen to establish an ICT for war crime trials after more than 40 years. During Sheikh Hasina’s premiership, Bangladesh has developed extremely close diplomatic, economic, military and strategic relations with India, making Bangladesh a client state of India.

Read more: From East Pakistan to Bangladesh: What went wrong?

Way Forward for Pakistan and Bangladesh

In spite of the above, it is essential for Pakistan to develop and implement a coherent and consistent policy of befriending Bangladesh government and its people. Pakistan needs to take concrete steps to formulate an articulate narrative about the 1971 war based on historical facts, including India’s role in a proxy war which resulted in thousands of deaths, rapes, arson, loot and destruction, eventually resulting in Pakistan’s dismemberment.

A holistic narrative is missing and the absence of such a narrative is resulting in misleading and exaggerated accounts, which point an accusative finger towards Pakistan. It also ensures that the relationship between Pakistan and Bangladesh is hostage to unnecessarily negative pressures.

Denial of operational space to Pakistan in Bangladesh remains a strategic imperative for Prime Minister Modi, as ‘kicking Pakistan out of the East’ was for Indira Gandhi in 1971.

The fact is that there is no fast way to transform Bangladesh-Pakistan relations from relative indifference to mutual warmth. But, when the rest of the world is going above and beyond their usual boundaries to foster good relations, it’s high time for both Bangladesh and Pakistan to go beyond the emotions influenced by the tragedy of 1971.

The media can play a significant role to improve relations. People-to-people contact would be another important factor to remove bitterness and psychological barriers through cultural and student exchange programs.

Alongside the foreign ministry, relations need to be established through academic scholars, retired civil and military officials, public figures, and social activists of the two countries coming together and engaging in dialogue. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs) can also be another means of sustainable cooperation.

Read more: How Pakistan was ‘Created & Lost’: A journey of ‘Blood &…

Bangladeshi NGO BRAC expanded into Pakistan in 2007 and now covers many districts; reciprocally Pakistani NGOs can go to Bangladesh and carry out their operations, particularly to help the Biharis stranded in Bangladesh since 1971. The civil society needs to come forward for building trust and confidence by discouraging negative propaganda against each other, particularly in the media.

Bangladesh and Pakistan both have close diplomatic, strategic and economic relations with Saudi Arabia, China and Turkey. These relations need to be used for bridging differences and establishing cordial relations.

This does not mean that Pakistan should withdraw from its legitimate rights to raise voice against the illegal International War Crimes Tribunal and the narratives leading to the Denial of Liberation War Act. If required, even UN agencies may be approached to clear Pakistan’s position. Truth and its acceptance by both Bangladesh and Pakistan will eventually enable the two Muslim countries to come close.

Dr. Junaid Ahmed is an academician, researcher, author, a serial entrepreneur and an accomplished management consultant. Email: drjunaid.mof@gmail.com.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 

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