China has, for quite some time now, been working very hard to improve ties between its vassal state Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Beijing has been leaning very hard on Dhaka to accept Islamabad’s hand of friendship that is based on the commonality of Islam between the two countries.
Beijing had also marshalled the support of the Islamist establishment in Bangladesh and some influential Islamists in that country’s critical institutions like the bureaucracy, military and the foreign office to foster warm Bangladesh-Pakistan ties.
According to Beijing’s nefarious intent, a firm Dhaka-Islamabad axis would offset the warm relations Dhaka has with New Delhi and would pave the way for an enhanced role for China in Bangladesh.
A significant improvement in ties between Bangladesh and Pakistan would also give Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and other covert agencies a firm foothold in Bangladesh.
Pakistani agencies had been allowed a lot of leeway by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Bangladesh’s military rulers during the long reigns after the assassination of Bangladesh’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975.
Pakistani agencies, operating under the patronage of pro-Pakistani Islamists in Bangladesh, had also aided, sheltered and armed members of terror groups of North East India, including the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the Naga insurgents.
All that, however, ended when the Awami League under Sheikh Hasina came to power in 2008. Since then, Bangladesh’s ties with India have improved dramatically while those with Pakistan have deteriorated.
Under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Dhaka has also erased the influence and operations of Pakistan’s covert agencies in the country, expelled and arrested or deported members of Indian terror groups sheltered in that country and cracked down very hard on pro-Pakistan Islamists.
While all that has upset Islamabad and derailed Beijing’s sinister strategy of encircling India with hostile countries, the real break in Bangladesh-Pakistan ties came with Dhaka setting up an International War Crimes Tribunal in 2009 to try many of its own citizens accused of aiding and participating in the horrific genocide of 1971 that left an estimated 30 lakh Bangladeshis dead.
Pakistan’s regular army, in active association with razakars, carried out the genocide in which an estimated four lakh women were also raped.
The genocide, including the targeted killings of intellectuals by Pakistani army, is a massive roadblock in ties between the two countries.
When the war crimes tribunal handed out death sentences to prominent Islamists accused of aiding and participating in the genocide in 2015, Pakistan formally protested and also tried to solicit support from the international community to stop the tribunal’s proceedings and the executions.
That caused a huge uproar in Bangladesh, where the wounds of 1971 still rankle many nationalists. What has added to the outrage is Pakistan’s constant denial of its involvement in the 1971 genocide.
Bangladesh’s nationalists, who have the upper hand over pro-Pakistan Islamists now, have been consistently demanding a firm and unqualified apology from Pakistan for the 1971 genocide (read this).
They also hold that improvement of ties with Pakistan can happen only after such an apology comes from Islamabad. But for Pakistan, issuing such an apology will amount to a national shame and expose the ruling establishment to stringent criticism from its all-powerful Islamists.
Bangladesh’s nationalists have now succeeded in making this demand for an apology for the war crimes of 1971 a prime part of Dhaka’s engagement with Islamabad. And that has scuppered Beijing’s plans of brokering improved Bangladesh-Pakistan ties. Beijing leaned heavily on Islamabad recently to remove visa restrictions on Bangladeshi citizens.
On Beijing’s insistence, Islamabad has also offered greater access to Bangladeshi products and has promised to relax the negative list (of Bangladeshi goods) and remove trade barriers.
However, Dhaka is not impressed. Bangladesh wants a firm apology for the 1971 genocide, complete repatriation of nearly three lakh Pakistanis (of Bihari origin) stranded in Bangladesh since 1971, division of assets between the two countries that were one (East and West Pakistan) from 1947 till 1971, and war reparations.
Bangladesh’s junior foreign minister Mohammed Shariar Alam’s reiteration of the apology demand when Pakistan high commissioner to Bangladesh, Imran Ahmed Siddiqui, called on him last week, represents a setback to China’s plans to nudge Pakistan and Bangladesh closer to each other.
Pakistan states that an apology offered through a tripartite agreement in 1974 (read this) that facilitated the release of 195 Pakistani Army officers charged with various war crimes should be enough.
Former Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf also offered a half-hearted apology during his visit to Bangladesh in 2002 (read this). Islamabad has been urging Bangladesh to forget the past and improve ties based on the common religion (Islam) between the people of the two countries.
This stand finds enthusiastic endorsement from Bangladesh’s Islamists, but is firmly rejected by the country’s nationalists who insist that the only way to move forward is an unequivocal apology from Pakistan for the war crimes, along with war reparations, fair division of assets, and repatriation of Pakistanis (the Bihari Muslims) who have been stranded in Bangladesh since 1971.
The reiteration of the nationalist position by Bangladesh’s junior foreign minister last week, thus, represents a setback to Beijing’s efforts to improve Bangladesh-Pakistan ties with the sinister motive of limiting India’s role in the region.
Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.
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