By Silvia Tieri
In South Asia, music speaks politics. Among uncountable melodic masterpieces, there is a moving Pakistani ghazal, Woh Humsafar Tha, that goes like this:
Woh humsafar tha magar us sey humnawai na thi…
Adavatein thi, taghaful tha, ranjishein thi magar
Bicharne walay main sab kuch tha, bewafai na thi…
(He/She was my companion (fellow-traveller) but there was no harmony between us…
There were feelings of animosity, indifference, and anguish but
In my departing partner I had found all but unfaithfulness…)
The composition gained new popularity within and beyond the country in 2011 thanks to its indie-style remake that served as a soundtrack for a romantic soap-opera also named “Humsafar” (Hum: together; Safar: journey). However, few among its younger fans will know that this song tells the story of no typical heartbreak. In fact, the two co-journyers who had so much in common yet could not quite stick together – as the lyrics say – are Pakistan and Bangladesh, parting ways five decades ago. The ghazal was written by Naseer Turabi soon after the news of the fall of Dhaka (for Indians: Lt. Gen. Niazi’s surrender to Indian forces; for Bangladeshis: Victory Day) reached West Pakistan on 16 December 1971, leaving him shocked and in tears.
When the great partition of the Indian subcontinent divided Punjab and Bengal in 1947, Bengalis of the East had joined their Western co-religionists into a brave political journey called Pakistan: a homeland for South Asian Muslims, forming a nation separate from the Hindus’. However, while they officially constituted a single nation-state, the two wings of Pakistan (one’s capital was Karachi, the other’s Dhaka) were divided by significant cultural, ethnolinguistic, and socio-economic differences, as well as by more than two thousand kilometres of Indian territory. It could not last. Under the leadership of Sheikh Mujib “Bangabandhu”, father of Bangladeshi nationalism as well as the current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the East eventually seceded, militarily supported by India. East and West Pakistan had existed as one for less than twenty-five years. In 1971 they split. It was a massive blow to the Two-Nations Theory that had been Pakistan’s raison d’être.
On paper, Pakistan and Bangladesh have much in common. They are the two Muslim-majority nations of the Indian subcontinent, carved out of British India by means of partition(s). They also both share a complicated relationship and some long borders with South Asian hegemon India, although the Indo-Bangladeshi border is rather porous, while the Indo-Pakistani is the most militarised in the world. Nonetheless, relations between Dhaka and Islamabad, which replaced Karachi as Pakistan’s capital in 1967, have been strained ever since Bangladeshi independence.
Hasina’s perceived closeness to India, as well as her government’s vigorous prosecution of former pro-Pakistani and Islamist forces since the late 2000s, have cast a long shadow on post-1971 bilateral relations. A partial rapprochement had occurred earlier, under the rule of Ziaur Rahman’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), traditionally closer to Pakistan. However, Hasina’s Awami League (AL) inherited the independence legacy and in 2008 returned to power, maintaining a solid grasp over it ever since. In 2009 the AL administration created the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), a special court in charge of prosecuting war crimes, including genocide, committed by the Pakistani Army and its collaborators during the 1971 war. Because the convicted belong to political forces that are AL’s archenemies, the ICT receives criticism not only for its supposed low judicial standards, but also for being allegedly used to knock out political competition. In Bangladesh, it still counts on considerable popular support.
Bilateral relations between the once humsafars have been almost non-existent in the last decade. The execution of Bangladeshi members of Jamat-e-Islami (JeI) in 2013 and 2016, strongly condemned by the Pakistani Parliament, marked their lowest points. In May 2019, it even seemed that the two countries temporarily suspended reciprocal visa issuance. The last high-level official visit of a Bangladeshi head of state to Pakistan dates back to February 2006, when Islamabad received then-Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, heiress of husband Ziaur Rahman’s BNP leadership.
Speculations about a possible thaw, however, emerged following a series of gestures initiated by Pakistan in 2019 and continued in 2020. In September 2019, Pakistani Foreign Minister S.M. Qureshi phoned his Bangladeshi counterpart A.K.A. Momen to apprise him on Pakistan’s position over Kashmir after New Delhi revoked of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which had granted special status to the disputed region until August 2019.The two talked again in March 2020 regarding the pandemic. In July 2020, Pakistani High Commissioner I.A. Siddiqui met Momen in Dhaka. Days later Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan paid a courtesy call to Sheikh Hasina, exchanging views on the COVID-19 emergency, Kashmir, and inviting the Prime Minister to visit Islamabad. Khan also expressed commitment to deepen relations. This was reiterated on 3 December 2020, when High Commissioner Siddiqui and Hasina held a courtesy meeting in Dhaka. Additionally, Pakistan expressed its interest in deepening the trade relationship with Bangladesh, especially in terms of partnerships and investments in the textile sector.
These unusual overtures alerted Indian hawks in particular, as they caught India in a turbulent period, dotted by protests and lockdown impositions in Kashmir, border tensions with China, and a general deterioration of relations with regional neighbours. Some consider that Pakistan’s move towards Bangladesh is an attempt to take advantage of the widening vacuum left by New Delhi’s policy towards its eastern neighbour, less attentive in the latest years despite declared intentions to “Look East” and to “Neighbourhood First”. One emerging commonality between Islamabad and Dhaka is their convergence towards China as a key investor, development partner, and defence supplier, proving Bangladesh has other reliable options besides India. While Pakistan remains China’s major ally in South Asia, Dhaka-Beijing relations have been recently upgraded to a “strategic partnership of cooperation” in 2016.
Overall, Pakistan’s recent openings towards Bangladesh undoubtedly signalled an interest to rekindle an otherwise frosty bilateral relationship. But the critical issues that keep poisoning it have been left untouched. These are rooted in the divergent Pakistani and Bengali nationalisms, and their irreconcilable narratives of the facts of 1971. The AL and most Bangladeshis are determined that Pakistan owes a formal apology for its actions against the Bengalis of East Pakistan. Pakistan, on the other hand, acknowledges neither the accusation of genocide nor the number of victims alleged by Dhaka. Because the matter is so controversial, to establish where history ends and national narratives begin remains a challenging task. Other pending bilateral issues include the status of Bangladesh’s Biharis, the question of asset sharing, as well as the 1974 trilateral agreement on the repatriation of prisoners of war and civilian internees, of whose violation Bangladesh and Pakistan have accused each other. Meanwhile, to the dismay of Pakistan, the war crime trials have continued in Bangladesh. In 2019, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court resumed hearing appeals of such trials after a three year interruption. In the same year, the ICT emanated 14 new death sentences to former militants of JeI and Razakar Bahini. Also, Bangladesh’s official stance on Kashmir remains non-intervention. Although the notorious abrogation of Article 370 was met with protests in Dhaka, Foreign Minister Momen reiterated that it is an internal issue of India into which Bangladesh will not get involved. 1971 was a bad break-up. Pakistan is now making a move. But Dhaka still wants Islamabad to apologise and make amends, before they can embark on a new journey, together.
Silvia Tieri is a political scientist and ethnographer in training based at King’s India Institute. In 2019 she joined the King’s College London-National University of Singapore Joint PhD Programme. Her doctoral research concerns the politics of linguistic identity in contemporary India and Pakistan. Before joining KCL, she was a Research Analyst at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), Singapore. She holds a Master’s in International Relations from the University of Pisa (Italy) and a Master’s by Research in South Asian Studies from the National University of Singapore.