Causes and Implications of Deepening Pakistan-Bangladesh Tensions

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - DECEMBER 20: Pakistani policemen stand guard as members of Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan stage a protest out
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - DECEMBER 20: Pakistani policemen stand guard as members of Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan stage a protest outside the Bangladesh high commission to condemn the execution of Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami Assistant Secretary Abdul Quader Mollah on December 20, 2013 in Islamabad, Pakistan. Mollah, 65, was executed on 12 December 2013 at Dhaka Central Jail in Bangladesh. (Photo by Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The execution of a top Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami (BJI) leader on December 12 on war crime charges and the Pakistani parliament's subsequent expression of "concern" over it have sparked an unprecedented diplomatic row between Dhaka and Islamabad. While the Bangladeshi Prime Minister Shiek Hasina "strongly condemned" Pakistan's interference in her country's domestic affairs, hundreds of Bengali veterans of the 1971 War of Independence and enraged young nationalists asked their government to cut off diplomatic ties with Islamabad.

The Dhaka protesters, while attempting to besiege the Pakistani High Commission, were stopped by the security guards although they managed to burn Pakistan's flag and the effigies of prominent leaders. Bangladesh also summoned Pakistan's High Commissioner, to protest the resolution against a controversial execution that evokes deep emotions in both South Asian Muslim nations.

The 65-year-old Abdul Kader Mullah, BJI's deputy secretary general, was accused of mass murder, rape and collaboration with the Pakistani army during the country's liberation movement. Formerly known as East Pakistan, Bangladesh, backed by India, fought a nine-month long war with Pakistan which was described by Princeton University Professor Gary J. Bass as "bloodier than Bosnia" in his revealing book The Blood Telegram.

In 2009, Bangladesh constituted an International Crimes Tribunal to identify and investigate people who aided the Pakistani military and its local proxies in war crimes against Bengalis who fought for a separate homeland.

According to some estimates, three million people were killed during the Bangladesh movement. Charged with supporting the Pakistan army in committing war crimes, the BJI has faced the heat of the Tribunal's decisions. In February 2013, the Tribunal sentenced the Jamaat's chief Delwar Hossain Sayeedi to death. His execution triggered nationwide protests that killed more than a hundred people. In August, the Supreme Court declared the Jammat illegal. The BJI, which is an ally of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), blames the ruling Awami League government of "repression on the opposition" in order to impose "a one-party rule practiced in the mid-1970s."

Maqbul Ahmed, BJI's acting chief, recently accused the ruling party of practicing "unbridled torture upon members of the opposition" and appealed to "our foreign friends" to raise their voice against the government's "subversive" activities against the opposition. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has also criticized Dhaka over "fair trial concerns" in the execution of opposition leaders although the New York-based watchdog says it supports accountability for the "horrific crimes" committed during the 1971 war.

"Hanging Mollah on the basis of retroactive legislation and then denying him the right to appeal against this sentence is a grave violation of his fundamental rights," said Brad Adams, HRW's Asia Director.

Bangladesh has recently been engulfed with widespread political tensions and violence ahead of next month's parliamentary elections.

The December 16 resolution in the Pakistani legislature by the Jammat-e-Islami that was supported by the ruling Pakistan Muslim League of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif coincided with the exact date when Bangladesh separated from Pakistan in 1971.

Imran Khan, head of the right-leaning Pakistan Justice Movement, billed Mullah as innocent and described charges against him as false. Pakistan's interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan termed the execution as "judicial murder." He remembered Mullah as "patriotic to pre-1971 Pakistan." The Interior Minister warned Dhaka to avoid reviving the wounds of 1971.

On the contrary, Faheem Haider, a New York based Bangladesh analyst and writer, says the day-to-day politics in Bangladesh is actually about resurrecting 1971.

He says Pakistan not only intervened in the domestic affairs of Bangladesh but also seemed to suggest that the country and its people should forget 1971 and move forward. "The people of the two countries will never forget 1971," he states, "Pakistanis are often described as caricatures in Bangladesh as those who want to have back a fulsome, whole Pakistan."

Mr. Haider says the resolution passed in Pakistan's National Assembly lit a fire and those parties in Bangladesh who could use some anti-Pakistan, entirely pro-nationalist, historic sentiments, fanned that lit fire into flames.

Influential Bangladesh newspaper Daily Star furiously reacted to the Pakistani officials' statements in an editorial on December 19:

"We are surprised, shocked and outraged," said the newspaper, and reiterated the popular demand for the "long overdue" apology from the Pakistani government for the "genocide against Bengali people".

Daily Star's demand is consistent with the government's official position. In 2012, the then foreign minister of Bangladesh Dipu Moni told her Pakistani counterpart Hina Rabbani Khar in Dhaka that Pakistan should apologize for "war crimes" against her people. Pakistan, on its part, has repeatedly suggested that the two countries should bury the past and "move forward."

Within Pakistan, there is little public awareness about the actual causes of the country's disintegration in 1971. The politically powerful military, which is accused of war crimes, has cleverly deflected attention from these allegations. According to the military's version of the history, the Hindu-majority India, Pakistan's "archrival," conspired to break the Muslim nation.

In July 1972, the Pakistani government formed a judicial inquiry into the causes of the disintegration of the country. Named after the Supreme Court Chief Justice who led the investigations, the findings of the Hamoodur Rahman Commission were not made public for at least three decades as it, according to the leaks in the media, castigated the Pakistani military for the East Pakistan debacle.

In July 2002, Pakistan's former military dictator General Pervez Musharraf visited Dhaka and offered his country's "sincere regrets' but did not offer an unconditional apology. Farahnaz Ispahani, a senior leader of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and a former parliamentarian, says the Pakistan military and the right wing forces have never allowed a full apology. The PPP, along with two other secular parties, the Awami National Party and the Muthida Quami Movement (MQM), did not support the pro-Mullah resolution.

"What should be done but will not be done is an immediate apology to Bangladesh," she observes, "it would be the correct way to diffuse the situation diplomatically as the current government was major backer of the Molla resolution."

Ispahani, currently a Public Policy Scholar at Washington DC-based Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, says the PPP opposed the resolution because it was "not fitting for Pakistan to interfere in the domestic affairs of a sovereign country."

Why didn't the PPP apologize when it was in power from 2008 to 2012? Ispahani, who also served as former President Asif Ali Zardari's media adviser, says the PPP did not have "sufficient political support" from other political parties.

"The PPP did not have a majority in the parliament even when it headed the coalition government from 2008-2012," she admits, "The three parties which constitute the moderate and pluralistic voices in Pakistani politics, even together have not had a majority in the National Assembly."

The parliamentary resolution might be a last-ditch effort by Islamabad to deny perturbing portions of its history but Pakistan seems to be changing as dissenting voices have begun to make surprising inroads in the mainstream national debate. Until recently, the conservative Urdu media significantly contributed in instilling a distorted and misleading history among the semi-literate Pakistanis. However, alternative opinions that support an apology are replacing and dominating older narratives.

On December 19, Hasan Mujtaba, a prominent journalist, made a passionate appeal to Islamabad to apologize to the Bengalis in an article published in Jang, Pakistan's most circulated Urdu language newspaper.

Mujtaba, who also reports for the BBC Urdu from New York, said an apology had become every Pakistani's 'national obligation'

"Since the Holocaust, we committed the worst massacre and genocide in the human history in East Pakistan," he argued, "the memories of 1971 will not disappear unless we apologize."

Pakistanis are furtively observing the ongoing trails in Bangladesh. While some believe Dhaka is doing the right thing by separating religion from politics, others believe Pakistan should apologize first and then move forward. The Dhaka trials have also emboldened voices that now call for a Bangladesh-style ban on the Pakistani Jammat-e-Islami. Ironically, Syed Haider Farooq Maududi, a son of Abul Ala Maududi, the founder of the Pakistani Jammat, has emerged as an ardent proponent of banning the Jammat in Pakistan.

"I don't understand why they are putting the Jammat on trial in Bangladesh," he told Hum Shehri magazine, "the trials should actually take place in Pakistan where the actual Jammat is based."