B’desh reads riot act to Pakistan, Demands apology for 1971 genocide

By Malladi Rama Rao

Bangladesh’s renewed demand that Pakistan must tender a formal apology for the 1971 Genocide does indeed come as a surprise. Not its timing though.  The demand articulated on Sunday Nov 20 by Foreign Minister Dipu Moni has coincided with the commencement of trials in the three-judge International Crimes Tribunal headed by Justice Nizamul Huq.

Sheik Hasina government came to power promising to bring to book all the guilty men who had committed ‘crimes against humanity’ during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. Topping the hit list are the leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, who had openly collaborated with the Pakistani forces which killed 30 lakh people and raped 2 lakh women during the nine-month war.

Jamaat’s nayeb-e-ameer, Delawar Hossain Sayedee, has just been made to stand trial; the charge-sheet against him runs into 88-pages. And the charges range from genocide, killing, rape, arson, to abduction and torture of civilians in his home district of Pirojpur. These offences are covered by the International Crimes (Tribunal) Act.

Pakistan was in fact put on notice by Dhaka shortly after the SAARC summit at Addu Atoll, a Maldivian resort, by refusing to budge an inch on its opposition to EU waiving tariffs on Pakistani textiles. Hina Rabbani Khar, the foreign minister of Pakistan, had egg on her face as a result. Because, even before returning to Islamabad, she told the Pak media covering the summit that Dipu Moni admitted that its objection was an accident and would be withdrawn

EU offered US $ 140 million relief in import duties to flood-hit Pakistan over the next three years.  Relief is a euphemism as every trade analyst knows. It will confer an undue advantage on Pakistan by making its core exports cheaper than rivals Bangladesh including.

EU Council of Ministers, the apex body, takes the call on tax reliefs provided there are no objections from other countries to whom also EU is the white trading knight in shining armour, and if it is not made an issue at the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

India raised objections in September last year itself fearing that its goods would face uneven competition while entering the EU market in the event of Pakistan getting the EU concession. But it has since yielded after some progress on the bilateral trade front.

Not Bangladesh. For it too, like for Pakistan, clothing and textiles make up 60 per cent of its exports to EU.  Knitted or crocheted gloves, with regular duties of 6.4 % to 8%, women’s cotton garments, which attract 9.6% to 12% and a wide range of cotton fabrics, knitted and woven clothes, totaling in all 75 goods, are the common export basket. Pakistan realizes 62.7 million Euros from yarn exports alone.

‘We support EU to help flood-hit Pakistan, but aid should not be at the cost of trade. Trade and aid should not be mixed’,   a Bangladeshi policy maker said as Dhaka firmed up its opposition to the EU move and conveyed its ‘concern’ to the World Trade Organisation (WTO).  Its worry is mainly related to eight items – four are in knitwear sector, three in woven sector and one in leather sector.

EU offers tariff preference to the goods of the least developed countries (LDCs). For EU, Pakistan is a developed country, like India, and as such is ineligible for any tariff concession. This has been the ‘principle’ stand of the EU for long.

“We are firm on our position regarding the issue since our apparel export will face a serious challenge, if the Pakistani goods are granted tariff concession while entering the EU market” Bangladesh Commerce Secretary Md Ghulam Hossain told the a Dhaka daily on Nov 15. “Our proposal is either to remove the eight apparel items from the list of 75 items, or to offer the tariff concession up to 20 per cent of Pakistan’s last year’s export of the items to the EU market,” he said.

If the Pakistani leadership expected Bangladesh to wave the green flag, it could be either because of rank arrogance that dates back to the days of Yahya Khans and Zulfikar Ali Bhuttos or outright ignorance of history and global trade. If flood devastation in the textile belt of Sindh in 2010 was the reason for EU bending its rules, Bangladesh has a stronger case for such a relief since it is visited by devastating floods year- after-year.

As Dipu Moni told the new Pak envoy to Dhaka, Afrasiab Mehdi Hashmi, ‘giving trade preference to a country solely on account of natural disasters is unprecedented’. She said Bangladesh, frequently visited by even more devastating natural disasters, was fully sympathetic toward the flood victims of Pakistan. And pointed out that a number of countries, including those from Latin America, opposed the initiative even before Bangladesh did.

For Mehdi Hashmi, the shocker was, however, Dipu Moni reading what was a virtual riot act.  “An early resolution of the outstanding issues will enable existing friendly relations between Bangladesh and Pakistan to make a great leap forward and create a wider space for cooperation,” she told the envoy.

Topping the agenda is the formal apology from Pakistan for the genocide and atrocities committed by the Pakistani military in Bangladesh in 1971. Next in priority is repatriation of stranded Pakistani Mohajirs, division of assets and war reparation. The Mohajirs as Bihari Muslims are known since they had migrated from Bihar to newly created Pakistan in 1947 have been living as stateless citizens in Dhaka since 1971.

Former President Pervez Musharraf, the first army ruler to visit Bangladesh, tried to meet the Bangladesh demand half-way in 2002. He termed the 1971 atrocities as ‘excesses’, which, he said, were ‘unfortunate’ and ‘regrettable.

On his arrival in Dhaka on July 29, Musharraf first visited the national memorial at Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka, to pay homage to the liberation war heroes. He wrote in the visitors’ book at the memorial: “I bring sincere greetings and good wishes from the Islamic Republic of Pakistan for their Bangladeshi brethren and sisters. We wish this land and its people peace, progress and prosperity”. The Pakistani leader continued: “Your brothers and sisters in Pakistan share the pain of the events of 1971. The excesses during that unfortunate period are regrettable. Let us bury the past in a spirit of magnanimity. Let not the light of the future be dimmed. Let us move forward together. I am confident that with our joint resolve Pakistan-Bangladesh friendship will flourish in the years to come”.

A section of the Bangladesh media projected these remarks as something as close as possible to a “formal apology” and argued that there was “no reason now” for Bangladesh “to remain antagonistic”. As if cashing in on ‘the opening’, he said at the state banquet: “My brothers and sisters in Pakistan share with their fellow brothers and sisters in Bangladesh profound grief over the parameters of the events of 1971. As a result of this tragedy a family having common religious and cultural heritage and united by a joint struggle for independence and a shared vision of the future, was torn apart. We feel sorry for this tragedy and the pain it caused to both our peoples”.

Khaleda Zia government of the day appeared satisfied. Prime Minister Khaleda Zia responded: “Thank you, Mr. President, for your candid expression on the events of 1971. This will, no doubt, help mitigate the old wounds”

Morshed Khan, then foreign minister, elaborated thus: “We don’t want to embarrass a guest by discussing issues like an apology for the 1971 war situation. It is the spirit of the people of the two countries that will decide that.” he said.  With Jamaat as a constituent of the ruling coalition, neither Khaleda nor Morshed Khan could have said anything else.

Veteran Bangladeshi journalist, Haroon Habib says: “…while his predecessors tried to shift the blame for the barbaric acts on the military or upon a few “generals”, Musharraf had gone a step forward by expressing regret for the events. However, he failed to pay due honour to the history that separated the two wings of Pakistan, overshadowing the pervasive influence of the two-nation theory of 1947.

By accepting, not avoiding, the truth of history in good grace, as Habib points out, Musharraf made a rapprochement possible between Pakistan and the erstwhile East Pakistan. The scars left behind by the war of independence are deep and cannot be erased easily. While time certainly is the biggest healer, a gesture like formal, unconditional public apology from Pakistan will heal the wounds and mollify the people of Bangladesh, who have proved sceptics like Henry Kissinger wrong, by braving all odds to carve out a place under the sun.

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