The 1974 acceptance of Bangladesh led to cordial relations between the two lost brothers who had decided to go separate ways in the wake of the 1971 war. However, these warm relations took a nosedive when Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of former Prime Minister and founding father of Bangladesh Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, came to power for her second term in 2009. Pakistan has always considered 1971 as a closed chapter after the tripartite agreement was signed in April 1974 to repatriate prisoners of war. However, Sheikh Hasina, in 2009, decided otherwise and resumed trial of the 1971 war crimes. As a result, the relations between the two nations went sour. She was further emboldened when Prime Minister Modi came to power as she believed that she now had a supporter in New Delhi. Not to forget, India has been well-known for its patronage of Bangladesh over the years since the former supported the latter in its independence.
After coming to power in 2018, Prime Minister Imran Khan sought to maintain friendly relations with all the regional countries. In this bid, he also reached out to India for peace, but due to Mr. Modi’s other aspirations, this offer did not materialize. Similarly, in an effort to revive its relationship with Bangladesh, Pakistan appointed a new envoy, Imran Siddiqui, in February 2020, and the diplomatic efforts began. International observers were caught in surprise when Mr. Siddiqi met Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister, A.K Abdul Momen, earlier in July this year. Consequently, the day finally came to which the Pakistani leadership was eagerly looking forward to. Prime Minister Imran Khan talked to his counterpart Sheikh Hasina in a rare call later in July. PM Khan underscored the importance and desire to maintain warm and friendly relations and reaffirmed Pakistan’s commitment to SAARC and the importance of Pak-Bangladesh ties for regional peace and development.
In July 2020, prominent Bangladesh daily Bhorer Kagoj reported that all Indian projects in Bangladesh have slowed down after PM Hasina’s reelection in 2019. Meanwhile, Chinese projects have started to gain more attention from Bangladesh. This is manifested by the fact that Bangladesh gave a contract of building a terminal of Sylhet Airport to a Chinese company despite concerns from India. Moreover, the Indian High Commissioner had been trying to get a one to one meeting with PM Hasina but did not get it. The newspaper’s editor Shyamal Dutta further said that Bangladesh had not sent even a note of appreciation in response to India’s assistance in the wake of Covid-19. These developments show that Bangladesh is slowly and gradually moving away from India, which is an opportunity for Pakistan.
These developments come in the wake of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act by the Indian government. Bangladesh fears that this bill would further corner the Muslim and Bengali communities living in India. Similarly, in another parallel development, China has been trying to forge friendly relations with Bangladesh to further build its dream of a shared future. To build on this opportunity and counter Bangladeshi trade with India, China announced a tariff exemption for 97% of Bangladeshi exports. This move gave some 8200 Bangladeshi products duty-free access to the Chinese market. China has also been pouring money into infrastructure development projects in Bangladesh. These developments have created a window of opportunity to strengthen its ties with Bangladesh as it enjoys a very close relationship with China.
On August 14, Pakistan’s Independence Day, the country’s high commissioner to Bangladesh, Imran Siddiqui, in his speech, lauded the role that Bengalis played in its struggle for independence. This was preceded by a statement from Pakistan’s foreign office, which stated that Pakistan and Bangladesh were actively working and moving forward. It has now become almost obvious that Pakistan and Bangladesh are in the same camp, with China leading from the front. This moment can be an opportunity for both countries to come closer to each other. Still, for that to happen, the two South Asian nations must be honest with each other so that they can capitalize on this moment to forge a lasting relationship.
Building on the recent developments, Pakistan’s envoy met PM Hasina on December 3, 2020, where both sides pledged to improve the bilateral relations. A statement from Pakistan’s foreign office stated that the two sides agreed further to strengthen the existing fraternal relations between the two countries. Whereas Sheikh Hasina said that there was ‘no bar’ to reactivating cooperation mechanisms that have largely remained frozen in the past, but the statement from Bangladesh was a bit guarded in its tone as Sheikh Hasina told the Pakistani envoy that incidents of 1971 could not be forgotten, and the pain will remain forever. As an analyst, Zahid Hussain also said that there had not been a significant change in the relationship, but some ice was definitely broken. One can hope that both the nations will build on this progress, and very soon, a day would come when the lost brothers would enjoy a strong and lasting relationship based on mutual trust and cooperation.