Lost brothers

Published May 2, 2014

BANGLADESH and Pakistan are like two brothers, who have gone their separate ways due to a family dispute. And when you meet such a brother after 42 years, you are bound to be curious to see how he has done.

Some time ago, I visited Bangladesh to see the T20 World Cup and meet my old Bengali schoolmates from 55 years ago. We attended a PAF boarding school in Sargodha, half of whose occupants had to be from East Pakistan.

Forty-five years after the last visit, (when one served as a sub-divisional officer, SDO, equivalent to our assistant commissioner, in Sylhet district), Dhaka is more crowded. The commuting time from one part of the city to the other is in hours. Cycle rickshaws still provide the bulk of the transport; apparently there are 11 lakh rickshaws in Dhaka alone. One pleasant side effect is the non-existence of motorbikes.

While the warmth and hospitality of old buddies was profuse, there was a palpable embarrassment at the way we parted in 1971. They described their ordeal of repatriation from West Pakistan, (some of them being officers in the Pakistan armed forces) in as soft terms as possible. One listened with as much tact and sympathy as possible. The feeling is difficult to describe. One felt like the member of a family accused of murder, visiting the family of the aggrieved party.

Politics and detailed discussions on 1971 were avoided, in order not to spoil the pleasant ambiance generated by the reunion. But the execution of a prominent member of the Bangladesh Jamaat-i-Islami and the sentencing to death of half a dozen others, being current events, could not be kept out of discussion. The Pakistan high commission in Dhaka was stormed by an angry crowd, protesting the National Assembly resolution condemning the execution of the JI leader.

The response of Bangladeshi friends was that it was insensitive on part of the Pakistan government to pass judgement, without knowing the facts. The feeling conveyed was that a few people would have to be punished (read hanged) to heal the wounds of 1971.

After a few days, one got the impression there was a war going on in Bangladesh, between people who love India and people who dislike India. Those who dislike India would rather be branded India-haters, rather than Pakistan supporters, as that would reduce their credibility. ‘Lovers’ of India are led by the Awami League while the party which opposes India is the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which would prefer to downplay any overt connection with Pakistan.

The most surprising thing was that many in the country do not even recognise Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as the father of the nation. Some in earnest sarcasm say that the actual father of the nation is Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, but then go on to say that Gen Ziaur Rahman was the one who physically fought the Pakistan Army.

Despite the constraints, Bangladesh has done much better than Pakistan. While we have foreign exchange reserves of around $10bn after unexplained gifts from friendly countries and kowtowing to the IMF, their reserves are at $19bn. While the Pakistani rupee, after much jugglery, was brought below 100 to the dollar, in Bangladesh the dollar is worth 78 taka. This is quite an indictment of our economic performance, considering the taka was worth 50 paisa when we parted.

Another startling comparison is that while East Pakistan had more population than West Pakistan in 1971, Bangladesh is now at 150 million, while we are close to 190 million. So despite the predominant religious values in the country, they have controlled their population. In Pakistan no one is even talking about the crisis.

As for social indicators monitored by international agencies measuring progress in health and education etc., we are at least 25 positions lower in the country rankings. So both financially and socially, Bangladesh seems to be moving in the right direction, despite its chronic political crises.

In the quest to assess the change, I drove to Sylhet, where I had served in 1969 and called on the deputy commissioner and saw the office I occupied. Forty-five years on, the DC in Bangladesh is in command unlike the confusion of command in our field formations.

Bangladesh was geographically and ethnically so far away from Pakistan it would have separated, if not in 1971 then a few years down the line. The only regret is that the two brothers could have parted in a more civilised manner.

Pakistan is still popular amongst the Bangladeshi masses, but not with the government. The best way to restore the bond is to resort to low-profile diplomacy with patience.

The writer is a former bureaucrat.

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