The 1971 debacle had a definite and profound impact on Pakistan. Society began to question itself, economic ties were abruptly severed, and political realities that had been denied by our rulers rose to the fore. Within the country, a heated debate ensued: did Bangladesh’s rise on the world map negate the Two-Nation Theory?

Indeed, the fall of Dhaka was not an end in itself.

The comity of nations was not concerned with such existential questions, however. A new country had emerged and soon many others began recognising Bangladesh as an independent nation. But Pakistan was reluctant to immediately follow their example as President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was not prepared to risk any internal political fallout.

After assuming power, Bhutto had found himself in a dilemma. India, the executioner of the Bangladesh plan, was the first country to recognise the new state. Many countries of the Commonwealth, including Australia and New Zealand, were to follow suit. Bhutto also wanted to accept Bangladesh but at the time the country faced two unresolved issues: withdrawal of the Indian troops from occupied Pakistani territories, and the release of prisoners of war (PoWs) being held captive by Indian forces.


Before a great fall comes pride. The story of the country’s diplomatic isolation is no exception to the rule


When Bhutto discussed the matter with political leaders, he discovered that his own party, the PPP, along with the National Awami Party and the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam supported the option of recognising Bangladesh. They thought that this move wouldn’t isolate Pakistan in the world community and would help resolve outstanding issues with India and Bangladesh.

Right-wing parties opposed the move. They argued that recognising Bangladesh would only legitimise the actions of those who sought independence from Pakistan. They also believed that this stance would delay the release of PoWs. These parties held public rallies in Rawalpindi, Jhelum and Gujrat against any move to recognise Bangladesh.

Bhutto decided to deliver his decision after public approval. He held a few public meetings where in his hysteric oratorical style he chanted slogans such as “Manzoor, Manzoor, NaManzoor!” It was at one of these rallies where he finally declared that Pakistan will not recognise Bangladesh. And as a mark of protest for recognising the new independent state, Bhutto announced that Pakistan would no longer be part of the Commonwealth.

At the time, many political analysts and economic advisers termed it an ill-advised decision. Most argued that Pakistan needed sound policies to refurbish its war-ravaged economy — dissociating from the Commonwealth would be disastrous since 35 percent of Pakistan’s trade was with the countries of the Commonwealth. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis living in the UK and other Commonwealth countries enjoyed many benefits by being citizens of a member country of the group. Pulling out of the Commonwealth would be insular and counter-productive.

But Bhutto forged ahead, till 1974, when he’d reverse his decision as part of posturing that called for greater solidarity among countries of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC). Lahore played host to the OIC summit between February 22-24, 1974 and Pakistan needed a headliner to announce the occasion as a diplomatic masterstroke.

Bhutto extended an invitation to Bangladesh to join the OIC summit in Lahore. To ensure the participation of Shaikh Mujeebur Rahman, Bhutto promised recognising the new state of Bangladesh before the holding of the Islamic summit. On the first day of the summit, Pakistan formally recognised Bangladesh.

And yet, as one hatchet was seemingly buried, Bhutto’s grouse with the Commonwealth continued. He decided not to rejoin the 53-member countries group — an absence that lasted 17 years. Pakistan finally re-entered the Commonwealth on October 1, 1989. In a twist of history, Bhutto’s daughter Benazir would be the prime minister leading Pakistan away from isolation.

When Benazir had assumed power, she had inherited an economy that had suffered the impact of the war in Afghanistan. Already overburdened with economic debt as a result of a massive trade deficit, Pakistan had been ravaged by hosting more than three million Afghan refugees. During Gen Zia’s military rule (1977- 88), the Commonwealth was reluctant to hand any immediate benefits to Pakistanis. After Benazir’s move, however, there appeared hope that the revival of the economy would be slow and gradual but definite.

After a period of relative normalcy came the storm — General Pervez Musharraf would have the ignominy of being suspended by the Commonwealth twice.

The first time was on October 18, 1999 — about a week after General Musharraf overthrew the civilian government headed by Nawaz Sharif. The suspension sentence was delivered as Pakistan had violated the Harare Commonwealth Declaration (inked on October 20, 1991) that made it incumbent on signatories to ensure the existence of a democratic political system in their countries. Thus began the longest suspension that the Commonwealth had ever handed out to any country in the history of the organisation — about four-and-a-half years. It was lifted on May 22, 2004 after President Musharraf restored the Constitution of 1973.

But neither Musharraf nor his band of merry men learnt any lessons from the suspension doled out by the Commonwealth. Another suspension was slapped on Pakistan after the general imposed an emergency on November 3, 2007, held fundamental rights in abeyance, and ousted senior judges of the Supreme Court including Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary. As a consequence of this action, Pakistan’s membership from the Commonwealth was suspended on November 22.

The emergency was lifted on December 27, 2007 as Gen Musharraf finally restored the Constitution and fundamental citizen rights and brought back the ousted judges. After elections in Pakistan, the general finally decided to step down. On May 12, 2008, the Commonwealth restored Pakistan’s membership, noting that the decision was made in recognition of the democratic steps taken by the country ever since it slipped into emergency rule late last year. Since then Pakistan’s relationship with the Commonwealth has been sailing in smooth waters.

The story of Pakistan’s politics has many fascinating episodes. But the chapter on the country’s relationship with the Commonwealth is significant owing to certain political realities. In this chequered association also lies the story of Pakistan’s diplomatic inclusion and insolation.

shaikhaziz38@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, January 1st, 2017