AROUND THE REGION
Pakistan-Bangladesh spat peaks
As Bangladesh celebrated its 44th anniversary of liberation and its Victory over Pakistan Day on 16th December, Dhaka seemed embroiled in a bitter spat with Islamabad. Bangladesh's liberation war affairs minister Mozammel Haque announced that his government was considering seizure of all assets of the war criminals . Haque said it was also considering a ban on the Jamaat e Islami because as a party it was responsible for horrible war crimes in its effortts to keep Pakistan united in 1971.
This appeared to be a deliberate on-your-face response by the Hasina government to those who have been critical of the war crimes trials and hangings so far of four mass murderers. Both Pakistan and some Western governments and organisations have tried to project it as political vendetta because those hanged were leaders of Jamaat e Islami and BNP, both major Opposition parties. Even the Amnesty International lashed out at the war crimes trials as 'flawed' and motivated by 'vendetta'.
This appears to be crucial for states like Assam and West Bengal which border on Bangladesh, but only if those ruling these states and surely the Indian government takes a cue from Hasina's strong drive to root out radical Islamist influences and traces of the Pakistani political culture. Because once the Islamist radicals come under pressure in Bangladesh, they will seek to flee to bordering Indian states. If votebank politics helps them get shelter in these states, we can only blame ourselves for buying into the trouble that Bangladesh's present government is trying hard to eradicate.
But Hasina's government has indicated it gives a damn to these critical voices.
The Dhaka University has taken the lead by severing all ties with educational institutions in Pakistan on 14th December , the day that isobserved as the Intellectual Martyrs Day in Bangladesh. This is the day in 1971 when scores of Bengali secular intellectuals were picked up by the Pakistani forces and their local collaborators and murdered.
In some ways that trend of hitting at the cultural muscle of Bengali nationalism continues. That is why the jihadi in Bangladesh focusses on attacking secular bloggers and publishers who spread the ideals of 1971 , of secular Bengali linguistic nationalism and syncretic Bengali culture.
So on the day Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval was meeting his Pakistani counterpart secretly in Bangkok to resume talks at their level, Bangladesh went on record to threaten a possible severance of bilateral relations with Pakistan. Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmud Ali told journalists in the evening briefing at the ministry of foreign affairs that Bangladesh was 'reviewing' its relations with Pakistan.
The soft spoken minister, who as a Pakistan foreign service officer revolted and joined the Bangladesh government-in-exile in 1971, minced no words
"Our relation with Pakistan is under considerable strain because we have not taken kindly to their uncalled for interference. We have not liked the way they tried to defend our war criminals who were hanged," said Ali.
This brings to focus the diplomatic confrontation between Dhaka and Islamabad over the executions of the Islamist leaders found guilt of 'crimes against humanity' during Bangladesh's Liberation War.
The confrontation started with five Pakistani public figures (holding top positions in 1971) coming forward to defend war criminal Salauddin Quader Chaudhury after he was sentenced to death for ‘crimes against humanity’ during the 1971 Liberation War.
The Supreme Court's appellate division turned down the request but this was seen as ' a desperate attempt' by Pakistan to save Salauddin Quader and Jamaat e Islami leader Ali Ahsan Mujahid, also facing a death sentence.
When both Salauddin Quader and Mujahid were finally hanged, Pakistan government reacted strongly. Islamabad's official statement not only termed the executions as 'deeply disturbing' but found the trials 'totally flawed.
The Bangladesh foreign ministry summoned the Pakistani envoy in Dhaka and handed over a strong protest note . It not only blamed Islamabad for 'interference in Bangladesh's internal affairs' but pointed to the Pakistani protest as 'an indirect admission of its role in the 1971 brutalities."
Then the Pakistan foreign ministry summoned Bangladesh’s acting high commissioner and informed him that “the government of Pakistan rejected the baseless and unfounded assertions of the Bangladesh Government ”.
Salauddin Quader, the son of Pakistan’s national assembly speaker Fazlul Quader Chowdhury, was said to be personally responsible for many atrocities, including the murder of a Hindu owner of a top Ayurvedic chain.
A six-time MP from Chittagong, Salauddin served as a minister under military dictator HM Ershad and later joined the BNP to serve as a parliamentary advisor to Khaleda Zia.
Mujahid led the notorious Al-Badr militia in 1971, which abducted and executed intellectuals during the war. He became a minister during the 2001-06 BNP-Jamaat coalition government.
What upset Hasina's government the most was a 'certificate' Chaudhury had produced in court from the Punjab University, Lahore, that said he spent much of his time with them in West Pakistan during the liberation war.
Ultimately that did not help Chaudhury get away but left many in Dhaka upset.
Even Pakistan's top rights activist Asma Jahangir said Islamabad’s reaction over their executions in Bangladesh only proved that Chaudhury and Mujahid were Pakistan’s agents.
Dhaka protested what it described as Pakistan’s “openly taking the side” of the war criminals.
Following this note, the acting high commissioner of Bangladesh was again summoned by the Pakistan Foreign Affairs ministry.
Through the summoning, “Pakistan claimed to reject the ' insinuation of complicity in committing crimes or war atrocities.'
Its note was positively provocative.
“It is regrettable that attempts have been made by Bangladesh to malign Pakistan, despite our ardent desire to develop brotherly relations.”
“ Bangladesh does not seem to respect these sentiments. The 1974 tripartite Agreement is the bedrock of relations between the two countries… as part of the Agreement, the Government of Bangladesh had "decided not to proceed with the trials as an act of clemency."
But then the note said something even more preposterous.
“The hearts of the people of Pakistan beat in unison with the people of Bangladesh. It is important for the two countries not to forget the role played by their people in the struggle for the establishment of a separate homeland for the Muslims of the South Asian sub-continent.”
This provoked furious reactions in Dhaka.
Former Bangladesh army chief Lt General K M Shafiullah urged Prime Minister Hasina to immediately sever all diplomatic ties with Pakistan. He was immediately supported by another former Bangladesh army chief Abdullah Haroon.
The Ganajagaran Mancha , which led the Shabagh demonstration in 2013 demanding death for all war criminals , said Dhaka has no reason to maintain diplomatic relations with Pakistan.
"The ISI supports Islamist radicals who kill our writers and bloggers and publishers. So why should we maintain any relation with them," said Mancha's spokesperson Imran H Sarkar.
Another pro-liberation group Ekatorrer Ghatak o Dalal Nirmul Committee jumped into the fray.
"We must warn Pakistan to mind its own business and accept the truth of history," said the committee's convenor Shahriar Kabir.
Hasina's government has been fuming for a while over 'evidence' that the ISI is behind funding many Islamist radicals who seek to topple her secular regime.
In February this year, Dhaka forced Islamabad withdraw an ISI case officer Mohammad Mazhar Khan.
Khan, an attaché in the Pakistan high commission in Dhaka, was involved in financing terrorists and bringing in forged currencies , a Bangladesh intelligence official.
" He used to bring in huge quantity of forged currency and finance radical groups like Hizb ut-Tahir, Ansarullah Bangla Team and Jamaat-e-Islami," the Bangladesh intelligence official said but was not willing to be named.
In 2000, during Hasina's first term in power, Bangladesh had declared a Pakistani diplomat persona non grata and asked him to leave Dhaka immediately. The Deputy High Commissioner to Bangladesh, Irfanur Rehman Raza, was withdrawn by the Pakistani Government on 30 November after his comments on the Bangladesh liberation war triggered a storm of protest in Dhaka.Raza had sought to play down the casualties during the Liberation War and said "Bengalis have a habit of exaggerating." That was the first time a foreign diplomat has been declared an unwanted person by Bangladesh.
Now the bdnews24.com ,Bangladesh's leading online newspaper, has exposed a second ISI officer operating under consular cover in Pakistan's Dhaka High Commission. Second Secretary Farina Arshad is said to have funded the Islamist radical group JMB which has now spread its tentacles to West Bengal and Assam. An arrested JMB radical Idris Sheikh pointed to Farina as his source of funds . He also admitted visiting Pakistan 48 times in the last two years.
Even as Idris is likely to reveal more , his judical confession in the court of the Dhaka Metropolitan Magistrate may be used by Bangladesh to pressurise Islamabad to withdraw her from the High Commission , like had been the case with Mazhar Khan.
So when the Modi government, after all its initial hard talk, seems to be renewing negotiations with Pakistan , possibly under US pressure, the Hasina government is looking Islamabad in the eye and threatening to cut off diplomatic relations if Pakistan raises the war crimes trials.
In fact, the Sectors Commander Forum led by retired general Shafiullah and freedom fighter Haroon Habib has already asked Pakistan to put on trial 195 Pakistani military personnel, against whom there is huge evidence of perpetrating unspeakable atrocities in 1971. In a memorandum handed over to the Pakistani high commissioner in Dhaka, Shafiullah and Haroon said that Pakistan must accept the history and come to terms with 1971.
But top journalist Sumi Khan in a column wrote recently that Pakistan will never come to terms with reality so long as it is ruled by the army. So when there are voices in India who suggest Delhi should talk to the Pakistan army for a peace deal, nobody entertains any such illusions in Bangladesh. For most Bangladeshis, the Pakistan army is a monster, a devil which killed nealry 3 million of its people ( as many deaths as during the 1943 Bengal famine, for which author Madhusree Mukherjee holds Churchill responsible) and dishonoured lakhs of its women. That is why in Bangladesh, with Sheikh Hasina in power, military generals with known links to Pakistan have been given death sentence in the 2004 Chittagong arms case. The judgement of this case, which I have read , provides graphic details of the connections between former DGFI and NSI chiefs like Abdur Rahim and Rezakul haider Chaudhury and Pakistan's ISI. Another man from Assam got death sentence in this case and his connection is also detailed in this judgement.
That is ULFA's commander in chief.
Like many in the Delhi officialdom who tend to equate Pakistan and Bangladesh just because both are predominantly Muslim nation, Barua also made the cardinal mistake in believing that Bangladesh could be run by those friendly to Pakistan and that the BNP-Jamaat alliance could never be dislodged. Within four years of the Chittagong arms fiasco, Bangladesh has a free election that swept the Awami League to power. Barua got it all wrong . The rest is history.
(Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC Correspondent and now works as Senior Editor of Dhaka-based bdnews24.com. His books on Northeast "Insurgent Crossfire" and "Troubled Periphery" are well acclaimed. His forthcoming book "Agartala Doctrine" is being published by Oxford University Press. )