Pakistan and Bangladesh’s ‘brotherhood’ requires an honest reflection

Pakistan Today, , , , , ,

“We are happy our brothers won” – these were the words of Wasim Akram in the post match interview after Pakistan lost to Bangladesh in the 1999 ICC World Cup. Those warm words perceptively sum up the relationship between Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, which is one of brotherhood. Generally speaking, Pakistan assumes the role of bara bhai in this relationship, while Bangladesh has adopted the role of chota bhai – and this assumption is rhetorically justified by the age of both nations, the population of each country, and even subconscious racist stereotypes of Pakistanis being taller, fairer and more ‘alpha’ than their Bengali counterparts.

As a British born Bangladeshi, who was raised and has lived among Pakistanis from Jhelum and Azad Kashmir, I have gained firsthand experience of the racial and cultural dynamics which exist between these two groups from the perspective of their diasporas in Britain. I have family members that have harmoniously married into Pakistani households, and my most dearest childhood friends are also Pakistani, therefore, I feel relatively well positioned to proceed with presenting my observations.

First and foremost, the relationship between Bangladesh and Pakistan is sadly overshadowed by a single historical event – the 1971 War of Independence, and everything that led to up to it. Since the partitioning of India in 1947, East and West Pakistan was established as a homeland for Muslims. Naturally, West Pakistan became the powerhouse of the two wings, and it essentially represented the central government where the political, military and social elite resided.

Whilst West Pakistan flourished in comparison to its chota bhai in the East, a plethora of socioeconomic, political and cultural issues boiled up in East Pakistan, which eventually gave birth to the independence movement from which Bangladesh was born.

On 12 November 1970, a major cyclone struck East Pakistan’s coastal areas, which caused the death of hundreds of thousands of Bengalis, while millions more were displaced. Bengalis were outraged and civil unrest began in the Eastern wing of Pakistan in response to what they considered a weak and ineffective response to the natural disaster from Islamabad.

Public opinion and political parties in East Pakistan blamed the central government for being intentionally negligent, whilst West Pakistani politicians attacked the Awami League for using the crisis for political mileage. The dissatisfaction led to divisions within the civil services, police and Pakistani Armed Forces.

During the general elections of December 1970, the Awami League led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman won a massive majority in the provincial legislature, thus, forming a clear majority in the National Assembly. However, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan’s People’s Party (PPP) threatened to boycott the assembly and oppose the government if Sheikh Mujibur was invited by President Yahya Khan to form the next government.

Much of the Pakistani military and the Islamic political parties also opposed Sheikh Mujibur becoming Pakistan’s prime minister. At the same time, neither Sheikh Mujibur nor the Awami League had explicitly advocated independence from West Pakistan. However, what followed in the months after the general elections was perhaps one of the bloodiest chapters of the Indian subcontinent’s modern history.

Operation Searchlight was West Pakistan’s last attempt at quelling any nationalist aspirations in East Pakistan. Between March and December 1971, East Pakistan fought their bara bhai with the assistance of India who opportunistically sought to neutralise a military threat on its eastern frontier by facilitating Bangladeshi independence. Hundreds of thousands of Bengalis were massacred with horrific accounts of genocide and mass rape committed by the Pakistani military.

Many will be wondering why a significant portion of my column was dedicated to recounting this historical event. The purpose was solely for historical context which I hope serves as a reminder to both Bangladeshis and Pakistanis why this ‘bara bhai, chota bhai’ relationship is in reality, marred with vitriolic nationalism and historical grievances.

For Pakistanis, this shameful period of history should serve as a reminder that their government and military were responsible for the massacre of thousands of their Bengali Muslim brethren, which will remain in the hearts and minds of millions of Bangladeshis for years to come. Additionally, West Pakistan’s failure to maintain unity between them and their Eastern counterparts for longer than 24 years is an embarrassing example of political pragmatism based upon nationalism, while dressed up under the guise of ‘Muslim unity’.

For Bangladeshis, this piece of history should serve as a reminder that their nationalist aspirations and alliance with India came at an unfortunate and bloody price, and that the Pakistanis of today should not be held responsible for the crimes of their forefathers.

In Bangladesh, the Liberation War of 1971 and Independence Day is religiously celebrated by millions. Within the educational curriculum, there is an emphasis of a cultural struggle against the ‘colonial’ Pakistanis which was centred on the preservation of Bengali tradition, heritage and language.

However in Pakistan, the deafening silence regarding the events of 1971 within academic and political discourse, one could argue, is indicative of the country’s tacit admission of guilt. This is further exemplified by the propaganda spread by West Pakistan at the time that East Pakistanis were apostating and becoming Hindus while allying with India, which is still parroted by some to this day.

But in the context of how the above continues to influence the dynamics between British Pakistanis and Bangladeshis is glaringly obvious for me. It goes without saying that beneath the “machi paan” and “dhal roti” jokes, historical grievances and complexes still shape how these two groups perceive each other.

It is a common mindset among many Bangladeshis that Pakistanis are generally arrogant, untrustworthy, and prone to oppression and racism. Similarly, many Pakistanis perceive Bangladeshis as inferior, physically weak, and yes, usually short and dark skinned. And this poisonous distrust that many Bangladeshis have, and this arrogant superiority complex that many Pakistanis espouse was ultimately born out of one thing – nationalism, or asabiyya in Arabic – a disease which was unequivocally condemned and cursed by the same Prophet who is beloved to both groups.

In my humble opinion, and I will most likely be labelled a razakar (traitor) by many Bangladeshis for saying this, but there was only one real victor in the war on 1971 – and that was India. India successfully managed to eradicate a significant military threat on its eastern frontier by turning it into a proxy, whilst capitalising on West Pakistan’s weakness in other fronts during that period. The nightmare of a united Pakistan on its eastern and western borders which could simultaneously carry out air and ground raids in the situation of total war gave India sleepless nights. Therefore, what better outcome could India have wished for than to turn a hostile East Pakistan to a subservient Bangladesh by successfully amputating one of Pakistan’s limbs? 

The underlying tribalism that shapes the Pakistani psyche towards their Bangladeshi brethren, is no different to how the predominantly powerful and wealthy Punjabi elite perceive Muhajirs, Balochis, Pathans, Sindhis, Sheedis and other ethnicities that fall under their fragile ‘national’ identity. This toxic mindset will remain an obstacle towards unity and collective prosperity if it continues to dominate the thinking of the ruling elite and the wider populace. And such resentments held by these aggrieved groups will only act as a gateway for external powers like India, the US and Israel to use these legitimate grievances to agitate separatist aspirations and to de-stabilise Pakistan.