Whoever made the mistake, let us both apologise.” This is a line from Pakistan’s latest and first commercial movie Khel Khel Mein made on the dismemberment of East Pakistan in 1971. More than a dialogue, it encapsulates the direction in which Islamabad wants to take its relations with Dhaka. There is an eagerness to mend the fences and reconnect with a nation for which average members of Pakistan’s ruling elite have discovered a newfound respect, missing in the past, especially when ‘Operation Searchlight’ was launched in 1971.

Senior journalist Amir Mateen recently toyed with the idea of a possible confederation between Pakistan and Bangladesh. Although his tweet was sensibly challenged by journalist Kamran Shafi, Mateen’s idea reflects the fantasy of Pakistan’s establishment since it lost former East Pakistan at the hands of arch-rival India. The military that returned to power in Pakistan in 1977 seems to have recovered from the initial hurt of losing the territory to thinking of it in terms of turning it into a geo-strategic opportunity, without the burden of having to govern the place and its people.

Dhaka-led talks during the early and mid-1980s for the establishment of SAARC created links between Pakistan and Bangladesh militaries under General Ziaul Haq and General Hussain Muhammad Ershad, respectively. The links were repaired to the degree that in 1994, then-Pakistan Air Force chief spoke about the possibility of parking PAF aircraft in Dhaka for possible utilisation in case of Pakistan’s conflict with India. I sat through the seminar held at the Islamabad Institute for Strategic Studies where the military establishment’s right-hand man, Ikram Sehgal, also spoke and discussed the idea of confederation. Its possible that dialogue and communication helped repair some of the differences between Pakistan military and Bangladesh’s officer cadre, majority of whom consisted of those that repatriated from West Pakistan in 1970 and after Independence of Bangladesh in 1971.

A thorn in Pakistan-Bangladesh relations

The idea of confederation may be a fantasy but improving relations with Bangladesh strategically is a possibility that keeps Pakistan’s establishment engaged. Bilateral relations had improved significantly under Khalida Zia’s rule until it nosedived after Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League’s victory in 2009. The lowest point in Dhaka-Islamabad relations was 2013 and 2016 when Pakistan’s parliament officially protested the death sentence awarded to Jamaat-e-Islami leaders for their involvement in war crimes. Also, Sheikh Hasina was viewed as being close to Narendra Modi government in India. This added to the burden of the key issue in Islamabad’s relations with Dhaka — its unwillingness to apologise for the killings in 1971 and dithering on the issue of negotiating the repatriation of Biharis (known as Pakistanis in Bangladesh) who are stuck there since 1971.

The last time the issue got some attention was during General Aslam Beg’s command of the Pakistan Army during the early 1990s. However, the issue is highly emotive as its gets all forms of Sindhi nationalists worried about negative impact of such migration. The fear being turned into a minority in their own province with the possible influx of additional Urdu speakers.

But the other outstanding issue — of Pakistan’s apology to Bangladesh — is even a bigger matter, stuck like a thorn in the throat that doesn’t allow the two countries to move forward in furthering bilateral ties. This is despite the fact that Dhaka-Islamabad relations seem to be recovering gradually, largely owed to China’s increased presence in South Asia and to the benefits accruing from Beijing’s deep pockets as well as India’s short-sighted approach towards Muslim countries and populations in its neighbourhood.

While Delhi is eager to reach out to the rich Muslim states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, its attitude towards Afghanistan and Bangladesh, or even Pakistan, is determined by the ideology of the Modi government’s domestic politics. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2019 has affected Delhi-Dhaka relations. Islamabad viewed it as an opportunity to re-initiate ties and wean Bangladesh away from India. The slow-brewing negativity in India-Bangladesh relations is a major building block for Pakistan-Bangladesh relations that can possibly be expanded further through increasing trade ties.

Currently, Dhaka has a negative trade balance with Pakistan, which could improve as Islamabad seems willing to open bigger doors for Bangladesh. In 2020, Prime Minister Imran Khan called Sheikh Hasina and lifted visa restrictions for Bangladeshi citizens. The ease in getting visa may not necessarily see increase in traffic between the two countries unless direct flights are started or both countries enhance their trade potential. Most of Pakistan’s exports to Bangladesh right now comprise cotton yarn and fabric, and from Bangladesh it is jute and jute products. The removal of visa restriction has certainly given ease of access to the ideologically inclined Bangladeshis some of whom were recently spotted by economist Kaisar Bengali at a madrassa in Thatha, a city on the outskirts of Karachi.