For over 30 years now we have been carrying the burden of the horrific experience of the break-up of the country, in one symbolic measure the President set the ghosts of 1971 to rest. A simple apology meant a lot to the Bangladeshi psyche, the President being an uniformed person the effect was force-multiplied many times. The official Bangladeshi reaction was swift and concise, 1971 is now behind us, it was time to move ahead and strengthen relations to the benefit of both countries. Both for Pakistan and Bangladesh it was important to get over 1971.
On the surface, other than the traditional protocols being signed, the tangible moves were in duty free import of raw jute and upto 10000 MT of tea into Pakistan, subject to WTO conditions. In actual effect the President’s visit has been far more meaningful, it has set in motion major geo-political adjustment. On the economic front, it is vital for both the countries to have free trade. The two have complementary economies. Pakistan can export to Bangladesh raw cotton, cotton textiles, fertilizers, Basmati rice, Sindh Joshi parboiled rice, irrigation pumps, railway wagons, ocean-going vessels, sugar mills, cement plants, fruits etc and a whole range of consumer items. Bangladesh can export to Pakistan, raw jute, jute goods, tea, jute machinery spares, jute batching oil, pineapples, etc. Exporting to each other will take the pressure of exporting to other countries, as demand will exceed supplies, moreover the masses will benefit from having competitive prices. To give just one example, the cup of tea we are having in Pakistan will cost less than half what it costs today. Since Bangladesh has become a major garment exporter, the textile industry in Pakistan will flourish in supplying textile cloth far cheaper than what Bangladesh imports today. On both sides one has to be careful about vested interests which will influence bureaucracy to drag their feet and delay/scuttle the whole process. Direct free trade is the future of these two countries, incidentally this is not something new. Before 1759, Bengal was the granary of South Asia, providing food grains, textiles (Dhaka muslin cloth), etc, while the Indus Basin exchanged wheat and raw cotton. This was before the British deliberately and methodically wrecked the textile industry in Bengal, forcing the entire region into a great famine. This forced the Bengali landowners into becoming peasants in the same land, this now became owned by Hindu money-lenders (Marwari) from Calcutta. More than two centuries and the rank stupidity and horror of 1971 later, nature is very much taking its own course in binding relationships rendered artificially asunder by evil design. It is very necessary that political reforms be implemented that will not allow demagogues (and their Indian masters) to create crisis for their own crass, selfish interest.
Geo-politically, it is a major re-adjustment of alignments. All the States on India’s periphery have suffered at India’s hands at one time or the other, India’s advantage was in dealing with each country individually. This was the prime reason India stays wary of SAARC, it fears that the other nations will gang up and isolate India. From the portents now gradually becoming visible, that is becoming a reality. It is to be seen to what extent Sri Lanka asserts its independence of Indian hegemony, even though they have also opted for free trade with Pakistan, it may not do so as much as Bangladesh which clearly does not consider India the bugbear it once used to. Even when the other States remained sympathetic to each other’s stance vis-a-vis India, they were loath to say so publicly so as not to anger their great neighbour. While there is no statement of any union against India, it is now quite apparent that Pakistan and Bangladesh will look to coordinating their foreign policy assumptions in South Asia while keeping their options open as independent sovereign States. For all practical purposes India’s gains in 1971, and their virtual hegemony for the three decades hence, are over. In a sense Pakistan is far better off now than in 1971 when India could at will blackmail the western wing of the country by threatening East Pakistan. There is no guarantee that Pakistan will go to war if Bangladesh is invaded by India or that Bangladesh will go to war if Pakistan is invaded by India, but then where is the guarantee that both will not gang up if either is threatened. This creates strategic balance in South Asia, India now cannot afford to leave its eastern region denuded of Armed Forces as it has done by building up an offensive posture against Pakistan. At maximum fighting strength, Pakistan had three and a half lightly equipped infantry divisions in East Pakistan in 1971, the major deficiency was in artillery units, while the Armour contingent was for lip-service mention only. Today Bangladesh Army has seven fully equipped infantry divisions, two armoured brigades, etc. They are supported by an Air Force which has four times the PAF strength in East Pakistan in 1971 and a Navy which is five to six times the size of the Pakistani naval complement.
The communications between West Bengal and Assam are very vulnerable. On the borders of Bangladesh run all the major arterial communications of the Indian States of West Bengal, Meghalaya, Assam, Tripura, etc. These Lines of Communication (L of C) linkages including roads, railways, bridges, telephone lines, etc are in many cases actually less than a stone’s throw from the border and can be interdicted at will in case of hostilities. As it is, in all the States of India’s Eastern Region there are major insurrections, in Bodoland, Meghalaya, Assam, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram. One does not have to go to war to make these areas susceptible to instability, it is already there.
At the moment almost all the Indian Armed Forces are facing Pakistan. From Eastern Command, 57th Mountain Division (Dimapur) has gone to XV Corps at Srinagar, 2nd and 27th Mountain Divisions have come into Northern Command Reserve. Similarly all the formations of Central Command have all gone as part of either I or XI Strike Corps facing Pakistan. Even without Bangladesh going to war, even moving part of the Bangladesh Armed Forces out of their cantonments will mean that at least six Indian divisions now facing Pakistan will have to be kept in Eastern Command area. A far-sized Air Force and naval complement will have to be kept by India in reserve. For Pakistan this means that we will have restored the strategic balance without Bangladesh entering into hostilities. Of particular significance is what the entire Pakistani media has missed, a week or so ago India was provided with a list of 20 (repeat 20) terrorists that are hiding in India which Bangladesh wants handed over. This destroys India’s credibility of being holier-than-thou about harbouring terrorists. Our media bosses missed this Bangladesh-given opportunity completely, they need to concentrate more on national interests in supercession of their own crass commercial interests.
We need to build the relationship with Bangladesh. Why not total free trade and no VISA restrictions? We talk about confederation, why not have all the benefits of a confederation without calling it such? As always the master strategist, the President has used Sun Tse Tzu’s “winning a war without bloodying swords” quite successfully, his few failures have been tactical when he has had to trust the battle to aides who may give him personal loyalty but do not have the abilities or the integrity he has. We must not lose the momentum over Bangladesh even if we remain two independent sovereign countries so what? It is increasingly clear that notwithstanding all the machinations that India has brought to bear, 30 years later Pakistan and Bangladesh may be two countries, they are still one nation.
Mr. Ikram Sehgal is Publisher and Managing Editor of Defence Journal (Pakistan).