VISITING Pakistan and Bangladesh within a span of 14 days is like harking back the 40 years when the two countries separated from each other. Why did it happen? How did it happen? Who was responsible for it? Such an exercise can only be of academic distraction. But it is clear that the disputes between the Bengalis in East Pakistan and those living in West Pakistan had become so acute towards the end of the sixties that their parting of ways had become inevitable.
I was at Islamabad in the end of March and at Dhaka in mid-April. What I have seen in both the countries underlines my earlier belief that the two peoples are so different in their thinking and approach that they could not have lived together as one country. Both are proud to be Muslim. Yet the Islam practised in Bangladesh is liberal and accommodating. The maulvis and mullahs or other demagogues are there. But they do not disturb the rhythm of life which is pluralistic.
Text books in Bangladesh teach history. They do not distort it or preach enmity as the books in Pakistan do. Hindu is not considered an enemy in Bangladesh. Even the liberation war 1971 has been told in a historical perspective without chauvinism and vengeful note. Bengali, the national language which was sought to be replaced by Islamabad with Urdu and ultimately led to the secession of East Pakistan, has given birth to a different culture, tethered to Islam but not to parochialism. Urdu does not figure anywhere, not even taught in schools. Sign boards are mostly in English and at very few places in both the languages.
Dance, music and art are galloping freely. They do not have to conform to a particular way or style. It is an art for the sake of art. Rabindranath Tagore is as much popular and loved as Qazi Nazarul Islam, the poet laureate of Bangladesh. Kathak and Odissi, the two types of dance in Bangladesh, are not discouraged because they have the Hindu orientation. Nothing in dance or music is banned so long as they are in realm of art. Women wear no hijab and very few men keep long beards. And there is no law of blasphemy, not even a murmur of demand.
Pakistan has many liberals. But they are afraid to speak out and be counted. The assassination of Punjab governor Salman Taseer and Cultural Minister Shahbaz Bhatti has muffled the voice of critics. Hafiz Syeed, leader of Lashkar-e-Toiba, talking in terms of jihad against India makes news. A person like him does not cause even a ripple in Bangladesh. The Jamiat-i-Islami here tries to muddy the water of secularism but without much effect.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has many negative traits. But her relentless fight against communal forces is her positive contribution to the ethos of Bangladesh. The government, unlike at Islamabad, shows no quarters to religious forces meddling in the affairs of the state or society. Founder of Pakistan Qauid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah had also advised the Pakistanis to adopt a similar path. But his untimely death changed the course.
Yet the return of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), headed by Khalida Zia, can change the atmosphere. By playing the Islamic card she has made a difference in the past. It may happen again if she assumes power. But the country would not be going back to square one. The Bangladesh society cannot be changed by the fundamentalists, waiting in the wings. The Jamiat elements may come to the fore. Liberalism may get battered but it will stay. I feel the society is vertically divided into two parts, one pro-liberation and the other prone to religious propaganda. Liberalism will triumph ultimately.
Terrorists have no direct or indirect support from the government, something which I cannot say for certain after my recent visit to Pakistan. But then East Pakistan was always more liberal than West Pakistan and was even considered close to Hindus. A Bangladeshi intellectual explained to me how their separation from Pakistan took away from that society liberalism and the sense of accommodation, leaving the country to wallow in extremism and prejudice.
Bangladesh founder Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman told me in 1972, when I interviewed him at Dhaka: “All along Pakistan has preached four things: one, Islam is in danger; two, the Hindu is kaafir; three, India is the enemy; and four, Kashmir must be conquered. The Pakistanis have been fed on this propaganda for the last many years. The hate campaign unleashed in that country is even against the tenets of Islam. Unless there is a change in the mentality of the people of Pakistan they cannot get out of their make-believe world.”
Yet I found a streak of sympathy for Pakistan. Many used the word, ‘pity’. I believe that an overwhelming majority in Bangladesh feels that the Pakistanis face a situation which requires understanding and help. Bangladesh has neither forgotten not forgiven the atrocities committed against their nationals in 1971. But that does not stop some nostalgically recalling the period when the two lived together. The younger generation is indifferent, like the youth in India towards Pakistan.
What Islamabad does or does not has little effect on relations between India and Bangladesh. New Delhi is responsible for it. Dhaka has practically done everything which the accord between the two countries laid down. It has given the transit facilities to enable northeastern states to have better and quicker connectivity with the rest of India. Yet the much-publicised loan of $1 billion has not come through.
Indian officials blame the Bangladesh government for not providing the Detailed Project Reports (DPRs) which the banks demand before releasing loan. I have been assured that the DPRs have reached India and that the loan will be released within the next few days.
However, the better news for Bangladesh would be free trade. I have never been able to understand why New Delhi drags its feet when it comes to trade with Bangladesh or, for that matter, Pakistan. Duty free trade with them would make little difference to the imports worth billions of dollars. The two countries can gain from the huge market India has. This would create vested interests in Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Sheikh Hasina is anxiously awaiting the visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The signing of Teesta River agreement is expected. But more than that Hasina hopes to shore up her sagging popularity through the agreement and other goodies. I hope she turns out to be correct. But my experience is that India is too squeamish when it comes to dealing with the neighbouring countries. New Delhi is yet to learn the art of diplomacy.