Pakistan – Bangladesh: Imran Khan & Hasina Wajid re-building bridges

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By Rafiuzzaman Siddiqui :-

Upon joining the Foreign Service of Pakistan in 1986, the first marching orders for my overseas posting I received in 1991 directed me to report for duty at Dhaka. However, as luck would have it, the posting plan changed, and I was sent packing to Jeddah.

Though, Dhaka did not budge. It lay in calm and dormancy in some corner of my career plan for a couple of years until it pounced back in Madrid, my second posting abroad. I tried my tad bit to wriggle out of Dhaka but in vain. I was firmly in its snug grip this time.

October 2002, I landed in Dhaka with a heavy heart. The airport with hundreds and thousands of people peering through the glass panes into the arrival lounge and passengers strutting around with uncountable pieces of luggage, especially blankets appeared a familiar sight witnessed at Pakistan’s international airport too. However, it presented the scene of utter commotion.

Drive from airport to Gulshan-2 through chaotic traffic snarls seemed never-ending with every mode of vehicle plying on the roads. Cycle-rickshaws in multitudes are always the first to attract the attention of the first comers to Bangladesh.

The city presented the scene of riot and roar, rumble and grumble, boisterous and bumpy. The initial hours in Dhaka were enough to put some sort of fear in managing the crowded metropolis.

Nevertheless, after few weeks of settling down in a beautiful apartment in Gulshan-2, enjoying the work at the High Commission, making friends in the diplomatic corps and striking friendships with the locals made me feel very much a part of Dhaka. Meeting Runa Laila, Shabnam and Robin Ghosh was unquestionably the reward of posting to Dhaka. And then making friends with them which last to this day was no less a godsend boon.

Dhaka proved a treasure trove of my myriad likings. My appetite for music, art, poetry, dance, theatre etc. which are ingrained in Bangla culture helped me nurture and catapult my taste to a higher level.

My penchant for Bangla music induced me to hire a music tutor and learn Bangla music. Notwithstanding the croaky vocals, I would not shy away from crooning old Bangla songs enmeshed with Pakistani ones at every party thus earning a surfeit of goodwill for Pakistan from my Bangladeshi friends.

High regard for Bengali art also did not deter me to happily blow up part of my savings on collecting some beautiful artwork by the Bengali artistes, particularly Jamal and Kanak Champa

The bilateral relations between our two countries during my first posting as Counsellor in the High Commission remained on an even keel. Irritants which are responsible for creating some reticence between Islamabad and Dhaka were usually shoved under the carpet and were raised only perfunctorily.

Nonetheless, my last and second posting as High Commissioner to Bangladesh came with some challenges. In my capacity as Head of the Mission, it remained my endeavour to bring some semblance of normalcy in our relations with Bangladesh. With limited access to the higher authorities, I mention with a deep sense of gratitude that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina welcomed me with great warmth and open handedness.

Prime Minister’s protective demeanour at the meeting made me feel very comfortable to bring to her attention the challenges which our High Commission officers encounter while discharging their diplomatic duties. Her patient hearing and promise to look into our grievances made me return from the meeting with a bag full of hopes.

During my second stint as High Commissioner, on Bangabandhu Memorial Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s 42nd death anniversary, I laid a floral wreath at Bangabandhu Memorial Museum and offered fateha. And this was done with the full support of my government in Islamabad. The purpose of the visit was to express Pakistan’s solidarity with Bangladesh and its leadership especially with Bangabandhu’s daughter, the Prime Minister.

The gesture went down extremely well with the Bangladeshi authorities and public. Advisor to the Prime Minister on International Affairs, Gowher Rizvi and some senior officials of Bangladeshi Foreign Office called and expressed their happiness over my visit to the Memorial. Some quarters of course took it with a pinch of salt and censured my visit.

I must acknowledge, PM’s affable and highly able Advisor Gowher Rizvi was always there to help me navigate through choppy waters, whenever I ran into some difficulty. He was indeed a huge pillar for me in Dhaka. Besides PM’s late Military Secretary, a soft and a suave Brigadier was another official, I found him to be more than cooperative. I remain indebted to him for opening the doors of Gana Bhaban for me.

However, on our national day on 23 March 2017 , held at Hotel Le Meridien many Bangladeshi invitees beyond our expectations, turned up to attend the reception. Generally, heads of mission along with the chief guest make remarks on the occasion, however, keeping in view our estranged bilateral relations and in order not to embarrass our host government, we decided to do away with the practice.

To my pleasant surprise – as I was receiving guests in the reception line our Deputy at the High Commission Samina Mehtab whisperingly informed – State Minister for Foreign Affairs Shaharyar Alam would be the chief guest and would make a statement expecting me to precede him as well.

Caught off-guard with the pleasing development, I spoke for about five to seven minutes extempore. In my brief statement , I highlighted my deep familial association with Bangladesh since my grandfather Chaudhry Khaliquzzaman , holding the highest political office as the Governor of the erstwhile East Pakistan and my uncle Zubair Kidwai’s posting as SDM in some districts of the then East Pakistan.

Lauding Bangladesh’s economic progress and its unrelenting efforts to come out of the LDC status, concomitantly appreciating women empowerment in Bangladesh, I laid accent that our region may learn a lesson or two from Bangladesh. I briefly spoke of commonalities that exist between our two countries that may be explored in bringing the two distant neighbours closer.

The minister profusely happy with my remarks, in his statement touched upon the issues where Islamabad and Dhaka enjoy similar points of view on multitude of international and regional issues and can work together in various social and economic fields to the betterment of the two peoples of Pakistan and Bangladesh.

My remarks left a deep impact on the audience. The Minister along with host of Bangladeshi guests congratulated me warmly. Many heads of mission especially Saudi Arabia and the United States probably went overboard in averring that ‘High Commissioner you have won the hearts of Bangladeshis today.’

Following recent diplomatic developments in the wake of Bangladesh’s Independence Golden Jubilee, Mujib Year and our National Day, all three taking place in the same month; I only see a bright ray of optimism in the horizon.

The recent exchange of warm felicitation messages between our two Prime Ministers; our respective national occasions have come as a glad tiding, churning hopes that if sincere efforts are made from both sides, there is no reason to expect a turnaround in our relations with Bangladesh.

On one hand, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s rather long epistle inviting the Bangladeshi Prime Minister to visit Pakistan has arguably built up hopes of rapprochement.

While on the other, Prime Minister Hasina being a seasoned, astute and the senior most political leader of the region may consider accepting the invitation, thus turning a new chapter in our relations with Bangladesh.

PM Hasina’s warm words in her message to PM Imran Khan, jointly allows us to dream big.

The writer is former Pakistan High Commissioner to Bangladesh