At the stroke of midnight on August 1, an answer was finally found to a question that had remained hanging for the last 68 years. It was one of the more disquieting legacies of Partition. It remains to the credit of then Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman that they initialled a Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) between India and Bangladesh, a step intended to remove the faultlines created by Cyril Radcliffe in his haste to define the limits of the territories that would form independent India and Pakistan. It would not be until the emergence of Pakistan’s eastern province as the sovereign state of Bangladesh in 1971 that Radcliffe’s chaotic configuration of frontiers could be taken up for resolution.
More than 40 years after the signing of the LBA in 1974, it took the statesmanship of Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina to provide the final touches to the implementation of the deal, with the climactic moment finally reached between end-July and early-August. For the first time in seven decades, inhabitants of the 162 enclaves have the option of becoming citizens of either country. The happiness is palpable as these thousands of women and men finally shed their stateless status. The resolution once again brings up, in this month of painful memories, the need to recapitulate the disaster that was Partition.
In Bangladesh, as elsewhere, arguments have persisted about the cataclysm that descended on an undivided India as a consequence of the two-nation theory of M.A. Jinnah and his All-India Muslim League. That Jinnah’s approach was faulty — because he misconstrued religious denominations as nations — was borne out by the rebellion of the Bengalis of East Pakistan in 1971, an act of defiance in direct response to the organised carnage launched by the Pakistani army. But the gradual rejection of the Muslim state had begun in the 1960s, specifically through the “Six-Point” plan for regional autonomy for the constituent states of Pakistan propounded by Mujibur Rahman. In reality though, as Mujib himself was to say subsequently, the Six Points essentially led to a single point — independence for East Pakistan. And so it was that a Muslim East Pakistan decisively and progressively graduated to a secular Bangladesh. The murder of three million Bengalis and the rape of 3,00,000 Bengali women by the Pakistan army effectively led to the death of Muslim nationalism in Bangladesh.
Yet, the question remains whether the ramifications of communal politics are finally behind the people of South Asia. The vehemence with which Pakistan has conducted itself, especially in relation to India, has created conditions whereby its political class and military are trapped in a struggle against more sinister elements within their own country. Democratic institutions have not had an opportunity to dig roots in Pakistan, owing to the repeated capture of the state by its military. Has Bangladesh fared any better? The Bengali state that emerged out of the ashes of East Pakistan was expected to be everything that Pakistan was not. The dream of a democratic and pluralist polity was swiftly destroyed when soldiers murdered Mujib and most of his family in August 1975. That disaster was a road to regression. For 21 years, thanks to a notorious indemnity act decreed by the junta, Mujib’s murderers could not be brought to justice. In that period, death and mayhem recurred; a series of coups led to the rise and fall of successive military rulers.
Today, circumstances are different. Hasina’s government can lay claim to some significant achievements, in domestic politics and foreign policy. The enclave settlement is one. Then there are earlier successes, notably the Ganga water-sharing treaty with India in the late-1990s and the deal to end the insurgency in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Relations with India are comfortable. Even so, continued delay in resolving the Teesta waters issue can undermine this new spirit of bilateral cooperation. There are other reasons for concern. Islamists remain active, trying to undo Bangladesh’s secular political structure. The alarming drop in the Hindu population is a sign of what needs to be done to buttress secularism. Partition remains a ghostly presence amid Bengali statehood.
The writer is associate editor, ‘The Daily Observer’, Dhaka.
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