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The Way Forward

Laying the ghost of the erroneous past to eternal rest, Bangladesh and Pakistan need to come to terms with new realpolitik realities of regional and international relations.

By Mehjabin Bhanu | March 2022

Despite sharing the same religion, history and socio-economic challenges, the bilateral relations between Pakistan and Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, have often been on a descending spiral since the making of Bangladesh as an independent nation.

In broad terms, there are two primary reasons behind largely bruised and battered relations between both nations even after five decades of the blood-spattered war that led to the separation of East Pakistan from West Pakistan in December, 1971. First and foremost, the most painful memories of 1971 are still quite fresh for the people of both countries. Secondly, Bangladesh has been demanding an official apology from Pakistan for the events unfolded in a nine-month period in 1971.

Since quite a bit of water has gone down the Buriganga and Indus rivers, Bangladesh and Pakistan need to rise to the occasion by coming to terms with new realities as well as evolving regional dynamics. To move forward from the past, both nations should resolve their problems and be sensitive to each other’s concerns and expectations.

For the last two years, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and his government have been trying to strengthen Pakistan's bilateral relations with Bangladesh as both countries could gain economically through improved trade and investment. In a similar vein, the young generations of both countries are keen to come closer by forging stronger ties between these two Muslim-majority countries of the region.

Pakistan's exports to Bangladesh in 2019 stood at USD 736 million, while Bangladesh's exports to Pakistan were only 44 million, says the report released by the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP). This suggests there is immense potential for bilateral economic and trade cooperation, which could be significantly enhanced by addressing the trade imbalance between the two countries.

Prospects and Challenges

Given the bitter history that Pakistan and Bangladesh share, forging closer ties between the two nations would be anything but easy. More recently, their relations hit a historic low when Bangladesh executed several leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami of Bangladesh chapter for their alleged participation in the 1971 war crimes in former East Pakistan. The move was strongly condemned by the Pakistani Parliament and the executions were labelled as a politically motivated action. Dhaka implied this as an interference in the internal matters of Bangladesh. As a corollary, the relations between the two countries deteriorated further to the extent that both countries expelled each others' diplomats from their embassies.

Despite past acrimony and intricate challenges, it is encouraging to see that bilateral trade between Pakistan and Bangladesh is growing. According to the SBP reports, Pakistan’s trade with Bangladesh witnessed an increase of 46.65 per cent during the first six months of the financial year (2021-22), compared to the corresponding period last year. The overall exports to Bangladesh from Pakistan were recorded at $399.408 million during July-December against exports of $274.246 million during the same period last year, showing a growth of 45.63 percent, Meanwhile, on a year-on-year basis, during December 2021, exports to Bangladesh from Pakistan increased 52.01 percent, from $54.433 million to $82.746 million. Similarly, on a month-on-month basis, imports rose by 14.38 percent during December 2021 in comparison with exports of $72.339 million in November 2021.

This validates the fact that Bangladesh and Pakistan can greatly benefit from growing trade ties and they must ink a free trade agreement to boost up the trade volume between both countries.

In today's globalized world ruled by international economic integration and free trade, countries tend to leave politics behind and focus on fostering closer economic and trade ties with other nations. Special economic zones and alliances are also formed to reap benefits from trade exchange and joint industrial and service projects.

The Way Forward

Since Imran Khan became the Prime Minister of Pakistan in 2018, things have started to improve significantly. Laying the ghost of the past to rest, his phone call to the Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajid in December 2020 corroborated the fact that Pakistan is ready for a change. Taking a step forward, Imran Khan also invited the Bangladeshi premier to visit Islamabad. In August 2021, Bangladesh Prime Minister reciprocated the good-will gesture through 'Mango Diplomacy,' by sending a gift of basket, comprising Bangladesh’s well-famed mangoes, to Prime Minister Imran Khan.

After this, the Pakistani envoy to Bangladesh met with Bangladesh PM Hasina Wajid in October 2021. During the meeting, PM Hasina Wajid expressed her desire to strengthen bilateral trade ties with Pakistan. Indeed, those were some positive indications of ice melting from both sides and such efforts must be continued in the future as well. This exhibits the fact that Pakistan and Bangladesh are warming up to each other and this is realpolitik.

Bangladesh should utilise Pakistan’s seaports and at the same time, Pakistan may benefit from  Bangladesh’s emerging consumer market and more importantly, it may access the landlocked markets of Nepal, Bhutan, and the Southeast Asia region via Bangladesh.

In essence, Bangladesh and Pakistan, which together make up five percent of the world’s total population, must realize the ground realities, reduce tensions and capitalize on every available opportunity to come closer through people-to-people contact and by forming stronger economic, political and cultural ties for the greater benefits of the people of both countries.


The writer Mehjabin Bhanu, based in Rajshahi in Bangladesh, is a schoolteacher. She is also a social worker and holds Honors and Masters in Political Science from the University of Rajshahi. She can be reached at mehjabinbhanu1579@gmail.com

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