In March, Bangladeshi restaurateur Jamil Hossain dined out at a Pakistani eatery in the Sydney suburb of Lakemba. Red Chilli restaurant specialises in the slow-baked chicken of the tandoor oven, perfected in the region of North India and Pakistan. Jamil was celebrating the independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan in the civil war of 1971 and was accompanied by three friends.

But the night ended badly. Jamil was stabbed in the palm with a skewer by Red Chilli’s owner, allegedly for questioning the delay of an hour for the food order, which he recounted to Fairfax as: “Eight naan, two roti, a vegetable dish, a lamb and chicken curry and a beef vindaloo.”

A Pakistani restaurant seemed an unusual choice to celebrate the night, a little like the English dining out on sauerkraut and bratwurst sausages to commemorate the end of World War II. Several Bangladeshi sources familiar with the diners have suggested the fracas erupted when some light-hearted baiting of the owner about the independence war was not taken so lightly. The proprietor of the restaurant declined to comment about any other triggers to the suburban skewering.

While the tragi-comic incident appears innocuous, it is a local pointer to the ongoing tensions in the South Asian region, especially amongst and within the two countries that split from India during partition in 1947. This colonial split determined by a mathematician based in London continues to linger like a festering wound.

In spite of being geographically separated by the meandering mass of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh share a turbulent history marred by military coup, bloody turmoil and natural catastrophe.

Pakistan enters into a period of uncertainty post elections, with the power balance shared among several parties, including that of cricket superstar Imran Khan. Bangladesh has elections due at the end of the year, currently preceded by unceasing opposition protest demanding a caretaker government.

Pakistan has managed to elect a clear leader, industrialist turn politician Nawaz Sharif, who has made a comeback after fleeing in the 1990s to Saudi Arabia in exile. The election itself was tarnished by violence, kidnappings and promises of airports to rural villagers who could not afford bicycles.

Sharif is relatively unique in South Asian politics in that he was already rich before he took office, although became exponentially richer after his time in power. A running joke among development economists is that a key difference between developing and developed countries can be garnered by the types of people who run — candidates in the developed word tend to get rich first and then seek to enter office; in the developing world candidates run for politics in order to get rich.

Based on this theory and the antics of Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald, New South Wales may qualify as a Third World outpost.

Meanwhile, Bangladesh, formerly known as East Pakistan, has undergone one of its most tumultuous years in its 42-year history. Having begun the year suffering unprecedented protests amid war crime trials of Islamists accused of supporting the Pakistanis during the independence war, the country has suffered the worst accident in the history of manufacturing and has been peppered by unusual reprisal protests by Islamists from the country’s port city of Chittagong, demanding anti-blasphemy laws and gender separation.

“Pakistan and Bangladesh are closely intertwined by a shared religion, history and an identity partially built in opposition towards mighty neighbour India.”

Greg Wilcock became Australia’s High Commissioner to Bangladesh late last year and has been exposed to more excitement than he bargained for. He told me via email it’s “truly an overstimulating time to be here”. He says it’s high time Australia paid more attention, noting no foreign minister had visited for close to 15 years.

Late last year I was involved in a television story about shipbreaking in Bangladesh, the visually extraordinary industry that recycles the material of old ships to be used in everything from building construction to electricity wiring. Its slave labour, unsafe practices and light touch regulation bear much resemblance to the country’s garments industry now under the global spotlight.

I distinctly remember an image where a fleet of four-wheel drives whizzed by a dirt road, adjacent to a duck-filled pond where our crew was filming some shipbreakers bathing. Our fixer informed us the motorcade was transporting the mayor of port city Chittagong, accompanied by a general and a local plutocrat. Joint owners of the lucrative shipyard, they were engaged in crisis control after a worker was critically injured. The nexus of the military, politics and business was an illustration of the workings of power.

This shady but ubiquitous overlap is best recounted by former navy administrator Dr Ayeesha Siddiqui’s 2007 book Military Inc, which tackles the secretive $10 billion empire of Pakistan’s military leaders, ranging from cement to cornflakes.

This has particular significance given Pakistan and its secret service, ISI, is widely regarded to be the largest state sponsor of terrorism in the world through its funding of religious extremists. While no such account exists for Bangladesh, there are likely to be great similarities, given the defence forces of both countries have similar characteristics.

Pakistan and Bangladesh are closely intertwined by a shared religion, history and an identity partially built in opposition towards mighty neighbour India. While one’s organising principle is religion and the other language, both represent an important front in the struggle for secular humanism amid religious extremism. Representing 350 million people and the second and third most populous Muslim countries respectively, Australia’s interest in both has been lukewarm at best, overshadowed by its wooing of rising economic behemoth India.

Australia is among the region’s highest aid donors, spending just under $100 million in both countries, the second highest donor as a representative of gross domestic product. With the South Asian countries of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh representing the fastest growing region supplying migrants to our country, as measured by the last Census, the historical neglect may require review.

Peter Fray

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