One Re-appraisal Required | The News

December 2011

Beginning with 1971, on every 16 December a wound in the psyche of Pakistan re-opens with piercing pain.  40 years ago on this day, a unique vision for a nation-State became a traumatic vivi-section.  East Pakistan seceded --- with decisive Indian help --- to become Bangladesh. Even as remembrance brings grief and conditions in today’s Pakistan demand renewal rather than regression, the need to re-visit some aspects of 1971 remains critical and unmet.  Some elements which comprise the catastrophic failures after the polls of December 1970 of both the political and military leaderships, in West and in East Pakistan are established truths that require no revision

One of the major facets that deserves re-appraisal is the charge of genocide allegedly conducted by the Armed Forces of Pakistan, by Biharis and other West Pakistanis
seeking to exterminate the Bengali people of Bangladesh including specially the Hindu population and supporters of the Awami League. Over the past 40 years this accusation has been so often repeated in Bangladesh, India and particularly in western discourse that it has come to be accepted as the truth.

 Specifically, it is claimed that in the period between 26th March 1971 and 16th December 1971, about 3 million people were killed and between 200,000 and 300,000 women were raped. No evidence has ever been offered as to how a mere 45,000 Pakistani troops (the 90,000 prisoners-of-war included over 50,000 civilians ) scattered in small formations across the province, dealing with a domestic insurgency, facing the prospect of an Indian invasion, short of supplies, without using any poison gas or weapons of mass destruction could achieve this incredibly high ignominy. According to this fabricated story, in only about 262 days, on every single day, over 11,000 people were killed and over 1000 women were raped.

This bizarre fantasy has become a calumny which maligns both the people and the state of Pakistan as well as its Armed Forces and the Bihari Pakistanis, tens of thousands of whom still languish in Dhaka as Pakistanis abandoned by their own country. The falsehood  is part of the  history of the liberation of Bangladesh fed into the minds of millions of young children in that country who grow up with the conviction that massive, merciless evil was perpetrated upon their previous generations  by Pakistanis. Leading journals, newspapers and favourably reviewed books around the world repeat genocide ad nauseum the charge of genocide.

In some instances in those 9 months, some sections of Pakistan's Armed Forces did commit atrocities. These include the attack on Jagannath Hall in Dhaka University on 25th March, and subsequently in the villages/locations of Shankaripura, Jinjira, Tangail, Thanapara, Chuknagar and Boriotola. There was also the inexplicable murder of intellectuals on 15 December in Dhaka apparently by pro-Pakistan militias.

 In cruel counter-point, mass killings of West Pakistanis and Biharis took place in Joydevpur/Gazipur, twice (1971 and 1972 ) in Khulna Jute Mills, Mymensingh, Santahar, Khushtia. Hundreds of West Pakistan Army officers, soldiers and families were killed by their Bengali colleagues during the mutinies. If the factually supported versions are noted, which estimate that the total number of persons of all categories and from all sides killed in the conflict were between 100,000 and 200,000, then it is likely that as many West Pakistanis and non-Bengalis perished in 1971 as did Bengalis.

If apologies are to be tendered, as they certainly should be, there are strong grounds for apologies to be exchanged, both ways ,if not simultaneously, then consecutively. Though Pakistan was fighting both a civil war and an external war, it should take the first step with the understanding that it will be reciprocated later.

To re-visit this facet is not to morbidly dig up graves and play a perverse numbers and blame game. There is a profound sacredness to every human life and to the dignity of every human body. To raise this is not to diminish our affection and respect for the people of Bangladesh, our very own brothers and sisters, alas now separated. It is to reiterate our shared reverence and search for  truth  and justice.

Of all the studies this writer has read about this facet of 1971, the book by an Indian Hindu Bengali, Ms Sarmila Bose, Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University titled ; "Dead Reckoning : Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War "   ( OUP, 2011 ) represents the most carefully researched, unusually balanced and searingly evocative analysis of this tragedy. Here are just two excerpts.

( page 176)
“There are reports that having publicly stated that three million Bengalis had been killed — on the basis of what he had apparently been ‘told’ after his release from imprisonment — Sheikh Mujib tried to establish the necessary evidence for it by setting up a committee of inquiry in January 1972.  No further information appears to be available on the work of the inquiry committee or its findings.  None of the popular assertions of three million Bengalis allegedly killed by the army cites any official report. In a report published in The Guardian entitled ‘The Missing Millions’ on 6 June 1972, William Drummond wrote, ‘This figure of three million deaths, which the Sheikh has repeated several times since he returned to Bangladesh in early January, has been carried uncritically in sections of the world press.  Through repetition such a claim gains a validity of its own and gradually evolves from assertion to fact needing no attribution. My judgment, based on numerous trips around Bangladesh and extensive discussions with many people at the village level as well as in the government, is that the three million deaths figure is an exaggeration so gross as to be absurd”.

( page 182)
“Yet many Hindus were also left unharmed by the Pakistan army during 1971.  As the witness accounts in Chapter 6 show, many Hindu refugees were leaving their villages and fleeing to India not because of any action of the army, but because they could no longer bear the persecution by their Bengali Muslim neighbours.  Much of the harassment of Hindus by their fellow-Bengalis appears to have been non-political, motivated by material greed.  The intimidations, killing and hounding out of Hindus— whether by the army or by Bengali Muslims—amounted to what has later come to be termed ‘ethnic cleansing”. To one day, hopefully, reach the elusive ideal of a jointly-written history of 1971, ustained new efforts are required to build a closer, more constructive, rational and evidence-based dialogue between Bangladesh and  Pakistan.

(The writer is a former Minister and Senator of Pakistan  and author of the book " Pakistan : unique origins ; unique destiny ?".)