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Pakistan still remorseless

Syed Badrul Ahsan | December 16, 2021 00:00:00

As the Bengali nation rounds off fifty years of the existence of a sovereign Bangladesh, it is time to travel back to 1971, the better to analyse the wrong steps taken by the Yahya Khan junta and its friends throughout that year. History is observed in dispassionate form when seen at a distance of time. A half century after General AAK Niazi affixed his signature to the document of surrender on 16 December, thereby officially certifying the end of Pakistan in our part of the world, the people of Pakistan will have a good number of reasons to mourn the tragedy that overcame them in the aftermath of battlefield defeat. For the people of Bangladesh, of course, the sentiments are and have naturally been different. Having paid a terrible price in terms of the lives lost and the wholesale devastation wrought all over the land in the course of the war, they will relive those moments in the lead-up to Victory Day. For Bangladesh's people, the afternoon of 16 December 1971 remains a clear instance of poetic justice having come into play.

For Pakistanis, those who were witnesses to the war and those who were born after the liberation of Bangladesh, it is an objective assessment of history they need to engage in. In these past many years, much of the discussion on 1971 in Pakistan, especially in its media, has largely focused on such subjects as the 'secession' of East Pakistan and the Indian role in the break-up of the country. It has been men like Pervez Hoodbhoy, however, who have bravely told audiences in Karachi and elsewhere of the blunders the Pakistan army committed in Bangladesh in 1971. Writers like Tariq Ali, based in Britain, have of course, written consistently of the ailments Pakistan has always suffered from, particularly under its successive military regimes. Poet-cum-writer Ahmad Salim and a few others offered their apologies to Bangladesh's people for the sufferings visited on them per courtesy of their army. Politicians such as Air Marshal Asghar Khan and Khan Abdul Wali Khan, both of whom are now deceased, did not hold themselves back in their condemnation of the Yahya Khan junta's campaign of mass murder in Bangladesh.

And yet, despite the historical truth espoused by such men in Pakistan, the reality of what happened in 1971 and why it happened has largely remained under the wraps in Pakistan. Almost every discussion of the Bangladesh crisis has carefully stayed away from any reference to the role played by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in its making. That the chairman of a party which obtained second position at the general election of December 1970 precipitated the crisis by his refusal to attend the session of the National Assembly, called for 1 March 1971 in Dhaka, has carefully been papered over. And the resultant narrative dominating Pakistan on the 1971 circumstances has remained focused, misleadingly, on the 'conspiracy' by the Indians and Bengali 'secessionist' politicians to bring about the break-up of Pakistan. A few years ago, anchoring a discussion on a Pakistani television channel, Hamid Mir referred to the guerrilla activities of the Mukti Bahini as the earliest instance of cross-border terrorism in the subcontinent. That was untruth at its ugliest.

The failure of successive governments in Pakistan to highlight the realities pertaining to 1971 have had a deleterious effect on the generations of Pakistanis born after the war. Not many years ago, the Nawaz Sharif government muddied matters a little more when its interior minister tabled a resolution --- which was subsequently adopted --- in the National Assembly condemning the trials and executions in Dhaka of Bengali collaborators of the Pakistan occupation army over their role in 1971. The Pakistani movewas uncalled for. It not only led to a further decline in relations between Dhaka and Islamabad but also shut the door to Pakistanis' understanding of a conflict which led to the inevitable rise of Bangladesh. Within the precincts of the Pakistani parliament, a so-called corridor of democracy notes the times, in chronological order, of the many stages of history Pakistan has passed through since the adoption of the Lahore Resolution in March 1940. Four spots on the wall --- 1958, 1969, 1977, 1999 --- are happily marked out as dark periods for the country, obviously since they refer to the four military take-overs of the country. Curiously, though, the entry for 1970, while noting that Pakistan held its first general election, makes no mention of the results of the election. For 1971, a simple note is made of an elected government taking charge of the country. No mention is there of the war, no reference underlines the fact of East Pakistan reinventing itself as the sovereign republic of Bangladesh.

History is poorly served, indeed is undermined, when truth is carefully filtered out of it and put aside, with only the chaff offered to societies. The government of ZA Bhutto, having authorized a study under Justice Hamoodur Rahman of the conditions which led to Pakistan's collapse in Bangladesh, swiftly saw to it that once the report was prepared, it was immediately suppressed. Barring a few details publicized by an Indian journal quite some years ago, the entirety of the Hamoodur Rahman Commission Report has never been seen by anyone in Pakistan or elsewhere. There is reason to believe that the report was shredded and consigned to the flames, literally and metaphorically. It is not difficult to guess that the report contained details of the role played by Bhutto and the atrocities committed by the army. Making it disappear was a regrettable attempt at suppressing the truth before Pakistanis about the crisis leading to the birth of Bangladesh. Besides, in these fifty years, the Pakistani authorities have kept their silence on the trial before a military tribunal of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. It will not be wide of the mark to draw the conclusion that all documents regarding the trial may have been destroyed. Bangabandhu refused to accept the legitimacy of the tribunal, which is as good as saying that the proceedings of the trial were an obvious sham.

For Pakistan's people, those who were around in 1971 but especially for those who were too young to understand the situation or were born after the war, the pages of history should open to that chapter in Pakistan's history. That the Awami League, having won the general election in 1970, could not form Pakistan's very first elected government in Islamabad owing to the machinations of the army and the Pakistan People's Party, that between March and December 1971 the Pakistan army committed genocide in Bangladesh, that three million Bengalis were murdered by the soldiers, that tens of thousands of Bengali women were raped by them, that ten million Bengalis sought sanctuary in India, that a Bengali wartime government successfully conducted a War of Liberation are truths which should fill the blank pages of Pakistan's history.

Pakistan, in its own interest and in the interest of good, productive ties with the people of Bangladesh, needs closure on 1971. Silence on history keeps nations rooted to the past and blocks the passage to the future. The civil-military bureaucracy in Pakistan could break that silence, for the people of Pakistan, by calling forth the boldness and the wisdom of formally apologizing to the people of Bangladesh for the genocide committed by Pakistan's soldiers between March and December 1971. Fifty years of silence tells on the health of a country.

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