By Javed Jabbar
December 16, 2011
Beginning with 1971, on every Dec 16 a wound reopens in the psyche of Pakistan and causes piercing pain. Forty years ago on this day, a unique vision for a nation-state became a traumatic vivisection. East Pakistan seceded – with decisive Indian help – to become Bangladesh.
Even as remembrance brings grief and the conditions in today’s Pakistan demand renewal rather than regression, the need to revisit some aspects of 1971 remains critical.
Some elements which comprise the catastrophic failures of both the political and military leaderships after the polls of December 1970 in West and in East Pakistan are established truths that require no revision One of the major facets that deserves reappraisal is the charge of genocide allegedly conducted by the armed forces of Pakistan, by Biharis and West Pakistanis seeking to exterminate the Bengali people of Bangladesh, particularly the Hindu population and supporters of the Awami League. Over the past 40 years this accusation has been repeated so often in Bangladesh and India and in Western discourse that it has come to be accepted as truth.
Specifically, it is claimed that in the period between March 16 and Dec 16, 1971, about three 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 – 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 number of casualties. (The 90,000 Pakistani prisoners-of-war included over 50,000 civilians.) According to this fabricated story, in only about 262 days, on every single day, over 11,000 people were killed and over 1,000 women were raped.
This bizarre fantasy has become a calumny which maligns both the people and the state of Pakistan, as well as the country’s 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 by Pakistanis. Leading journals, newspapers and favourably reviewed books around the world repeat the charge of genocide ad nauseam.
In some instances, in those nine months, some sections of Pakistan’s armed forces did commit atrocities. These include the attack on Jagannath Hall in Dhaka University on March 25, and subsequently in the villages and areas of Shankaripura, Jinjira, Tangail, Thanapara, Chuknagar and Boriotola. There was also the inexplicable murder of intellectuals on Dec 15 in Dhaka, apparently by pro-Pakistani militias.
In cruel counterpoint, mass killings of West Pakistanis and Biharis took place in Joydevpur/Gazipur, twice (1971 and 1972) in Khulna Jute Mills, Mymensingh, Santahar and Kushtia. Hundreds of West Pakistani 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 mutual apologies, 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 the gesture will be reciprocated.
To revisit this facet is not to morbidly dig up graves and play a perverse blame game of numbers. There is 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, although 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 element of 1971, the book Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War by Indian Hindu Bengali writer Sarmila Bose, a senior research fellow at Oxford University, represents the most carefully researched, unusually balanced and searingly evocative analysis of this tragedy. (Oxford University Press, 2011.) Here are just two excerpts.
“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 judgement, 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 176)
“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.’ “(Page 182)
To reach the ideal of a jointly-written history of 1971 someday, sustained 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. Website: www.javedjabbar.com
Source: The News, Islamabad