Return to the popular history of the 1971 India-Pakistan war
Bengali freedom fighters capture an informer in Jessore, East Pakistan, 1971 (Photo: Getty Images)
SAQOOT-E-DHAKA, dismemberment of Pakistan or Fall of Dhaka is how the 1971 War—which led to the separation of East and West Pakistan and the birth of Bangladesh—is commonly referred to in Pakistan. Growing up in the city of Lahore, I only came across these references occasionally, in textbooks, on TV or in a passing conversation. Compared with the 1947 Partition, 1971 is seldom discussed in mainstream discourse. When it is, it is often viewed through the prism of the historic Indo-Pak conflict. For most Pakistanis, and for many Indians, 1971 marks the third Indo-Pak War. While in Pakistan it is registered as a painful loss at the hands of its arch nemesis, in India the war is remembered as a victory over its enemy. Between the grand tales of triumph and defeat, the struggles of erstwhile East Pakistanis are often sidelined. Like other conflicts in the region, this one too is cast under the shadows of Indo-Pak bilateral politics.
In official Pakistani memory, 1971 is selectively remembered. There isn’t a blanket denial of events. Instead, awkward pauses and silences mar the memory of the 24 years in which East and West Pakistan coexisted, with uncomfortable truths circumvented, if not distorted. Events of the nine-month long war are also selectively mined and presented, creating a distinct national narrative on the birth of Bangladesh in the collective imagination of Pakistan. Most government-endorsed school textbooks and state-backed museum exhibits focus on India’s role in ‘breaking up’ Pakistan, with little attention paid to the economic, social, cultural and political grievances of East Pakistanis. The hegemony of West Pakistan over East Pakistan, the demeaning attitude towards Bengali culture and traditions, the economic deprivation of the East Wing and the eventual violence unleashed on East Pakistanis is largely ignored in official discourse. If it does appear, it remains on the margins of the ‘main cause’ for separation, that is, Indian intervention. The predominant emphasis is on India and India-influenced Hindu Bengalis’ strategies for ‘dismemberment’ of the nation. For instance, a Grade 9 and 10 Pakistan Studies textbook, a compulsory subject here, of the Federal Textbook Board, states: ‘The Indian leadership in general did not agree with the idea of creating a separate homeland for the Muslims. When Pakistan was created to their entire displeasure, they started working on the agenda of dismembering it without delay. East Pakistan’s soil proved very fertile for them for several reasons… the province had a very big Hindu population, which… had deep pro-India sympathies… in many schools, colleges and universities Hindu teachers outnumbered Muslim teachers. These institutions with the passage of time virtually turned into nurseries for breeding anti-Pakistan and secessionist intelligentsia.’
The demand for Bengali to be recognised as a state language, a major point of contention between the two wings, finds mention but only as a last point in this section. It is presented almost as an afterthought, and then too without any engagement with why the demand was so pertinent for many. That Bengali was spoken by more than 50 per cent of the population is not deemed relevant to mention. It is perhaps then no wonder that in my interactions with schoolchildren in Pakistan, a student complained: ‘[Separation] was the Bengalis fault… why didn’t they learn Urdu? Why did we have to learn Bengali?’ A cause that Bengali students died fighting for in East Pakistan as the Language Movement intensified in the early years after Partition finds little space in official memory, slowly leaving its residue on intergenerational memory too. The next few pages of the textbook centre primarily on India’s role as well or pause to emphasise the ‘ruthless slaughter’ of non-Bengalis, particularly the Urdu-speaking community and West Pakistanis residing in East Pakistan prior to or during the war.
A cause that Bengali students died fighting for in East Pakistan as the Language Movement intensified in the early years after Partition finds little space today in Pakistan’s official memory, slowly leaving its residue on intergenerational memory too
India certainly played a critical part in the birth of Bangladesh. It was not only millions of refugees who sought shelter in bordering states as they fled violence in East Pakistan; there is significant scholarship on the ways in which the Indian state lent support to those fighting against the Pakistani state long before the open war of December 1971. Any discussion on the fateful year would thus make mention of India’s position in the war. It is also undeniable that many non-Bengalis were targeted, raped and killed. There are horrific stories of the violence, bloodshed and trauma they endured and many of them continue to live with those scars in present-day Bangladesh and Pakistan. Violence against them must not be ignored or belittled. However, that textbooks focus on this violence and on India’s role without making mention of other realities means that certain aspects of the past are accentuated while others are dismissed altogether. It also means that certain atrocities—those against non-Bengalis—are appropriated as national truths while other violence, which does not fit the national agenda, is omitted. That there is either no mention or negligible mention of the atrocities against Bengalis and that there isn’t any sufficient insight into the excesses of the military operation in many of the state-backed textbooks mean that younger generations only receive a fabricated, butchered and myopic view of the past, learning to point fingers towards India with little reflection on Pakistan’s own role. Though figures remain contested, it is estimated that anywhere between 300,000 to 3 million people were killed during the war by the Pakistan Army and its collaborators. Countless survivors and families of those whose loved ones were murdered or raped with the state apparatus backing the perpetrators continue to await justice. The fact that apart from a few Pakistani leaders alluding towards it, there has been no acknowledgement of the scale of violence against Bengalis has only deepened the wounds.
This blamegame between India and Pakistan is not restricted to the past or to textbooks. The Army Museum in Lahore, inaugurated in 2016, has a gallery dedicated to 1971. Here too, India’s role foreshadows the exhibit. An introductory panel reads: ‘The humiliating defeat in 1965 War affected a change in India’s Pakistan strategy, which essentially evolved around a three-pronged offensive on ideological, economic and military fronts. When the strategy did not succeed, Indian government resorted to state sponsoring of terrorism inside East Pakistan through the creation of various terrorist organizations like Mukti Bahini, etc., and infiltrating the political set-up in order to exploit the internal socio-political weaknesses….’
The blamegame between India and Pakistan is not restricted to the past or to textbooks. The Army Museum in Lahore, inaugurated in 2016, has a gallery dedicated to 1971. Here too, India’s role foreshadows the exhibit
No details are provided as to what these internal weaknesses or fissures may be. A few steps ahead, another panel is titled ‘India’s State Sponsoring of Terrorism’. It bears photographs of deadly violence and details the Indian strategy of terrorism. The use of this label in the museum and the reference to India as a state sponsoring terrorism cannot be seen in vacuum, devoid of its historical and political context. Since 1989, when the Kashmir insurgency gained momentum, India has accused Pakistan of fuelling terrorism, asking the international community to take notice of the Pakistani state’s harbouring of terror outfits. It has insisted that Pakistan backs militant groups fighting the Indian state in Kashmir. There are several parallels between India’s narrative on Kashmir and Pakistan’s on 1971. A closer look reveals similar strategies as well. Just as Pakistan accused India of sponsoring the Mukti Bahini, providing arms and training ground to those fighting the state, India accuses Pakistan of training and launching Kashmiri militants across the Line of Control. In his book, The Blood Telegram: India’s Secret War in East Pakistan, Gary J Bass observes this kind of covert sponsorship by Pakistan has come from India’s own playbook for the Mukti Bahini. Both states seem to have mirrored each other’s policies, carefully reading local sensitivities and forging relations with those fighting the enemy state. In the process, however, genuine grievances and aspirations of people come to be sidelined. The struggle for rights and emancipation is tainted as enemy-sponsored, the people and their liberties clamped down upon in the name of ‘security’ from the terrorist lurking across the border. Indigenous voices are silenced, with the conflict treated as another bilateral affair between the two historic foes.
In such a scenario what role can people’s history play in challenging state discourse? Do personal memories conform to official memories or can they respond to and resist the narratives institutionalised by the state? Can people’s experiences offer a different understanding of the past than the linear and black-and-white versions promoted by the state? In my experience of working with Partition survivors and more recently with people who survived 1971 in Pakistan, I have found that state narratives can often impact personal memories. Memory after all is malleable, shaped many times by events that take place after the event being discussed. This is not to say that personal memories are entirely tainted or distorted but to recognise that metanarratives and national ‘truths’ constantly repeated through educational syllabi, media, museums and other sites have an impact on how people remember and retell the past.
In the case of 1971, this issue was also compounded by the geographical distance between East and West Pakistan. I found many people, especially in Punjab where I grew up, still unaware of what had pushed East Pakistanis to ask for independence. They told me the war and the eventual surrender by the Pakistan Army in December 1971 came as an utter surprise to them. The state machinery had convinced many people that a few anti-state, pro-India elements were creating trouble and the army had everything under their control. Several of the people I spoke to did not have personal connections or relationships with those in the Eastern Wing. The narrative that the atrocities Pakistan was being accused of were part of Indian propaganda became easily digestible. Many people’s personal memories today thus align closely with state narratives for the role the latter has played in shaping them, especially in the absence of interaction with the ‘other’, that is, the erstwhile East Pakistani. For others, from the Urdu-speaking communities or those who had family members living in East Pakistan who suffered violence at the hands of Bengalis, the Pakistani emphasis on this bloodshed of course also speaks to personal experiences and truths.
However, when one begins to peel through official memory and layers of personal memories, it becomes evident that there are also other stories, other memories and other experiences which continue to exist in Pakistan, even close to 50 years after the war. These narratives can offer another telling of events, punctuating official narratives. Though a significant focus of my research for my latest book, 1971: A People’s History from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, centred on interviewing people in Bangladesh to hear and document stories that one often does not get to hear sitting in Pakistan, I also interviewed Pakistanis to explore the ways in which they remember 1971. From my conversations with teachers, prisoners of war, army officers, activists and others, varied narratives emerged, many times diverging from the state’s portrayal.
Though figures remain contested, it is estimated that anywhere between 300,000 to 3 million people were killed during the war by the Pakistan Army and its collaborators
For instance, Pakistanis who had lived in East Pakistan and had Bengali friends revealed a far more nuanced understanding of the ‘other’ than that projected by the state. One of the people I interviewed in Karachi, who as a young man had worked in the tea gardens of Sylhet, spoke of his fond memories living amongst Bengalis, of their warmth and hospitality, of their kind and helpful nature. In 1971, when tensions between Bengalis and non-Bengalis escalated and he was picked up by the Mukti Bahini, he would share that it were Bengalis that rescued him. “What I’m trying to tell you is that if you were good in your relations with Bengalis, they were good to you. They saved my life. They were good people,” he insisted during our conversation. Interviews with other Pakistanis who were in East Pakistan in 1971 would also speak to such rescue stories, of people risking their lives to save the ‘other’ midst the violence. These stories complicate national ‘truths’ but are an essential reality for so many people who suffered and survived 1971.
My oral history work in Pakistan on 1971 would also take me to the homes of intellectuals, poets, activists and even former army officers who criticise the military action 48 years ago and continue to offer constructive insights into Pakistan’s troubling state policies before and during the war. From them, I learnt about people who protested and rallied, wrote poems and defied orders, sometimes even jailed in the process of standing up for the liberties of fellow country people. I also learnt about civil society actors who want the Pakistani state to apologise to Bangladesh and to those who suffered unimaginable horror. These voices are not documented in official history or memory. Before this research, I had not come across them. They are rendered outside national projects and national memory. Yet, given minimal people-to-people contact between Bangladesh and Pakistan and the increasing efforts by the state to remember the past in selective ways, these Pakistani voices can give critical insights into 1971, helping us move beyond state rhetoric and the confines of Indo-Pak bilateral politics.