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What do school books in Bangladesh and Pakistan say about 1971 war ?

18 December 2010

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In-depth: What students are being taught about the separation of East Pakistan

DAWN.COM, December 16, 2010

By Misha Hussain, in Dhaka

DHAKA: Few would argue with the sequence of events that lead to the liberation of Bangladesh as described in the textbooks being taught to tenth grade students in Bangladesh.

However, despite the clarity of the national curriculum, students interviewed by seemed confused as to the reasons behind the 1971 war as well as many of the facts associated with it.

According to the school textbooks, the need for self-autonomy was crystallised by Ayub Khan’s apathy towards East Pakistan during the 1965 Indo-Pak War and the discrimination towards Bengalis in every sphere of the region’s administration: economical, political and military.

His self-proclaimed ‘Decade of Improvement’ left Bengalis impoverished, unprotected and voiceless.

‘Two-thirds of Pakistan’s foreign currency was earned by exporting East Pakistan’s jute for which the Bengali growers never received a fair price and West Pakistanis made up 95 per cent of the military of which the upper echelons were forbidden to Bengalis’ reads the text.

After years of subjugation, it was the rejection of the six-point plan, the incarceration of 35 prominent leaders for the Agartala Conspiracy and finally the refusal of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (backed by Yahya Khan) to form the opposition party, that finally sparked the armed conflict.

The lack of relief provided to East Pakistan after the 1970 Bhola cyclone, which killed an estimated 500,000 people, further highlighted the helplessness of this then overlooked region of South Asia and catalysed the Bengalis struggle for self-autonomy into something much more tangible, independence.

However, despite this clear (if somewhat one-sided) account of what happened, almost all the students of class 10 interviewed by said that Bangladesh went to war ‘for our mother tongue,’ a major frustration, but never a part of Mujibur Rahman’s six-point plan. Somehow, the 1952 Bangla Language Movement seems to have been directly connected with the fight for independence.

Similarly, there is an equal amount of confusion on the numbers killed. All the students without fail stated that three million people died in the nine-month struggle. Another ‘fact’ that is not mentioned in the text books.

“My teacher told me that almost three million people died,” said 15-year-old Surzi.

“I heard on TV that three million died,” said 16-year-old Priti.

While the government is teaching one thing, it would appear that the teachers, parents and the media are teaching another.

Could resolving this difference in historical understanding be key to ensuring that future generations grow up in a cooperative environment helping both Pakistan and Bangladesh move forward as a region?

For 17-year-old Shebab the answer is clear. “I am proud of my country and the people that fought for its liberation. However, I feel this hatred towards the Pakistanis.”

“I don’t think we should forgive them. Other reputable sources concur to the rape, the murder and the destruction of Bangladesh,” he said.

You can understand why the Bengalis might feel aggrieved.

‘We have earned our freedom [from Pakistan] through nine months of bloody struggle’ begins the concluding chapter Losses of the 1971 Liberation War of a class ten history book being taught in classrooms across Bangladesh.

‘They [the Pakistan Army] destroyed educational institutes, industries and public property. Bridges, roads and railways were also destroyed as were the sea ports at Chittagong and Mongla. The federal reserves were empty and all military and non-military aircraft were taken to West Pakistan.’

‘On 16 December, a completely economically and in every other way destroyed Bangladesh started its journey as a free and independent state.’

However, it gives a rather one-sided picture of popular Pakistani opinion.

“It fails to mentions that there were people in Pakistan who were sympathetic to our cause. I don’t believe in hating a whole nation because of something the national leaders are the army generals decided to do,” said Arman Islam, a mother who read the school text books for the first time today.

“Besides, when has a fight for independence not been bloody? Is there really any need to teach such hatred to our children?” she said.


Fall of East Pakistan

By Huma Imtiaz, in Karachi

KARACHI: Thirty-nine years after a bloody and cruel war led to the creation of Bangladesh, it is shocking that the findings made by the Hamood-ur-Rehman Commission on the 1971 war, was never made public.

The 1971 war saw thousands killed, leaving permanent scars on millions of people in Bangladesh who witnessed torture and death of their countrymen at the hands of the Pakistan Army. Instead of the report, all that the new generation of Pakistanis know about the war comes from the state curriculum. However, instead of setting the record straight on the creation of Bangladesh and the reasons for the separation, students in the Matric and Intermediate levels of school (class nine through 12) are being taught conspiracy theories and a factually incorrect version of history.

While historians and academics have long decried the white-washing of the state Curriculum, it is appalling that in the twenty-first century, the government is yet to make changes in the syllabi being taught to Pakistan’s future generation.

The Pakistan Studies textbook for Class nine and ten fails to mention Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto or the role of the PPP throughout the essay on Bangladesh and the 1971 War. Following are a few of the reasons listed in the textbook for the “Fall of East Pakistan”.

“Role of Hindu teachers

A large number of Hindu teachers were teaching in the educational institutions in East Pakistan. They produced such literature which created negative thinking in the minds of Bengalis against the people of West Pakistan.

International Conspiracies

About 10 million Hindus were living in East Pakistan. India stood at the back of these Hindus to protect their interests. India wanted to separate East Pakistan to strengthen the economic position of the Hindus. Many Hindus acted as spies for India. Russia was against Pakistan because Pakistan had allowed America to establish military bases in Pakistan. On the other hand, America also wanted separation of East Pakistan. Under the circumstances Russia openly supported India’s aggression against Pakistan.”

The Pakistan Studies textbooks of classes ten and eleven have a broader, yet still incorrect version of the story behind the creation of Bangladesh.

“Ultimately, the Martial Law authorities decided to use the armed forces. In the military operations, the armed volunteers of Jamaat-e-Islami also took part and used the occasion to settle old scores with their political opponents. As a result of military action, many workers of the Awami League fled to India and took refuge there. India trained and armed these workers and sent them back to East Pakistan to fight against the Pakistan Army. These armed volunteers of ‘Mukti Bahini’ continued their struggle and guerrilla activities. On December 3, 1971 the war between Pakistan and India began. Due to the lack of support of the local populace and the poor arrangements of supply of men and material, Pakistani solders (sic) surrender before the Indian army on December 16, 1971 whereas the ceasefire on West Pakistan front was declared without launching a significant attack. On December 16, 1971 East Pakistan became an independent and free state of Bangladesh.”

Nowhere, in both textbooks is there a mention of the documented atrocities committed by the Pakistan Army – which includes rapes, targeted killings – against the Mukti Bahini and the genocide of the Bengali population. The textbooks also fail to mention the number of civilian deaths in East Pakistan in the period leading up to the creation of Bangladesh. Nor does it mention Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s inflexible stand on sharing power with Mujib-ur-Rehman’s Awami League. Instead, conspiracies, speculation on the role of the populace and issues like language and India’s involvement are given precedence over assigning blame to those involved in the separation of East and West Pakistan.

Abbas Hussain, Director of the Teachers Development Centre, terms this version of history, a farce. “We give our children hocus pocus in textbooks.” When asked how teachers feel about teaching their students such material, Hussain replied, “Most teachers have classroom schizophrenia, where the children and teachers are in a sort of conspiracy that there is a real world outside the classroom and there is a fictitious world in the classroom and you jolly well obey that!”

Pervez Hoodbhoy, a noted academic and Professor of Physics at the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, says, “Forty years later, Bangladesh has many disputes with India but it shows not the slightest inclination to reintegrate with Pakistan. If Pakistan’s schoolbooks actually taught honest history, they would be explaining why East Pakistanis felt exploited and fought for their independence. Instead, our children are taught cock-and-bull conspiracy nonsense.”

By contrast, the history textbooks being taught in O’Levels have a far more clear and precise version of history that does not reek of state censorship. Rizwana Zahid Ahmed’s “Pakistan – The Real Picture (A Comprehensive History Course)” highlights the atrocities committed by the Pakistan Army:

“Before the Assembly session could take place, General Tikka, the Governor of East Pakistan, launched a military operation against the members of the Mukti Bahini, the militant wing of the Awami League, which was allegedly being funded by India. In this operation, many indiscriminate killings took place.

While reports of atrocities committed by the Pakistani Army increased, so did the retaliation, often brutal, by the Bengalis against the army. The army was really fighting a war on two fronts, against the Indian aggression as well as the local people. The situation began to get hopelessly out of control.”

Ahmed’s book does not shy away from revealing the prejudices against Bengalis that were prevalent in post 1947-society:

“The West Pakistanis viewed the East Pakistanis as being inferior, a fact that has been mentioned even in the biography of Field Marshal Ayub Khan. The fact remains, however, that the East Pakistanis were culturally superior to West Pakistanis in their love of art, literacy, interest in music and poetry.”

As a solution, Hussain is of the opinion that the government should open the marketplace and allow a variety of schoolbooks to be taught to children. “The teachers shouldn’t teach textbooks as the only true version. They can make students look at a variety of newspaper accounts from that time, from The New York Times, Guardian, etc.” Hussain feels that where access to the internet isn’t available, the government can provide printed packs containing hard copies (of supplementary material) to teachers.

Hoodbhoy says that Pakistan Studies must not be used as an ideological instrument but, instead, as a means of furthering genuine knowledge about Pakistan. “Unfortunately for Pakistan, the guardians of ideological purity installed by General Zia have kept their posts. They must be evicted, and genuine scholars must set curricula and write textbooks.”

When asked what effect this curriculum has had on the millions of students that have been taught an incorrect version of history, Hoodbhoy answered, “Nations that face their history honestly have a better chance of surviving and progressing than those that raise their future citizens on a diet of lies. Because the lessons of East Pakistan have been lost, most Pakistanis cannot understand why Balochistan is such an angry province today.”

Hussain echoes Hoodbhoy’s views, “I am a great follower of Lord Buddha’s saying, ‘Children who are fed lies breed violence’.”

Thirty-nine years have passed since Bangladesh was created. Surely, it is time to set the record straight and tell the future generation of Pakistanis what really led to the fall of East Pakistan.

Huma Imtiaz works as a journalist in Pakistan and can be reached at huma.imtiaz at