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Pakistan: Shatter the silence on the war in 1971

by Ammar Ali Jan, 13 December 2011

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The News on Sunday, 11 December 2011

40 years on

Shatter the silence

Four decades after the creation of Bangladesh, the war in 1971 remains an enigma for a majority of Pakistanis. It is time we boldly discuss what happened during that turbulent period in our history

By Ammar Ali Jan

It is a tragic fact that we as a nation have never been able to come to terms with momentous events in our own history. Whether it is military operations in Balochistan, the overthrow of elected governments, the use of Islam by military dictators for the most cynical reasons, we have shied away from fully confronting such episodes in our history. Our response instead has been to either concoct awkwardly woven narratives about our national past or to refuse introspection based on the premise that we must ‘forget the past and focus on the present.’

There is not a more painful example of the national silence than the civil war in East Pakistan of 1971. Never before had the Pakistani state declared an entire population a ‘threat to national security,’ nor had it ever systematically carried out such a horrendous ‘cleansing’ to purify the national body. Much ink has been wasted on debating the exact number of casualties during the conflict. What is important for our purposes is to acknowledge that our armed forces did go on a killing spree against our own citizens, who were supposed to enjoy the same rights and privileges accorded to the citizens of West Pakistan. No matter what the hyper-nationalist spin doctors want us to believe, no one will ever be able to justify the physical elimination of students and intellectuals, excessive bombardment of villages, and the systematic rape of Bengali women at the hands of the Pakistan military.

One is horrified to recount such dastardly tales, especially since these crimes were being carried out against a majority population. The only thing more disturbing was how the war in Bengal was met by a deafening silence in the Western part of the country and continues to remain sidelined as a peripheral moment in our country’s history. Soon after the debacle in Dhaka, most mainstream parties agreed that the country’s top military and civilian leadership had an importantly role to play in Pakistan’s dismemberment. Yet, the hegemonic discourses of ‘national security,’ ‘reconstruction,’ and ‘looking to the future’ meant that we as a nation were never able to fully comprehend the action of our state hundreds of miles away.

One may have some degree of sympathy for having the desire to move on, but not at the expense of forgetting the past. Viewing the Bengal episode as a geographically limited phenomenon has veiled how state violence and militarization pervade our entire society. As scholars of state theory argue, the violence committed by states in far away lands must at some point return to haunt those living at the core.

An example of such a surreal moment in our history came when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto launched one of the most devastating military campaigns in Pakistan’s history to ‘crush the insurgency’ in Balochistan. This decision was taken less than three years after the humiliation in Dhaka, and was led by General Tikka Khan, who gained notoriety as the ‘butcher of Bengalis’. Baloch bodies had become the new sites for state violence in the name of ‘national security’ and ‘sovereignty.’ In an ironic twist of fate, Bhutto’s government was removed by the military to ‘prevent a civil-war like situation’ and maintain ‘national cohesion.’

Since then, the coercive apparatus of the Pakistan state has been deployed to discipline all dissenting voices in the country. For example, the brutal suppression of labour unions in the 1980s was carried out in the name of ‘security’ and ‘national development.’ Elections were rigged by powers that be to ensure that ‘emotional’ and ‘irrational’ people of Pakistan did not provide thumping majorities to those who allegedly ‘threatened’ the country’s security. Even today, criticisms of our security apparatus are silenced under the chorus of ‘a conspiracy by external forces.’

It is often argued by governments that one should not level accusations against the state during turbulent periods. The war in Bengal was one such moment where citizens (of West Pakistan only) were expected to provide unquestioned loyalty towards the state. Yet, since the separation of Bengal, we have constantly lived in such a state of exception. Instead of delving into the reasons of the defeat, our state became obsessed with finding new techniques of managing populations and of extending the undeclared state of emergency to all spheres of our national life. The militarisation of our daily lives, with increasing checkpoints, the proliferation of secret agencies, and other such sophisticated regimes of surveillance, indicate how Bengal remains etched as a demon in the unconscious of our state, one it aims to fight without any serious introspection on its own role in exacerbating the crisis.

The constant anxiety of our ruling elites, the hyper-militarisation of our society and the subsequent violence in everyday life is a direct result of our refusal to rectify our past actions or to make a concerted effort to ensure they are never repeated. While our history is filled with instances that can embarrass us, the violence in Bengal stands out as a unique event in our national history. It represents the extent of violence our state can commit in order to defend its own power and privilege. All rhetoric of rule of law, democracy, human rights, respect to women, etcetera, can be discarded and a horrendous regime of violence can be constituted for the perpetuation of the status quo. Bengal, then, hovers over our heads as an example of what can possibly happen to us if we move beyond the framework set by the Deep State.

The idea that a new Bengal is not possible due to the presence of a ‘free media and judiciary’ or a vibrant civil society seems particularly absurd at a time when an undeclared war is being waged against the Baloch youth while hundreds of families across Pakistan are waiting for their loved ones who went ‘missing.’ One must also actively fight the idea that Bengal, Balochistan or Pukhtunkwha represented peripheral regions and do not play a direct role in our daily lives.

Apart from the moral argument that silence on such crimes committed in our names implicates us in that process, we should also try to comprehend how these killing fields are also structuring our own daily lives. As stated earlier, the perpetual focus on national security has led to a proliferation of secretive agencies across the country, as well as an increase in religious militancy, and has played a decisive role in sabotaging the mandate of the ordinary people. One must also mention that state violence is also rampant in core regions such as Central Punjab, especially if one happens to be on the wrong side of the class divide.

Four decades after the creation of Bangladesh, the war in 1971 remains an enigma for a majority of Pakistanis. It is now time that we boldly discuss what happened during that turbulent period in our history. This is not an attempt to open a scholarly debate among historians. This is a plea to understand the nature of our state at its most vicious instance, and to then raise questions on the relationship of our state with marginalised nationalities and oppressed classes. Moreover, it is crucial to examine why the fundamental nature of our state not only has not changed, but has in fact become more entrenched with each passing years.

Finally, the shattering of our silence on this event has the potential to also shatter the discourse of national security that has veiled the cynical abuse of power by our state and has hindered the possibility of imagining a fundamentally different relationship between state and society. The whole notion that systematically wiping out Bengali activists or raping women were the only options left to the Pakistani state when confronted by the ‘Indian threat’ seems cruel, insensitive, and flat out ridiculous.

In fact, our only consolation in such times is the belief that those who were at the helm of affairs were blinded by greed and power, and that perhaps we as ordinary Pakistanis are capable of knowing better.


The above article from The News on Sunday is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use