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A forgotten episode

by Ammar Ali Jan, 31 December 2008

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The News

It is about time we re-examined the events of 1971 rather than erase them from our collective national memory.

Dec 16 went almost unnoticed. Yet, this is the day when Jinnah’s Pakistan was dismembered and thousands of Pakistani soldiers were captured by the Indian security forces. Rather than taking a dispassionate view of the incident, we have made sure that the horrific event is erased from our collective national memory.

It is now clear that the primary reason for the fall of Dhaka was the economic exploitation of our Eastern wing, alongside of course the lack of democracy and military’s interference in politics. However, the biggest tragedy of our historiography is that many important events exist as unresolved mysteries. For example, the murders of Liaquat Ali Khan, General Zia-ul-Haq, Benazir Bhutto or even the May 12, 2007 carnage were never investigated. Similarly, what actually happened in Dhaka has remained one of the biggest mysteries for Pakistanis. In order to find out what exactly proved to be the final nail in the coffin for the Pakistani federation, it is important to re-examine the events of 1971.

Different scholars and world bodies have exposed the unimaginable crimes of the armed forces stationed in East Pakistan, yet our ’scholars’ are adamant about their claim that the allegations are nothing more than a Hindu propaganda. Our analysts need to come out of this state of denial and take into account the vast amount of literature now available that proves the atrocities committed against the Bengali people.

Operation Searchlight was launched on March 25, 1971 with the sense among the military high command that the Bengalis won’t be able to resist for long. The Bengali resistance, however, surprised them which finally resulted in their defeat less than nine months later. The Hamood ur Rehman Commission report put the figure of civilian casualties at twenty six thousand. The first Bengali government claimed three million people had been killed. The number three million had actually been taken from the then president Yahya Khan’s interview with journalist Robert Payne on Feb 22, 1971 in which he had said: "Kill three million of them, and the rest will eat out of our hands."

The UN figures claim that eight to ten million people had fled as refugees, a figure that is hardly disputed and that showed how Bengalis preferred to leave for India rather than stay back in ’Pakistani-occupied’ Bengal. Rudolph Rummel, an expert on war crimes, puts the number of the Bengali ’democide’ to be at 1.5 million people and believes that it could be more. Of course, this would make sense when we look at General Tikka Khan’s (known as Bengal’s butcher around the world) comment when he was heading the operations in the Eastern wing who said: "I am not concerned with the people, only with the land."

A systematic plan to wipe out the Bengali intelligentsia was also launched when Al-Badr and Al-Shams brigades were formed with the main cadre coming from the Jamaat-e-Islami. A New York Times report of Dec 1971 claimed that at least three hundred intellectuals were murdered in Dhaka while the number for university students would be much higher.

The violence against women is even more disturbing. Academics and feminists like Susan Brownmiller and Nilima Ibrahim have acknowledged the instance of rape in huge numbers. In the Hamood-ur-Rahman Commission report, the Pakistani government accepted that incidents of rape had occurred, but claimed the number was much lower.

On Dec 16, 2002, the George Washington University’s National Security Archive released declassified documents concerning the conflict in East Pakistan. According to the documents,the US officials working in diplomatic institutions used the term "selective genocide" to describe the the actions of the Pakistani army. However, Nixon asked his intelligence apparatus to downplay the Pakistani atrocities because he feared India’s close ties to the USSR.

Up until Dec 15, 1971, the state-controlled media was reporting "heroic" victories for the men in uniform. This lack of critical analyses by the intelligentsia meant that the entire nation was caught up in a war hysteria. The news of defeat on the 16th of December was unexpected and devastating for the people in West Pakistan.

This does not mean that there were no voices of dissent in the Western part of the country. Renowned scholar Eqbal Ahmad wrote a series of letters in The New York Times in 1971 to condemn the barbaric operation in the Eastern wing. Eqbal Ahmad was very critical of India and some of the atrocities of Mukti Bahni against Biharis (Eqbal Ahmad was himself a Bihari) but he categorically stated that the responsibility of the violence lies on the Pakistani establishment for ignoring Bengali demands for two decades and launching a brutal operation to crush dissent.

Tariq Ali, another activist, led rallies in both Dhaka and Rawalpindi to oppose the military operation. In his book The Street Fighting Years, Tariq Ali states how he was termed a "traitor" by the right-wing elements and threatened with death due to his opposition to the operation. Ahmad Saleem, a Punjabi poet, was jailed for his anti-war poetry. Prohna Shah, a Hawaldar in the Pakistan army, was court martialled due to his refusal to take part in the Bengali genocide. Today, he works as a guard in an office and feels honoured about his refusal to kill.

All these voices of dissent were silenced. For a national security state, patriotism only meant aligning oneself with the security apparatus.

Rather than learning a lesson from the defeat in Dhaka, the Pakistani state became more obsessed with the idea of national security. Only two years after 1971, another military operation was launched by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto against the people of Balochistan and NWFP. The operation was led by the infamous General Tikka Khan who had by then become an expert of crushing insurgencies. Three years later, the military intervened in politics by overthrowing Bhutto and imposed another martial law. As Marx said, history repeats itself first as a tragedy, then as a farce!

Those who thought that defeat in Dhaka would knock some sense into the heads of the military high command proved to be naive. Gen. ’Tiger’ Niazi, the man who boasted on Dec 14, 1971 that India will have to roll a tank over his body to win the war, surrendered to the same Indian army on Dec 16. The picture of his surrender to Gen. Aurora graced the front pages of all newspaper throughout the world. One would assume that such a man would would never show his face in public, and better still, tried by the Pakistani state. Instead, a year before his death, General Niazi held a press conference to talk about his published memoirs. The disgraced General confidently stated: "Bhutto was responsible for the defeat. I would have never surrendered and would have defeated the Indians if given proper backing. Even at the age of 85, if I am given command of a batallion, I will liberate Srinagar from the Indians."

Some people have no shame!

We must re-view our past honestly so that we can put the present in perspective and plan for the future. If we continue to live in a state of denial, we may never be able to correct our mistakes. Considering the atrocities carried out in Bengal, one gets horrified thinking about what is happening in Balochistan or NWFP for the last few years, especially since the media is not allowed to report in the troubled areas, much like it was censored in 1971.