Liberation and Beyond.
Every year since 1971, the date of 16th December brings contrasting feelings for the people of the regions of former West Pakistan (now Pakistan) and former East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). While Bangladesh celebrates the 'liberation' of that region from the 'colonialist mentality' of the rulers sitting in Islamabad, the people of Pakistan mourn the loss of more than half the population of the country and dismemberment of their state that was carved out of India in 1947. Why did it happen or how did it happen is a long story of deprivation and frustration leading to the struggle to secede by the vast majority of former East Pakistan.
There has been a very late realization in Pakistan of the injustice done to the former East Pakistan between 1947 and 1971. There is truth in the general perception that the eastern wing of the country was given low priority in matters of development and employment opportunities for key positions at the Centre. The Federal Public Service Commission too allegedly gave them step-motherly treatment. The bitterness against the Centre and provinces of the western wing kept simmering and developed into a boiling pot that exploded in 1971 after the newly elected National Assembly majority party's (Awami League) leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman was arrested by the government in the post-election political mess-up for transfer of power.
Awami League won 160 seats (all from East Pakistan) out of a total of 300 seats while the other leading party - Pakistan People's Party - captured 81 seats (62 from Punjab, 18 from Sindh and one from NWFP). Despite constituting a majority, the Awami League was not allowed by the leadership of the PPP and the CMLA Gen. Yahya Khan to form the government or even lead a coalition. The hardened stance of the two leading political parties of the Assembly, lack of genuine effort from General Yahya Khan and a certain amount of mistrust between various players in the power-game prevented a solution to the political crisis that resulted in a stalemate and finally to the military action that caused an armed revolt by the nationalists.
Indira Gandhi's Indian government supported the revolutionaries and shaped the world opinion in their favor through aggressive diplomatic and media campaigns. Lot of valuable lives were lost and atrocities committed by both sides in the ensuing months. The escalation of hostilities resulted in a full-scale war that brought disaster to Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh.
Unfortunately, most of the accounts of the events leading up to the war and the reports of atrocities between the spring and fall of 1971 are not unbiased as these have been narrated by partisan observers who had fixed ideas and closed minds. Indian media's strong reporting sounded very convincing and was believed as whole truth by the world. The Pakistani media was stunned by the pace of events that were unfolding and failed to give a correct and credible picture to the people in West Pakistan or other parts of the world. Highly exaggerated figures of rape and killing by the Pakistani troops were circulated to the world media by Indian sources. It is a fact that atrocities were committed but not by one side alone. The reminiscences of those who were present in the former East Pakistan during 1971, irrespective of the side they belonged to, may not have been entirely reliable but created a lasting impression on the minds of listeners and readers.
Well-researched, thorough and independent accounts of the events of 1971 in the South Asian subcontinent were hardly available. The duo of Richard Sisson and Leo Rose published an excellent research work in 1990, titled "War and Secession: Pakistan, India and the Creation of Bangladesh." Their research work was well received and it contributed immensely towards understanding correctly the historical events that unfolded in the region during 1971. Many myths of atrocities and rape have been exposed by Sarmila Bose, Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford University and a political journalist in India, in her recently published book "Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War." Her book gives an impartial account of the excesses committed by both sides in the war and presents a balanced view. She describes the figures of victims as highly exaggerated and the stories of atrocities not the whole truth.
The years following the creation of Bangladesh were not quite peaceful for that state. Its founder, Sheikh Mujiur Rahman, was killed by a group of Army officers and the political situation remained unsettled for quite some time as power shifted frequently from one set of hands to another. As was expected, the Bangladesh government leaned heavily on Indira Gandhi's government for support and its policies were largely influenced by India. This state of affairs caused some dissention in the Awami League ranks and concern among others who had taken part in the struggle for Liberation.
It was obvious that the birth pangs were a constant source of trouble in the initial stages for the new state. The sincerity of its leadership and the passion of the people to emerge on the world map as a successful nation, however, helped them in overcoming the difficulties. Helped by the leading countries of the West, IMF and India, Bangladesh gradually achieved a place in South Asia that others could envy. Today, Bangladesh's economy is stable, their exports and trade are satisfactory and their democratic infrastructure is appreciated by many developed countries.
The present government of Bangladesh headed by Sheikh Haseena's Awami League has acknowledged the role played by some prominent figures of the world of the 1970s era that was instrumental in the creation of Bangladesh, its development and achieving a respectable place among the nations of the world. Five hundred foreign nationals were honored last year for their contribution and, of course, Indira Gandhi was on top of the list. Bangladesh conferred posthumously the highest award on Mrs. Gandhi, showering praise in the citation that said, "By her political wisdom and vision, she influenced the course of history and the fate of generations. Indira Gandhi stood by the side of the people of Bangladesh from the beginning of the Liberation War despite various adversities."
Despite the gratitude shown by the government of Awami League towards India, the response from India of late has not been very warm. An increase in the number of border clashes and disputes regarding the demarcation of boundaries has been a sore point in their relations. Involvement of Bangladeshi militants in terrorist activities in India has also been a matter of concern for the Indian government. Last year, former Indian Foreign Secretary, Srinivasan (who had also served in Bangladesh as Indian High Commissioner), said in an article published in the local English daily "The Telegraph" that even after Sheikh Haseena's visit to India, "New Delhi has been negligent in living up to its undertakings in contrast to very positive action by Dhaka." He opined that such negativity had a bearing on Haseena's political stability and future electoral prospects.
Later in the year, the Indian Prime Minister paid a visit to Bangladesh and a number of agreements were signed to improve cooperation though these measures fell much short of the expectations of the people of Bangladesh. The Awami League government was criticized for not gaining much out of the visit of the Indian Prime Minister.
The Awami League government has faced a few issues of security from within their ranks. A mutiny by the Bangladesh Rifles a couple of years ago was a major setback for the Party. It resulted in heavy loss of life, including that of some senior Army officers. Recently, some armed forces officers have been arrested for plotting a coup against the government and is a big cause of concern for the government. The case is still under investigation. Dissention on some major policy issues among the senior members of the party also comes to surface from time to time and increases pressure on Sheikh Haseena's government.
Second generation Bangladeshis were raised in an environment of hostility towards Pakistan and were reminded time and again of the 'atrocities' committed by the Pakistan Army in 1971. Obviously, no mention was ever made of the torture inflicted and the brutal killings carried out by the Mukti Bahini and others on the non-Bengali population during the period from March to May of that year. The wounds took time to heal and the scars are revisited every year on the 16th of December. Even forty years later, when almost all the actors of the drama of that fateful year in the history of Pakistan, have quit the scene for good, feelings of love for the people of Pakistan are difficult to be found. In comparison, the intellectuals, media and a majority of people in Pakistan feel sympathy for the former wing of the country with a realization that the feelings of frustration in East Pakistan were justified and that the province was not treated fairly by successive governments of Pakistan.
Perhaps, it may take another generation in Bangladesh to get over the birth pangs and torturous memories of the period of Liberation War, when they realize that the present generation of Pakistanis had nothing to do with the injustices done to the former East Pakistan province and it looks today at Bangladesh as an independent Muslim country of the region. It is also hoped that those thousands of Pakistanis who are still stranded in Dhaka will be treated well and one day be able to realize the dream of living in a country that was created for the Muslims of Indian union to live on the basis of being a separate nation. u
The writer is a former Colonel of the Pakistan Army. He is a graduate of the Command and Staff College, Quetta and has fought during the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pakistan Wars. He was stationed in East Pakistan during the 1971 conflict and is the author of a forthcoming book on Indo-Pak military history.
Munir Ishrat Rahmani
Even forty years later, the scars left by the 1971 war penetrate deeply into the Pakistan-Bangladesh relationship.