War in 1971 — But on 50th Anniversary, Who Owns that History?

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April 21, 2021

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By Abdullah Al-Ahsan

“With the Creation of Bangladesh, a Longstanding Dream of the RSS Was Achieved” claims Seshadri Chari. According to Wikipedia, Seshadri Ramanujan Chari “is a veteran swayamsevak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Chari currently serves on the National Executive Committee of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and formerly served as head of the Foreign Affairs Cell at BJP headquarters.” RSS is a Hindu nationalist, paramilitary volunteer organization that originated in the 1920s and ideologically very close to while supremacists, as one author has put it, “Trump and Modi: birds of the same feather,” The creation of Bangladesh, according to the RSS and BJP, was part of India’s nationalist agenda.

Not only for the RSS, the year 1971 was special for most Indians. “1971: The Year India Felt Good About Itself,” asserted one of the founding editors of The Wire – a well-respected Indian news and opinion website. For India “The year 1971 was marked with several ‘big victories’ – in politics, cricket and in war – all of which had long term implications for India. The national mood was buoyant, even if the country continued to struggle with endemic problems.” However, the feeling was not the same in Bangladesh and Pakistan. A 2019 Aljazeera article on the subject aptly observed that:
“Close to 50 years after the war, 1971 remains poignant both at the people’s level and the state level in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. It continues to shape the lives of those who suffered and witnessed the war while also remaining central to each state’s national project. 1971 reinforces distinct narratives, emphasising liberation in Bangladesh, victory in India, and loss in Pakistan. All three countries hold on tightly to their war story and frame their images of themselves and the other through the lens of that fateful year. 1971 has left a lasting legacy across all three children of Partition.”

1971 was the year of Bangladesh’s independence. Bangladeshis fought a nine-month long war with the then Pakistani rulers and established their independent nation. India, however, views this war as just another war against its archrival Pakistan. For Pakistan, the year 1971 was a year of disaster – the year that witnessed its dismemberment and brought disgrace. After half a century of the humiliating defeat with India, two institutions of higher education – one public and another private – both prestigious in the Pakistani context, attempted to organize a five-day conference entitled “Commemorating 50 years of the 1971 War: War, Violence and Memory” from March 23 to 27. However, according to Indian and Bangladeshi sources, the event was cancelled without any explanation. This provided the Indian and Bangladeshi sources yet with another evidence of suppression of intellectual freedom in the country. In our view, cancellation of the event is not just the suppression of scholarly discussion on the subject; for Pakistan, it is a denial of a soul-searching effort.

RSS devotee Mr. Chari wrote the article on Bangladesh’s 50th anniversary of the declaration of independence highlighting BJP’s contribution to this achievement. He wrote:
According to the Organiser, “Vajpayee had welcomed Bangabandu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s historic declaration of independence and called upon the government of India to recognise the government of Bangladesh and provide necessary assistance to the freedom fighters.”
He was referring to an event of 2015 when the government of Bangladesh conferred an “Award of Liberation War Honour on Atal Bihari Vajpayee” for “his ‘active role’ in its independence struggle and consolidating friendship with India.” For me as a student of history, it is difficult to accept Mr. Chari’s claim, and this demands some reflections on some specific events at the time of Bangladesh’s independence. Did Sheikh Mujibur Rahman make the declaration of Bangladesh’s independence? No. He was arrested on the night of March 25, 1971 and was transferred to West Pakistan. Earlier, the Sheikh had led an election campaign and won landslide from East Pakistan and majority seats in Pakistan’s national assembly. He was poised to form the government in Pakistan, but the West Pakistani establishment prevented him from doing so. Some politicians ganged up with the military establishment to deny the elected representative from political power. Instead, they imposed military rule in East Pakistan. As a result, some Bengali speaking officers of the armed forces revolted and (Major) Ziaur Rahman, who later became president, declared independence of Bangladesh on March 26, 1971.

The Bangladeshi critique of the cancellation of the event in Pakistan believes that, “Although it was of no surprise that reference to genocide was missing, the unfounded narratives were a revelation to me.” By genocide, the author is perhaps referring to the indiscriminate killing of Bengali civilians by the army. Numerous authors have underscored this episode, but hardly any sound work academically describes the Pakistan side of the story. Definitely, the army killed many people and committed atrocities, but the figures have been heavily exaggerated. The story that the current Bangladeshi author conveniently forgets is the story of the killing of the Bihari community (those who migrated to former East Pakistan from the Indian state of Bihar after the creation of Pakistan) and other Urdu speaking population of East Pakistan at the time. A recently published autobiographical sketch of a former banker who lost most family members illustrate the story well. In fact, there is a direct connection between the killings of Biharis by Bengali armed groups and killings by the army. The Bihari killings started weeks earlier and in many cases, Bihari dead bodies were left open before the advancing army. If the term genocide means eliminating a specific group of people, it would apply more to the Bihari population than to Bengalis. The author thinks, “History has been murdered in Pakistan” but does not realize how partisan and distorted Bangladesh’s official version of history is!

I have not found any discussion on the cancellation of the event in the mainstream Pakistani press except for some scattered mention in the social media. One of the organizers tweeted announcing the conference and it seems, names and topics of some participants provoked reactions among certain elements that felt threatened and as a result, the conference was cancelled. However, quoting a tweet by an academic belonging to one of the organizing institutions, an Indian paper reported that, “According to Hassan Javid, a professor of politics at the university, there were concerns raised over scheduling the conference on 23 March, which was also the day when Pakistan officially adopted its first constitution and became a republic in 1956.” Why should the date provoke reaction to such a conference? In fact the date was most relevant because it this date that a Bengali leader proposed the establishment of Pakistan 80 years ago in 1940. Wouldn’t it be most pertinent asking questions such as why Bengalis demanded a separate nation while only quarter of a century ago they fought most passionately to achieve Pakistan? Were not the Bengalis at the forefront of the Pakistan Movement? Did the Bengalis enjoy their legitimate share in governing the country since independence in 1947? Weren’t these questions relevant to raise on this occasion?

One should raise a more fundamental question in this regard: How does one address the problem of narratives? Historian E.H. Carr had once suggested, “Study the historian before you begin to study the facts.” However, a rational historian must go beyond nationalistic rhetoric and manipulation of facts. Rational philosopher Immanuel Kant upheld the “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose” as opposed to Johann Gottfried Herder’s narrow Volk spirit oriented culture and history. Kant’s approach is more important now when fake news and disinformation activities have become normal both in white supremacist and caste-tainted media and in academia. In this context, one may mention Brussels based EU Disinfo Lab that exposed a pro-Indian network engaged in disseminating fake news mainly targeting Pakistan.

Since Pakistan has suffered most in 1971, it is in Pakistan’s interest to act immediately and effectively. The general trend in Pakistan in this regard seems blaming foreign conspirators for breaking the country, but such approach will only thwart the issue. Pakistan’s founding principles demand that Pakistani historians examine the extent of their guilt in the episode. Why did the Bengalis revolt against the state of Pakistan even though they fought tooth and nail to achieve Pakistan only a quarter of a century ago? Weren’t the Bengalis pushed to the wall? Why was the power not transferred to elected representatives following the 1970 elections? What would be the approximate number of people that Pakistan’s armed forces killed, how many civilians did the revolting Bengali elements kill? What was the extent of propaganda in the whole affair? Was the military alone responsible for this debacle? Who were the civilian political actors that ganged up with the military leadership? Why was its own Supreme Court Chief Justice’s report on the subject suppressed for decades? Why even half a century later almost half a million non-Bengalis who claim to be Pakistanis are still stranded in camps in Bangladesh? It is Pakistan’s moral responsibility to address this acute humanitarian crisis. This is a soul-searching issue for Pakistan. Moreover, as the Bangladeshi critic has pointed out, Pakistan must repair its textbooks on the subject. If it is not addressed, it will constantly haunt the Pakistani conscience.

Authorities in Bangladesh too must come up with an acceptable figure of both military and civilian casualties in the conflict. How many of them were Bengalis and how many were non-Bengalis? How many were killed by the Pakistan armed forces and how many by Bengali speaking militias? The most important question that Bangladeshi historians must answer as to why the whole nation has come under severe Indian domination after fifty years of independence while the same population fought most passionately against Hindu dominance a century ago? How has the current fascist government eliminated all opposition voices in the country? In this regard, 2009 Bangladesh’s para-military force BDR revolt is noteworthy. During this two-day mayhem, more military officers were killed than the number of military officers killed in its nine-month long war against Pakistan armed forces. It tried more than 800 soldiers for the bloody mutiny amidst reports of torture and custodial death. Was India behind this event? This question arises because following this event the current government has slowly tightened its grip on power and Indian sources suggest that following the 2009 Bangladesh mutiny, India rallied support for Hasina. Yes, the two events, 1971 war and 2009 mutiny, are comparable: One retired officer of the Bangladeshi armed forces has recently commented:
“Nothing can cause us to forget the brutal massacre, however. Just think, we lost 47 officers during the entire nine months of the Liberation War in 1971. Between February 25 and 26 in 2009, we lost 57 gems. Some of the family members of the officers were also subjected to disgrace and ignominy. The bestiality of the perpetrators defies description, as much as the inability to react appropriately resists rational explanation.”
Yes, Bangladeshi historians must re-examine the two events and find rational explanation for both events, because one may find Indian connection in both. There are evidences of Indian infiltrators in 1971 participating in provoking Bengalis in killing Biharis and leaving dead bodies in front of the advancing army.

It is also noteworthy that after coming to power with Indian support the current government in Bangladesh has been crushing the opposition since 2009. It first targeted those who supported united Pakistan idea in 1971 and then started politics of abduction and disappearance against all opposing voices. The US State Department has just released its 2020 country report with a long list of crimes. Historians of Bangladesh need to address these questions and Bangladesh too needs to incorporate them in textbooks in order to establish itself on a solid ground.

India also needs to conduct some soul-searching on its “achievements” of 1971. It is not only the BJP; the Indian National Congress leaders too hardly accepted the establishment of Pakistan. Indian nationalist leaders have always blamed Pakistan’s founding fathers Iqbal and Jinnah for diving the British India, but they never realized that their caste-ridden mindset will eventually compromise human dignity and thus real democratic value and that is why they seemed to have felt that there was no other alternative for British Indian Muslims but to have a separate nation. Indian leaders have conveniently forgotten that benevolent Jinnah got B R Ambedkar, the father of India’s constitution, elected to the Indian Constituent Assembly in 1946 through Bengal Muslim League. Jinnah wanted well for India, but Indian leaders continued with their conspiracy to break up Pakistan. They trapped Pakistan and unfortunately Pakistani leaders continued to fall into those traps. However, after half a century since 1971, the situation has changed. India has fallen into its own trap: the Hindutva ideology now has already isolated minority Dalits, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians – in fact, all minorities from political participation. In Pakistan, military dictators suppressed dissent opinion and minorities and in India Hitler-style, democratic forces are performing the same job. If India continues to pursue the same scheme, it will soon impact the mainstream and India will encounter the same fate as did Pakistan in 1971.

17 April 2021

Dr. Abdullah Al-Ahsan is a professor of Political Science and International Relations at Istanbul Şehir University.