In March this year, the prime minister and foreign minister of Bangladesh visited Oxford. I noticed that I was the only Pakistani among a gathering of mainly Bangladeshis and Britons. Conscious of the past, I gathered courage and went up to Sheikh Hasina and introduced myself. After an initial cold look, she quickly warmed up to me when I mentioned that I greatly respected her father and what he stood for in a united Pakistan. Then began reminisces — clearly still hurtful — of East Pakistan and 1970-1. The atrocities of 1971 were still fresh in their minds and it was clear that episode was a critical phase in the formation of their national identity. What was patent to me by the end of the conversation was that we in Pakistan have almost forgotten and refuse to learn from that experience.
I recently read an article by Professor Yasmin Saikia (the Hardt-Nickachos Chair in Peace Studies at the Center for the Study of Religion at Arizona State University) in which she analysed the interviews of Pakistani soldiers who had been in East Pakistan in 1971. Repeatedly what came out in the interviews was that they had been force-fed the propaganda that everyone in East Pakistan was a Hindu traitor and therefore deserved harsh treatment. This demonisation of fellow countrymen (most Mukhti Bahini were East Pakistanis) is perhaps the reason why we still refuse to engage with the real issues the debacle raised. After all, if they were all evil Hindu Indians, then what can we learn from them? The truth, as usual in Pakistan, is not what we have been officially told.
Let me point out two interrelated issues. First, the 1971 incidents should have shaken us as normal human beings. Most of the soldiers Professor Saikia interviewed said that in some way they felt that insaniyat (humanity) had been abandoned. They were traumatised by the scale and depth of the atrocities carried out by Pakistani soldiers, since they were asked to behave towards the Bengalis as if they were lower than even animals. This dehumanising of the ‘other’ still continues unabated in our public discourse. Our penchant of embarking on a military operation against our own people (twice in Balochistan since 1971, for instance) and even our random killing of political foes (for example in Karachi) shows how we still continue to treat a lot of people as sub-human — not worthy to live if they don’t agree with our perspective on something. Insaniyat is something we clearly lost in 1971, and still need to (re)gain.
Secondly, most big disasters usually begin with a sobering/reflective phase in a country. However, we seem to have skipped that period. Not only did we not publicly take stock of the situation (the Hamoodur Rehman Commission Report was only declassified in 2000 and that too via an Indian news organisation), we almost immediately acted as if nothing wrong had happened. In one of the most shocking of moves, the Pakistani government appointed General Tikka Khan as the chief of army in 1972 — barely a year after he was called the ‘Butcher of Bengal’ by Time and other commentators for his role in the mass killings of East Pakistanis. Here again we acted without any insaniyat. Rather than court-martialling and removing General Tikka, we honoured him further.
One of the premises of the two-nation theory was that the Muslims and Hindus of India had different heroes. Mahmud Ghaznavi was a champion for the Muslims but a brutal murderer for the Hindus; Shivaji was a valiant fighter for the Marhatta Hindu cause but a treacherous insurgent for Aurangzeb, and so on. However, 1971 created that rift between even Muslims. Every pupil in Pakistan reads about the heroic virtue of Rashid Minhas who, while a trainee pilot, brought down the plane flown by his trainer when he realised that he was defecting to Bangladesh. We gave Rashid Minhas the Nishan-e-Haider, our highest award, and Matiur Rahman, the trainer, our traitor, was given the Bir Sreshtho — Bangladesh’s highest award.
What distinguishes us is perhaps not just our religion, but our insaniyat. If we can treat others with respect, we can live with almost anyone.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 9th, 2011.