Remembering an erased past — 1971

Published: April 6, 2011
The writer is associate professor of anthropology, Middle East Studies and Asian Studies, at the University of Texas, Austin and is currently a fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study at Berlin.

The writer is associate professor of anthropology, Middle East Studies and Asian Studies, at the University of Texas, Austin and is currently a fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study at Berlin.

The just ended month of March reminds us of many dates in our national history. March 23 is our national day when, in 1940, the Pakistan Resolution was presented by AK Fazlul Haq (Sher-e-Bangla), the same person who later became the chief minister of East Bengal, after the United Front routed the Muslim League in the March 1954 elections. This ministry was summarily dismissed in May, following ethnic and labour riots in East Bengal. Accusing the government of encouraging radical and anti-state elements, the Karachi-based political apparatus declared emergency, banned the Communist Party of Pakistan and sent Major General Iskandar Mirza to Dhaka to impose Governor’s rule.

If the language struggle of February 1952 was the first step, the dismissal of the United Front government made it clearer to a large percentage of East Pakistanis, that the West Pakistani elite was not willing to treat the province as an equal partner. The Awami League’s (AL) six points in the 1960s were a continuation of this sentiment of deprivation, inspired as they were by the United Front’s earlier demands for autonomy and parity. These six points asked for the supremacy of legislature, for the federal government to only retain defence and foreign affairs, for two freely convertible currencies (to safeguard against flight of capital from East Pakistan), for the authority to collect revenue by the provinces (the federal government would get its share), for two separate foreign accounts and, finally, for the right of provinces to raise their own militia. There was also a call for moving the naval headquarters to East Pakistan. This was not a secessionist argument, rather it was a response to the political maltreatment by West Pakistan, and a call for autonomy and equity, much in accord with the Pakistan Resolution itself.

In the December 1971 elections, the Awami League emerged as the largest party, and it had to be invited to form the government and initiate the process of constitution-making. Rather, between January and March of 1971, the ruling military junta twice postponed the dates for convening the National Assembly. It also started an incessant drive to portray the six points as a conspiracy to break up the country. It is ironic to note that the regime had earlier permitted the Awami League to conduct its campaign for an entire year on these very points. Somehow they became a problem after AL’s victory in the most fair and free elections held in the country.

This brings me to another date, March 26, the national day of Bangladesh. This past week was the fortieth anniversary of that dreadful night of March 25, 1971. Lest we forget, this night saw the most brutal of violence unleashed by a standing army on its own citizens. The horror of that night, when many Bengali intellectuals, academics, students, political workers and common people were killed, is an unwritten and unremembered part of our history. This was followed by nine months of continued killings, rapes and general mayhem, further alienating the East Bengali population from a solution that could have kept Pakistan together.

In official circles, this violence was justified to maintain the nation’s integrity. The path taken did not save the country from the ensuing death, destruction and subsequent division, along with the humiliation of surrender in December of 1971.  The only viable route was to convene the National Assembly session and respect the will of the people by handing power to the majority party. The Assembly could have voted for autonomy or secession, but it would have shown a democratic and peaceful way out of the impasse.

Another reason given for this intervention was to stop the killing of non-Bengalis. There is no denying that killings, rapes and other atrocities were perpetrated on non-Bengalis in East Pakistan, in early March. Many lost their lives in Chittagong, Saidpur, Dinajpur, Mymensingh and other places across East Bengal (even my own relatives). However, we also need to understand that the postponement of the assembly session, which was scheduled for March 3, had generated a lot of anger and angst among the Bengali populace who read this as a blatant denial by the West Pakistani governing elite of their right to form government. Archival material has shown that the then Governor of East Pakistan, Admiral SM Ahsan — one of the most decent and honourable public servants this nation has known — had earlier warned Islamabad that if the assembly session was postponed a second time, it would lead to widespread disturbances, including ethnic violence. Rather than heed his warning, Admiral Ahsan was summarily dismissed and relieved of his post on March 1, 1971.  As the intellectual Eqbal Ahmed wrote in 1971, clearly the saving of civilians was not the motive for intervention as the killings went on for three weeks prior to March 25, while the generals were seeking extra-parliamentary solutions to the crisis. On the contrary, the subsequent military action clearly increased the killing of Pakistani citizens (mostly Bangla-speaking), and also made millions cross the border into India as refugees fleeing the horror that had been unleashed in their homes. Indeed, every life is sacred, yet killings by vigilantes and excesses by political workers, cannot be morally equated to the actions of a state and an organised and professional military sworn to protect its own citizens.

Rather than blame a politician or an individual, we need to clearly comprehend how a non-elected military regime acted criminally against its own people in a moment of supreme national crisis. Collectively, we need to acknowledge this moment in our history, a period that has been systematically erased from national discourse and popular memory. A further and important issue is one of apology to the people of Bangladesh for the atrocities perpetrated by the Pakistani state machinery during 1971. During a recent visit to Dhaka, to attend a workshop on 1971, Bangladeshi colleagues acknowledged the atrocities committed on the non-Bangla speaking population during this period. The workshop also made evident that the Bangladeshi national history is by itself a contested terrain, yet the pain still lingers, the wound has yet to heal. Where is our acknowledgement of our past? Taking responsibility for the infliction of widespread trauma in 1971, along with an apology by the Pakistani state to the people of Bangladesh, may finally start a healing process, perhaps for both sides. It may also sensitise us to the horrors of war and destruction and make us adhere to the principle of ‘never again’.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 7th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (37)

  • John
    Apr 6, 2011 - 10:46PM

    Yah, right. As if it is going to happen. Never again? Not sure as of today.Recommend

  • Apr 6, 2011 - 10:50PM

    To the author: Mr. “Professor”, you forgot to read these:

    Blood and Tears

    The courageous Pak army stand on the eastern front —Sarmila Bose

  • Bambbaayyaa
    Apr 6, 2011 - 11:06PM

    Now that Hasina has taken over … there is a sudden realisation of apology and reconceliation ??? were u sleeping all these years ??? why u did not penned ur thoughts 10 yrs before ??? U killed all that was intelligent and Hindu in bangaldesh … u activated relegious sentiments in Bangladesh to keep India on its toes … and now suddenly u realised that oohhh we forgot to aplologise Bangaldesh for last 25 yrs …. what a humbug … hypocrates …. No one is going to forgive you … Only time will take its toll ….Recommend

  • Vicram Singh
    Apr 6, 2011 - 11:30PM

    For your information:


    Bangladesh plans to honour late Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi for her key role in the country’s 1971 ‘Liberation War’.

    “India played an important role in the 1971 war and Bangabandhu (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman) acknowledged that many a time. To honour her (Indira), the government is planning to rechristen an important road after her name,” private Bdnews24 quoted a source in the Liberation War Affairs Ministry as saying.

    A separate monument would be built to honour Indian defence personnel martyred in the war, the source said.

    Former Indian Foreign Minister Sardar Swaran Singh, who played a significant role, will be accorded special honour as well, the source said.

    “The foreign citizens will be given honorary citizenship and they will be presented with a crest of 50 gram gold of 18 carat,” the source revealed.

    Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Dipu Moni said the government was preparing the list of the foreign nationals to be honoured for their contribution to the country’s freedom movement


  • faraz
    Apr 7, 2011 - 1:08AM

    Bengalis deserved independence from the corrput civil and military elite of West Pakistan.Recommend

  • Cosmo
    Apr 7, 2011 - 1:14AM

    A very good article !! Finally some kind of introspection by Pakistanis. If you could do the same for the militancy exerted by your Army in other parts of the world, the world would be a much safer place to live in.Recommend

  • Apr 7, 2011 - 1:16AM

    The Hamood ur Rehman Commission report, buried for decades was quietly released in 2001 without much fanfare. Those who were found guilty of atrocities not only continued to serve in the Army but attained senior ranks and then served in organizations such as Fauji Foundation. We must deal with our past so that we dont repeat it again. Many would argue that we already are .

  • Andrea
    Apr 7, 2011 - 1:22AM

    I think it’s better for Pakistan to move on. No matter how many books show how Indians worked with Bengalis to create mischief, the past is over. The people of Bangladesh are a sovereign nation who worked with India to build their own nation. They deserve their own land since Pakistanis never really accepted them. We all knew that Bengalis had more in common with Indians than with West Pakistan. Bangladesh’s destiny is with India; We are part of a different cultural and geographical region in Pakistan.Recommend

  • A R Khan, Wisconsin
    Apr 7, 2011 - 1:48AM

    An Excellent piece worthy of praise. You are very right, the Pakistani state owes a big apology to the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. I would like to add that the army wasn’t alone in committing extreme acts of violence against the then East Pakistanis. There were civilian militant groups too comprised of students and other “patriots” (as Nadeem F Paracha mentioned in a recent article quoting multiple sources like Tarek Fateh’s “Chasing a Mirage”).

    I would like to read more by this author. Recommend

  • Pakistan Khan
    Apr 7, 2011 - 1:49AM

    Its Pakistan. Our national history is full of lies and fabricated tales. Military is a holy cow here. U can say nothing about military. Military is not for this country,instead this country is for military. Recommend

  • Raqib Ali
    Apr 7, 2011 - 3:18AM

    A wrong is a wrong.

    There should be apology for killing civilians, whether it was Bengalis or it was non-Bengalis by Mukti Bahini. Recommend

  • syed ali
    Apr 7, 2011 - 4:16AM

    What we need to acknowledge is that the very idea of creating a state with two parts 1000 miles aprt from each other with totally different cultures, languages and history was wrong to begin with. There was no way this was going to be successful. The temparament of west and east pakistanis was entirely different. Yes you are right that we should apologize to bangali people. But Bangladesh has also done nothing to bring to justice those criminals of Mukti Bhani who were involved in killing and raping of the west-Pakistani’s. So if there is alot of shame for us to acknowledge, there is also some shame that Bangla Desh needs to acknowledge too. You dont make Rapists and killers of civilians your national heros as Bangladesh government did after their independence.Recommend

  • Anoop
    Apr 7, 2011 - 7:59AM

    According to the Text books in Pakistan, the Author is way off!

    And, many comments will contest your view, Sir. They will blame India for instigating all the trouble and even the US! who was an ally of Pakistan at that time.Recommend

  • Sharjeel Jawaid
    Apr 7, 2011 - 8:05AM

    Bangladesh celeberates its liberation day on March 26 and Victory day on December 16. For a 360 degree over view, I would suggest reading Hasan Zaheer, The Separation of East Pakistan; an excellent researched work published by Oxford University Press, Pakistan.Recommend

  • myja
    Apr 7, 2011 - 10:14AM

    The thing is we dont respect the opinion of others the problem starts when one starts thinking that one is more patriotic than others…it spreads like that among communities as well….attrocities were committed by both sides and we should admitt that …to make our bengali brothers understand that one can quote the example of ‘Chitagong Hills’…the way independance movement was treated by the bangladeshi government was no more different from the way Paksitani army treated the assumed rebellion in East Pakistan…so let by gones be by gones Recommend

  • M. Tauseef Barlas
    Apr 7, 2011 - 10:17AM

    both sides committed crimes. why bengali refuse to accept their crimes?Recommend

  • bvindh
    Apr 7, 2011 - 10:55AM

    Funny thing is that Pakistanis still feel betrayed by Bangladeshis!!Recommend

  • Feroze A Ursani
    Apr 7, 2011 - 11:19AM

    There couldnot have been a better concise piece written on a grave injustice to a people by its own standing army. An apology would be a good place to start, however justice could only be served if atleast the tenements of the Hamoodur Rehman Report are enacted by the excecutive in both letter and spirit.
    Thank you for knocking on our collective conscience once more so that the Ides of March are never forgotten.

  • Bambbaayyaa
    Apr 7, 2011 - 12:06PM

    kyyaaa hua bhhaaii ??? main kuch kadwa bol diya kyya ??
    my comments did not appear ?? I hhope u all have to do some sole searchingRecommend

  • s.g. jilanee
    Apr 7, 2011 - 1:17PM

    Pervez Musharraf dd offer a public apology when he laid wreath at the martyrs’ memorial in Savar. It is Bangladesh’s turn to own up to its excesses. Recommend

  • Mango Man
    Apr 7, 2011 - 1:47PM

    Finally, an admission! Great to see that! Now, the correction can begin!Recommend

  • Usman Ahmad
    Apr 7, 2011 - 3:53PM

    No body did that!..Recommend

  • M. Ahmed
    Apr 7, 2011 - 4:53PM

    Sher-e-Bangla A. K. Fazlul Haq rallied behind the Quaid for the creation of Pakistan. So did Khawaja Nazimuddin and Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy. The three Bengali stalwarts of Pakistan movement. Such was the momentum of political events in 1947.

    Come 1954, the political scene presented a different spectacle all together. It was totally upside down with Muslim League torn to pieces after the elections.

    Another seventeen years on, 1971 witnessed the birth of Bangladesh.

    Why Bengali leaders did not choose a different and independent political path in 1947?

    History is witness that Bangladesh got independence from Pakistan. Seeking independence
    from the British crown was not an option at all for the Bengalis.

    Quaid had to tell the Bengalis in 1948 that Urdu shall be the state language of Pakistan. It was clear that Bengali language had no place in the scheme of the Pakistan government.

    Bengalis kept quiet then. They spoke out in 1951 and started commemorating Language Day followed by United Front election victory in 1954 and finally the decisive year of 1971 saw the birth of Bangladesh.

    Bangladesh owes its birth to Pakistan. If there was no Pakistan, there would be no Bangladesh.Recommend

  • Right IN
    Apr 7, 2011 - 5:21PM

    AOA. Great article and, more than that, a great thought.

    Compassion is the greatest gift bestowed on us – the humans. Our deen teaches us that it is of immense value to initiate rapproachement with the one u have some issue.

    1971 was the most astounding failure of state apparatus in modern history, when it turned its guns on its own citizens. Most horrendous it was and so it shall remain unless the panacea of an Apology cures it. I have been to Dhaka and I have never felt any alienation in our Bengali brethren about us. Instead, one version of events that I came across at most times about the tragedy of 1971 was that it was West Pakistan that made it sure that East Pakistan separated while East Pakistanis did not want it to end this way, the fateful night of 25th March 1971 notwithstanding.

    We in Pakistan have always been told that it was East Pakistani people and their leaders who always wanted to get separated and they found a chance in 1971 and did exactly that. I feel this was wrong from the outset. Despite the language riots of 1952 and routing of ML in elections of 1954 it was the East Bengal leadership that ensured the continuity of this country by way of agreeing to the principle of parity with the western part of the country despite being in majority. Hats off to them and East Bengal, its people and its leadership will always remain the most bright chapter in the history of Pakistan. Recommend

  • Bangash
    Apr 7, 2011 - 7:35PM

    No need to apologize to traitors.Recommend

  • Osman
    Apr 7, 2011 - 10:02PM

    That’s funny…I actually don’t remember being around for 1971. O, that’s right I wasn’t born yet and neither was most of the Pakistan you see today. Still, the army performed horribly in its 9 months of action, death tolls have been clearly exaggerated, and I’m sad that the tragic loss of life happened but I am not apologizing for anything I did and neither should Pakistan. The actions of some bad men should not illicit an apology of responsibility by a nation of hundreds of millions (over the years) who did nothing. We can all regret what happened though. Recommend

  • Raj
    Apr 7, 2011 - 10:36PM

    @Bangash : Do you feel your forefathers were traitors when they supported creation of Pakistan?Recommend

  • Apr 7, 2011 - 10:46PM

    we are mostly in denial

    history repeats itself for those refusing to learn from it

    balochistan is well on its way to be ,71’s east pakistanRecommend

  • G. Din
    Apr 8, 2011 - 3:08AM

    “…I am not apologizing for anything I did and neither should Pakistan. The actions of some bad men should not illicit an apology of responsibility by a nation of hundreds of millions (over the years) who did nothing.
    Your answer is right in your sentence -.a nation of hundreds of millions (over the years) who did nothing. Do you think you and the nation of hundreds of millions had any duty to do something so that the tragedy that was enacted in your name could be prevented? Niether you nor Pakistan can wash your hands off of all the blood that was spilled needlessly and the ignominy that Pakistan earned! History will not allow it but you probably do not care!

    ” We can all regret what happened though”
    As long as you are abdicating your responsibility, why even regret?Recommend

  • Ratib
    Apr 8, 2011 - 3:27AM

    When I die, my children will have to clear my debts. That’s Islam.

    When the government borrows money from private banks, the “Govt” must repay it, even if there’s a different party in power. That’s because the “Govt” is a separate legal entity.

    Similarly, the Govt’s wrongdoings must be redeemed by apology from the current Govt. No, we don’t want the Pakistani people to be sorry, but the Govt, in retrospect, should.

    Following the precedence, we should also demand an apology from the US. But they’re the US, right? All we’ve done to them is spread nationwide hatred against Henry Kissinger.Recommend

  • Ratib
    Apr 8, 2011 - 3:31AM

    Willem van Schendel, in his book The History of Bangladesh, writes, that the people in Bangladesh are different from those in West Bengal. For Bangladeshis have their own unique history (dating back to the Partition of Bengal, 1905), and now, their own culture and traditions.

    My point? NEVER say our destiny is with India. This is Bangladesh.Recommend

  • Ratib
    Apr 8, 2011 - 3:33AM

    Hosting 54% of the Pakistani population, we looked up to the central government in the West to take care of us, for TWENTY FOUR years. Guess what they do?

    It really is a shame that they call us traitors. Because according to me, they’re the traitors. Had they not messed things up starting 1949, who knew what would happen?

    But at least, I’m grateful I’m not labeled as a Pakistani. After what has happened of Pakistan, it’d severely ruin my trips abroad.Recommend

  • Almaaz
    Apr 8, 2011 - 7:48PM

    @Ratib… Your trips are still ruined abroad, whether people say it on your face or not they know you as a muslim and a follower of Islam :)… not a great thing to be tagged in todays worldRecommend

  • Mrs Z Khan
    Apr 9, 2011 - 3:57PM

    The Bengalis were clearly wronged and it is EVERY Pakistanis duty recognise the injustice that is part of the country’s sad history. However, I am appalled that you have conveniently forgotten to mention a major player in all this – one Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. It is far too convenient to single out the generals.

    ps. I was in Pakistan at the time of the whole crisis and the ensuing war. I well remember the pomp with which Bhutto and his PPP ‘chelas’ moved around once in power.Recommend

  • Mrs Z Khan
    Apr 9, 2011 - 4:15PM

    I agree that the East Pakistanis/Bangladeshis were very badly treated and it is EVERY Pakistani’s duty to recognize the injustice that is part of the country’s sad history. However, you have conveniently forgotten to mention a very important player in the crisis – namely, one Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. It is far too convenient to just blame the generals.

    By the way, I was in Pakistan at the time of the crisis, the war and the years after when Bhutto and his lackeys roamed around as if they owned the whole country.Recommend

  • Mrs Z Khan
    Apr 9, 2011 - 4:19PM

    apologies for the duplicate comments – my computer is playing up!Recommend

  • Ravindra
    Apr 10, 2011 - 7:37PM

    in my opinion first apologise semi pakistanis, free them from this mess of terrorism and then think about bangladesh.
    Iam sorry but ve no other word 2 write.Recommend

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