Forty years on, Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi history books still promote conflicting narratives about Bangladeshi independence. The tragedy of 1971 thus remains not only that many war crimes went unpunished, but also that the inter-generational transmission of whitewashed propaganda continues to feed millions of South Asians with a view of history that is, at best, a poor reflection of empirical reality.
Each of the three protagonists in the conflict is guilty of falsifying narratives, though not in the same measure. The standard Pakistani narrative holds that proportionate military force had become necessary and was used to subjugate the rebellion of a few bandits and that no war crimes were committed by its soldiers. For Bengalis, the war was a just revolt against years of political, economic and military subjugation by the western half and it ended with ‘three million’ atrocities committed by Pakistani forces — the liberation fighters apparently did not harm anyone. India, for its part, has always claimed that its intervention in Bangladesh was purely charitable, conducted only to rescue oppressed Bengalis from Pakistani brutality.
The Pakistani narrative was, and still remains, the most unsettling. If a country breaks into two, it is but natural to expect a rational state’s power brokers to engage in greater introspection and self-reflection so it can avoid another dark chapter in its life. However, this has not happened.
Civilian and military governments in Pakistan did not prosecute those responsible for war crimes or even sanction anyone legally for allowing the civil war to occur; granted that a few high-ranking soldiers lost their jobs, but no one was meaningfully held accountable judicially or in parliament. The nation thus never learnt why the use of brute force by its hitherto invincible army had failed so miserably to pacify the people of East Pakistan.
Indeed, General Yahya Khan’s arrogant speeches during and after the war provide a chilling insight into the general disdain felt by many in the Pakistani military and the political elite towards a policy of humility. Even the shameful surrender of 90,000 soldiers in what was to be the largest post-World War II prisoners of war surrender was not enough to prompt sincere regret. If these mythical delusions were confined to memoirs or petty conversation, one would not find this too objectionable. However, many of these false narratives have been fed wholesale to millions. It is still common to find well-educated Pakistanis who have internalised the propaganda that there was no causal link between West Pakistani subjugation and the onset of civil war, that the Pakistan Army committed no war crimes and that defeat was primarily a result of a foreign conspiracy.
India’s claims of being the benevolent neighbour intervening for humanity’s sake also, of course, need to be checked. It cleverly saw an opportunity to dismember its adversary into two and it was clearly troubled by the millions of refugees turning up at its door — so it acted mainly out of self-interest, not romantic and altruistic ideals of Bengali welfare. In fact, it never really helped Bangladesh stand on its feet after independence and the two countries have generally had hostile relations ever since.
As for Bangladeshi narratives, there is relatively less fabrication here. It is true that the West Pakistani establishment had subjugated the people of that country for years; refused to enlist Bengalis in important positions in the military, did not share political and economic power with them equitably, marginalised their linguistic heritage and, of course, finally robbed them of a democratic victory that was rightfully theirs in 1971.
Nevertheless, a caveat is necessary: the three million war crime victims’ figure that the Bengali government promotes is not generally considered true — even if the number is, say, 100,000, it is still a mass atrocity worthy of attention and so the Bengali propagandists should not do injury to their narrative by corrupting their relatively ‘clean’ story.
Further, as Bangladesh begins the process of trying war criminals, why doesn’t it acknowledge the many war crimes committed against Biharis and others by its Mukti Bahini liberation fighters, aided by India? The events of 1971 are in the past but false narratives still remain. Perhaps it is now time for the South Asian neighbours to do a service to their people and inject some honesty into their respective histories and finally ditch the big lies of 1971.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 16th, 2011.