The shadow of 1971

Published: December 20, 2011
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The writer is distinguished Professor of Economics, Beaconhouse National University, and FC College University

The writer is distinguished Professor of Economics, Beaconhouse National University, and FC College University

When the military government of 1971 committed atrocities against the people of East Pakistan, it undermined the legitimacy of the very state it purported to defend. In West Pakistan, the state’s propaganda machine was deployed in the familiar whipping up of public opinion into a frenzy that was fuelled by a combination of misguided notions of religious ‘purity’ and ethnic prejudice. The Bengalis, who at the time constituted the majority of Pakistanis, were demonised as a seditious ethnic group soiled by Hindu influence. The consequent failure of the people of West Pakistan to rise up in mass protest ruptured the fabric of humanity that gives cohesion to society and ennobles national consciousness.

The people in post-1971 Pakistan did not come to terms with the crimes against humanity that had been committed and this cast a shadow on the national psyche. The displacement of human values from the practice of governance, gradually, eroded the institutional structure of society and state, since democratic institutions are underpinned by the norms and values of civilisation.

The essential factor in the debacle of 1971 was the fact that a military government was in power. It chose to use military force as a response to what were essentially political demands of the majority, following the electoral success of the Awami League led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The mode of use of military force, unconstrained by considerations of professional discipline, law or morality was due to of a gradual degeneration of the military cause by its involvement in politics, following the Ayub Khan coup d’état of 1958. This fact is clearly articulated in the published version of the Hamoodur Rahman Commission Report (as declassified by the government): “one of the major causes of our disgrace was the moral degeneration which had set in among senior military commanders as a result of their continued involvement in martial law duties right from 1958”.

The commission identified the main allegations of ‘excesses’ committed by the Pakistan Army, some of which are: “excessive use of force and firepower in Dhaka during the night of March 25 and 26, 1971”; “senseless and wanton arson and killings in the countryside during the course of sweep operation…”; “killing of intellectuals and professionals like doctors and engineers…”; “killing of East Pakistani civilian officers, businessmen and industrialists ….”; “raping of a large number of East Pakistani women …”

The Hamoodur Rahman Commission compiles evidence on the allegations through statements by senior military officers. For example, General Niazi, in referring to the period prior to the posting, testifies: “Military action was based on the use of force, primarily, and at many places indiscriminate use of force was resorted to …”. Brigadier Shah Abdul Qasim states: “Excessive force was used on that night. Army personnel acted under the influence of revenge and anger during the military operation. Major General Rao Farman Ali, adviser to the Government of East Pakistan testifies: “Harrowing tales of rape, loot, arson, harassment and of insulting and degrading behaviour were narrated in general terms…”.

That a professional army could descend to such depths shows what happens when an organisation is divorced from its moral moorings. Since 1971, the Pakistan Army has been reconstructed as one of the finest fighting forces within its technological constraints, in the world. The basis of its fighting capability is the discipline, strength of character and moral integrity that are inculcated during the training process of soldiers and officers alike. The lesson of 1971 is that the military must neither govern nor should it be used against its own people. The operations in Balochistan over the years, as indeed repeated military interventions in the political sphere since 1971, make one wonder whether the lessons of East Pakistan have been learnt.

In the civilian sphere, the lesson of the 1971 tragedy is to give importance to establishing rationality and universal human values in institutional structures and in political behaviour. The first step in rectifying the degeneration of politics in Pakistan would be to offer an apology to the people of Bangladesh. As a citizen of Pakistan, I humbly do so now.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 20th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (13)

  • Khan Jr
    Dec 20, 2011 - 1:23AM

    The Hamoodur Rahman Commission stated “one of the major causes of our disgrace was the moral degeneration which had set in among senior military commanders as a result of their continued involvement in martial law duties …”.

    Substitute martial law duties for politics and one begins to comprehend the current mess we find ourselves in. It is time these state employees concentrated solely on the job they are paid to do and that is defend our borders – they should leave the running of Pakistan to others.

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  • You Said It
    Dec 20, 2011 - 2:19AM

    The term “professional” army applies to an army that confines itself to the barracks. That’s certainly not true of the Pakistani army.

    There can be no reversal of the “degeneration of politics in Pakistan”, until it stops undermining civilian governments through unconstitutional means. The lesson of 1971 has not been learnt to date.

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  • G. Din
    Dec 20, 2011 - 3:01AM

    “Since 1971, the Pakistan Army has been reconstructed as one of the finest fighting forces within its technological constraints, in the world.”
    Isn’t it a pity that such “reconstruction as one of the finest fighting forces” was not visible in the the first test in the fighting arena as was evidenced in the Kargil caper? No, Mr. Author, the fault lies elsewhere. Pakistan army has to make up its mind as to whether, in Hindu terms, they wish to stay with their duty of “Kshatriyas” (soldiers, defenders) for which their nation recruited them and pays them or, adopt the ways of “Vaish” i.e become baniyas, ( create wealth (for itself)). Apparently, it is the latter that they are much more comfortable with. The malaise shall continue until you find a solution to this basic dichotomy.

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  • DS
    Dec 20, 2011 - 4:07AM

    As rightly stated Balochis should be treated humanely otherwise a new but a similar problem stands right in front.Recommend

  • N
    Dec 20, 2011 - 6:55AM

    Very decent of you to apologize. We all need to. They were human beings and part of us. They broke away and moved on. We can’t unless the establishment – mainly our Army apologizes But don’t count on it. Recommend

  • wonderer
    Dec 20, 2011 - 12:30PM

    Is it fair of Pakistan to demand an apology from NATO attack when BD is denied an apology so cussedly?

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  • Observer
    Dec 20, 2011 - 12:49PM

    Great, well-articulated and intellectually honest article.

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  • R S JOHAR
    Dec 20, 2011 - 12:52PM

    What ever atrocities were committed in Bangladesh can’t be undone now. However most importantly, lessons should have been learnt as brought out by the author has not been done since the same type of measures are being employed against the Balochis which might lead to further disintegeration of the country.

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  • Scorpio
    Dec 20, 2011 - 1:54PM

    I am not defending the Army actionn but you have not mentioned the context in which excessive force was employed. prior to the Army action on March 25, Non- Bengalis Settlers in East Pakistan since Partition and other West Pakistanis were massacred in very large numbers. the news was censored in fear of retaliation against Bengalis in West Pakistan.

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  • dasmir
    Dec 20, 2011 - 3:57PM

    Since 1971, the Pakistan Army has been reconstructed as one of the finest fighting forces within its technological constraints, in the world.”
    Anmd then contradiction,repeated intervention,Action in Balochistan!
    And then read Gen(R) Musharraf vociferously advocating role of army in civilian affair! and look what Pasha and Kayani doing with tacit aproval from all the big wigs of media.

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  • Hemant Gandhi
    Dec 20, 2011 - 4:38PM

    I am not here to demean the great name of Pakistan, but, to join Dr. Hussain take a moment to grieve for the many Bengalis were mistreated and killed in 1971.

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  • S. Amir
    Dec 20, 2011 - 6:08PM

    According to the Brits, General Naizi was a brilliant general and was awarded special citations for “tactics” at the Academy. So it would seems strange that he lost the war on the eastern front- but he did. General Naizi also wrote a book before his death and it has been “declassified” by the Pak. Authorities. Along with the Hamoodur Rehman report his account should have been discussed in the article. I am dismayed that none of Yous<(commentary experts and writers) bothered to look into this before hitting the press. Lessons, if any drawn thus will be self appeasing ones. Recommend

  • Cynical
    Dec 21, 2011 - 4:19AM

    Give me a break. Enough of 1971.
    Come december and every body has a story about how meat eating Pakistanis lost a war against fish eating Bengalis and vegetarian Indians.

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