A nation busy building the narrative of its birth will exaggerate the aspects of its suffering. Pakistan’s ‘painful birth’ syndrome is enveloped in its story of Partition — when men were slaughtered and women raped. The idea is not only to emphasise the effort it took to create Pakistan but to designate the ‘enemy’ who caused the suffering. Ultimately, the state will need an external enemy to achieve internal unity through projections of threat.
Bangladesh, too, had to have a national narrative of a ‘painful birth’ and Pakistan was clearly the agent of this pain. What comes to the fore in Bangladeshi nationalism is the sense of victimhood and the introversion it brings about. Indian scholar, Sarmila Bose has written about it in her book Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War (OUP 2011). She discovers that the Bangladeshi narrative focused on the Punjabi as the tormentor, not the Pakistani nation as a whole.
She notes from the accounts of 1971 that the Pakistan Army that killed the East Pakistanis contained Pathans and the Baloch, too, but it was the Punjabi who killed (p.167). In fact, it is said that the Pathans and the Baloch spared the victims. Bose challenges this: there were virtually no Baloch in the Pakistan Army; and some of the top officers who oversaw the killing — like Niazi and Yahya — were actually Pathans.
Bose writes: “West Pakistani sources typically frame the conflict in political terms — as a struggle between maintaining the unity of Pakistan and the secession of East Pakistan to form independent Bangladesh — while Bangladeshi nationalists typically frame it in ethnic terms, as (freedom-loving, democratic) Bengalis versus (colonial, oppressive) Punjabis” (p.170).
She demolishes the national consensus behind ‘liberation’ as expressed in the 1970 elections: “the voter turnout in East Pakistan is given as only 56 per cent, lower than in the provinces of Punjab; (66 per cent) and Sindh; (58 per cent) in West Pakistan. It would appear that 44 per cent of the East Pakistani electorate was too disinterested in the issues of the election to vote, or else had some disincentive to go out to vote” (p.171).
The world accepted the figure of 90,000 Pakistani troops taken as PoW by India. Bose discovers that Pakistan had only 45,000 troops, paramilitary and police in East Pakistan. The PoWs could not have been more than half of the total.
The other item in the national narrative is the “three million” killed by the Pakistan Army. “According to the Bangladeshi authorities, the Pakistan Army was responsible for killing three million Bengalis and raping 200,000 East Pakistani women” (p.177). She thinks the war dead were no more than 26,000 and extracts the figure from the situation reports of the Pakistan Army. Indian officers gave her the figures of no more than “300,000 to 500,000” (p.178).
She adds some ironies too: “Many Hindus were left unharmed by the Pakistan Army during 1971. As the witness accounts show, many Hindu refugees were leaving their villages and fleeing to India not because of any action of the army but because they could no longer bear the persecution by their Bengali Muslim neighbours” (p.182).
She ends by writing: “When the Pakistan Army came for Sheikh Mujib on the night of 25-26 March 1971, he was apprehensive; the soldiers arrested and imprisoned him, accusing him of treason. When soldiers of the Bangladesh Army came for Sheikh Mujib on 15 August 1975, he went to meet them as they were his own people; they killed him and all his extended family present, including his wife, two daughters-in-law and three sons, the youngest a child of ten” (p.183).
Published in The Express Tribune, January 8th, 2012.