Thursday, 25 February 2016 16:29


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Scars of Bangladesh independence war 40 years on

I was born in the middle of a cold winter night in December 1971 in Sindh, Pakistan. There was a blackout and bombs were falling.

Pakistan was losing a war and it was also losing its eastern half, separated from the rest of the country by more than 1,600km (990 miles) of India.

After nine months of internal strife and a military crackdown against Bangladeshi separatists, the full-scale war with India was swift and decisive. It lasted just 13 days.

The defeat of the Pakistani army on 16 December 1971 was a triumph for India and the Bengali insurgents it had assisted.

For Pakistan, it was perhaps the darkest moment in its history and the ultimate humiliation. The army stood accused of mass murder, torture and rape. Tens of thousands of Pakistani soldiers were taken prisoners of war.

Forty years on, I decided to examine the legacy of this brief but bitter war.


Growing up in Pakistan, we did not talk much about the war at home. In school, we seemed to rush through that period of our history.

On a recent visit to my old school in Karachi, I picked up an officially approved history book.

The book recognises that East Pakistanis felt culturally subjugated and economically exploited by their dominant Western half.

But it suggests the causes for separation include India, Hindu propaganda and international conspiracies.

At my old school I asked a group of teenage students if they had heard of the Bangladeshi accusations of genocide or widespread rape by the Pakistani army.

"That's wrong, that's propaganda!" several said.

"The Pakistani army is a professional army. They are Muslims. They couldn't have done that to their brothers and sisters over there."

'Foolish operation'

But if Pakistan has tried to treat the events of 1971 as a closed chapter, in Bangladesh, the wounds of the war are very fresh.

On my first ever visit to Dhaka, it was immediately clear that the Bangladeshi narrative of 1971 remains firmly focused on the violence unleashed by the Pakistani army.

Many Bangladeshis still feel very bitter about their treatment by West Pakistan, with discriminatory policies over economics and language.

In 1971, the West Pakistan leadership appeared to have made up its mind to answer this resentment with military force.

"It makes me think how foolish the entire operation was, how mad it was and how tragic it was," said Serajul Islam Choudhury, a professor at Dhaka University.

"There's no possibility of bringing down an entire people by the military coming from abroad. The loss we suffered was enormous."

As he stared at the list of names on a memorial honouring the teachers, students and staff of Dhaka University who died in 1971, his emotion is palpable.

"To this day, I feel very sad thinking of my colleagues who were killed during the military operations."

The Bangladeshi government says that three million people were killed during the nine months of conflict. Some say that figure is too high and unverifiable.

And the mainstream Bangladeshi narrative is also accused of omitting alleged atrocities perpetrated by Bengali separatists against communities who were deemed loyal to Pakistan.

Entire villages are reported to have been attacked, homes burnt and families killed.

Aly Zaker was among thousands of Bengalis who took up arms to fight for independence.

"Our target was the Pakistan occupation force and their cohorts, who were created within the confines of Bangladesh with quislings," he says.

He believes that minorities only faced retribution after they had acted as proxies of the Pakistani army and killed Bengalis.

Existential fear

Back then, the Pakistani army was accused of forming militia groups to do its bidding in East Pakistan. Since then, it has been seen to use similar tactics in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

Many warn that the dangerous nexus between the military and jihadi militant groups is now threatening Pakistan from within.

Ikram Seghal, a defence analyst who lectures in Pakistani military colleges, believes the biggest internal challenge to Pakistan today is terrorism.

But like many in the military, he sees India as the principal external threat.

"If you look at the Indian armed forces deployment along the Pakistani border - their forward bases, their armoured divisions, their strike divisions - they can mobilise and go to war with us in 72 hours.

"While for us, short of a nuclear strike, we cannot hold them."

This existential fear of a bigger, hostile India is central to Pakistan's security paradigm. In 1971 this fear was reinforced by the crucial role India played in the break up of Pakistan.

For India, the situation became serious when nearly 10 million Bengali refugees crossed the border into its territory. There was a humanitarian crisis, but also an opportunity to cut Pakistan down to size.

Pakistan's army today

AK Khandker a senior minister in the Bangladeshi government who served as a separatist commander in 1971,  says India started providing weapons and training to the rebels in May of that year, and stepped up the programme after signing a pact with the Soviet Union in August.


According to Mr Khandker, the attacks by Indian-trained separatist fighters were so effective, that by November "the Pakistani army was physically and morally exhausted."

Today he says that without India, the independence of Bangladesh "would have been extremely, extremely difficult".

One might expect that the Pakistani army's failure in 1971 would have diminished its power in the country. But in my lifetime, its influence in shaping and running the country has grown exponentially.

It seems the conclusion the Pakistani army drew from its defeat in 1971 was to grow stronger; to exercise more control over civilian affairs.

Many in Pakistan still regard the army as a saviour, the glue that holds the country together, saving it from corrupt politicians and enemies like India - and increasingly America.

But others feel it was the army's tight grip on power that contributed to the break up of Pakistan in the first place.

They believe that the military has stifled the country's democratic development, undermining its very fabric.

"I'm a soldier and proud of being a soldier. But all the ills of Pakistan are because of the armed forces intervention in the civilian affairs," says Lt Gen Abdul Qadir Baloch.

He retired from the army just a few years ago and is now a member of parliament.

"If the army had not imposed as many martial laws in this country - four so far - we would have had 15 to 20 elections by now and a much better lot of politicians than the sort of pygmies we have got today."




Read 328908 times Last modified on Thursday, 25 February 2016 16:33


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