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Revisiting 1971

Updated December 16, 2018

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It is a date which will live in subcontinental infamy: Dec 16, 1971. On this day, the dream of Partition was violently broken and the new, independent country of Bangladesh was born.

Pakistan has suffered greatly in more recent times: the Taliban insurgency was the greatest existential threat to state and society since the secession of Bangladesh; and a fifth Balochistan insurgency may be low level in intensity, but is still the longest running in history.

Yet, 1971 and the events leading up to it were a cataclysm of incomparable proportions for undivided Pakistan.

And perhaps most dispiritingly for modern-era, post-1971 secession Pakistan, there has been a continuing effort to shield the public from the unvarnished, authenticated truths of the war of secession and a wilful failure to apply the lessons of that devastating conflict to Balochistan and the erstwhile tribal districts that have witnessed terrible violence in the first two decades of the 21st century.

If the 1971 war and the events leading up to it are to be widely understood in Pakistan, it is necessary that the Hamoodur Rahman Commission report be fully declassified by the state.

Indeed, before and since assuming public high office, Prime Minister Imran Khan has stressed the need for greater transparency and the people’s right to information. Mr Khan could make a signal contribution to national history by fully declassifying the Hamoodur Rahman Commission report and also making public more recent reports such as that of the Abbottabad Commission.

All successful, progressive, people-oriented democracies fearlessly examine national failures and debacles, and no matter the wrenching conclusions, strive to learn from them and apply their lessons to avoid or resolve future conflicts.

Certainly, India played a role in the secession of Bangladesh and there was an information war of sorts that was also fought at the time. But outright propaganda and facile explanations ought not to contaminate a deeper understanding of a complex set of factors that led to the loss of one half of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh.

Unquestionably, East Pakistan was unfairly treated by West Pakistan for much of the quarter century that the two wings were part of the same country.

The reluctance of the political and military leadership in present-day Pakistan to abide by the results of the 1970 general election also helped accelerate the crisis. And while arguably Mujibur Rahman and his supporters could have done more to seek a non-violent political settlement after the general election, the stubbornness of West Pakistan’s leaders more than matched that in the eastern wing.

Without the Hamoodur Rahman Commission report and serious, fair-minded scholarship, it is not easy to make a historically accurate assessment.

But this much is clear: lessons from the past ought to be learned if the conflicts of the present are to be durably resolved.

Published in Dawn, December 16th, 2018