POLITICS: AN OLIVE BRANCH OR TWO

Published December 12, 2021
Thousands of Bihari refugees continue to languish inside the refugee camps 
in Dhaka | AlJazeera
Thousands of Bihari refugees continue to languish inside the refugee camps in Dhaka | AlJazeera

On December 16, 2021, Bangladesh will celebrate its Independence Day with victory parades, while Pakistan, may briefly pause to mourn the loss of its eastern province. The next day, it will be business as usual for the people of the two countries.

However, like me, countless others in both countries will relive the horrors of that day from 1971. I am a survivor of the massacre of Urdu-speaking people, in what was East Pakistan, in 1971. I lost seven members of my family to the misdirected, or rather thoughtless, anger of the Bengali nationalists/ Mukti Bahini against the defenceless ‘Bihari’ civilians.

The Urdu-speaking residents of then-East Pakistan were known as ‘Biharis.’ A thriving community of over one million Biharis was decimated forever, with tens of thousands killed, while hundreds of thousands more were forced to flee the region or consigned to refugee camps.

At the same time, the lowest estimate of Bengalis killed during the army operation in East Pakistan is in the hundreds of thousands.

People from my generation on either side of the divide, who were caught in the events of 1971, will carry the deep scars of the conflict to their graves. But what legacy do we wish to leave behind for our children and grandchildren? Could the 50th anniversary of the ‘Fall of Dhaka’ / Independence of Bangladesh be a time to begin a healing process?

The enormous human toll of the conflict of 1971 makes it imperative for the two nations to come to terms with their shared history. Otherwise, they will remain trapped in the past, endlessly living and reliving the pain evoked by agonising memories.

Fifty years on from Pakistan’s dismemberment and the creation of Bangladesh, it is perhaps time to heal the wounds of 1971

In recent years, I have met many ordinary citizens, from both Bangladesh and Pakistan, who want to change the status quo. They acknowledge the shared history of the two nations, particularly their joint struggle for independence from the British. This struggle had arguably found a voice in Bengal before it did in other parts of the Subcontinent. Their sacrifices, the heroism, and the sense of shared destiny led to the creation of Pakistan in 1947.

Many also concede that, from 1947 to 1971, the 24 years spent together as a nation, were not all bad. They were marked by highs and lows commonly encountered in newborn countries. The first two decades of Bangladesh were perhaps more tumultuous in comparison.

On December 16, 2019, Bangladeshis celebrated 48 years of the country’s emergence as a new country | Bangla Tribune
On December 16, 2019, Bangladeshis celebrated 48 years of the country’s emergence as a new country | Bangla Tribune

Many educated and dispassionate people in both the countries want to move past the events of 1971, and focus on building a bright future for their citizens. If France and Germany, Korea and Japan, the US and Vietnam — to name just a few — can set aside their differences, look beyond past animosity and establish new relationships, why can’t Pakistan and Bangaldesh?

The Urdu-speaking residents of then-East Pakistan were known as ‘Biharis.’ A thriving community of over one million Biharis was decimated forever, with tens of thousands killed, while hundreds of thousands more were forced to flee the region or consigned to refugee camps. At the same time, the lowest estimate of Bengalis killed during the army operation in East Pakistan is in the hundreds of thousands.

Bangladesh has made great strides in education, human development and economic growth, while Pakistan has emerged as a nuclear power and an important player on the world stage. The two countries can compete in sports, but at the same time cooperate in science, technology, trade and industry, for the benefit of their citizens.

People from the Bengali and Pakistani diaspora around the world enjoy excellent rapport and even marry each other. The younger generation focuses more on the shared heritage and culture and are able to look beyond the narrative of their past generation and befriend each other in their schools, colleges and workplaces. It is these young people who give us hope for the future.

But how do we start the healing process? 

To be sure, politicians are unlikely to take the bold steps required to achieve a cordial, mutually advantageous relationship. Mired in the past, they often benefit from keeping the fires of mutual hatred and mistrust burning. But if they sense a change in the attitude of their own people, they may play enabling roles.

Small efforts by ordinary folks in their personal capacity have already begun. These nascent steps can be further strengthened by thought leaders in academia, business, media and the artist community. Initial steps to facilitate the process may include:

Unlike the 1960s and ’70s, today’s youth lives in a global village, where cooperation and tolerance are essential for success. Let us allow them to learn from the mistakes of the past, so they remain focused on building their future.

• Recognise each other’s pain with sincerity, and acknowledge past mistakes by both sides that led to the loss of so many innocent lives.

• Unlike the 1960s and ’70s, today’s youth lives in a global village, where cooperation and tolerance are essential for success. Let us allow them to learn from the mistakes of the past, so they remain focused on building their future.

• Address the continued suffering of the stateless ‘Biharis’ languishing in camps across Bangladesh, nearly 80 per cent of whom were born after 1971. Conversely, resolve the day-to-day problems faced by Bengali residents in Karachi.

• Initiate cultural activities, student exchanges, sports, trade and travel for a greater people-to-people contact. Easing of visa and travel restrictions is the most important enabling step both governments can take. 

In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “The weak can never forgive, forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.” So, let us find the strength to forgive each other, because “while forgiveness does not change the past, it does change the future.”

The writer is a retired banker, an avid traveller and a student of history. His book Refugee was published in 2020. He can be reached at azmatashraf@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 12th, 2021

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