A COMMON year has 365 days: numbered, named, divided into weeks and months. An aeon is not precisely measurable: one estimate is half-a-billion years — or more. For Pakistan, so young at 24 years of age, 1971 featured specific words, actions, consequences that became traumatic, tragic. Yet that year was also like an aeon. Amorphous, vast, explicit, yet also ambiguous.
Following upon a thousand years of Muslim history in South Asia, uncountable memories and aspirations of millions of human beings, sharing so much yet so little, marked by misperceptions, miscalculations; with clarity but also scepticism about precise responsibility, culminating in catastrophe — the glory of the world’s most uniquely-created nation-state encountering a black hole that sucked in both the innocent and the invidious.
Hope met fear. One Wing’s vote became the other Wing’s veto. Confidence was replaced by suspicion. Talks led to silence. A neighbour conspired, masqueraded, invaded, desecrated. A decision became a disaster. Humans became beasts. Sisters and brothers became aliens and enemies: only some retained mutual respect. Dignity met disgrace. A fairy tale became a nightmare.
This brief reflection retrieves a few truths often lost in the aeon’s haze.
Five decades on, Javed Jabbar highlights reasons why the loss of East Pakistan in 1971 is still a subject of considerable debate.
Ballots to bullets
Just a year before the birth of Bangladesh, a majority of East Pakistani voters did not vote for the confederalist Six Points of the Awami League (AL), which did secure a thumping majority of 160 out of 162 seats from East Pakistan in the National Assembly of 300 seats. This anomaly was due to the unrepresentative first-past-the-post electoral system unwisely adopted by Pakistan, India and other former British colonies simply because it is the Westminster system.
Voter turnout in the 1970 elections — widely accepted as free and fair — reveals: Punjab 68.7pc; Sindh 60.1pc; East Pakistan 56.9pc; NWFP 48.4pc; and Balochistan 40.6pc. Of the about 57pc who did vote in East Pakistan, only about 47pc voted for the AL. The remaining about 10pc voted against the AL. So we had the weird situation wherein a party with less than a majority of East Pakistani voters, 47pc, nevertheless launched a civil disobedience movement, colluded with India, and, after the March 25, 1971, military action — a grievously flawed attempt instead of finding a political solution — led the secessionist campaign to break up the original Pakistan. There were two reasons for the low turnout: boycott by the popular, left-leaning Maulana Abdul Hamid Bhashani groupings, and the dislocation of millions after the cyclone of November 1970.
Where Quaid-i-Azam made the critical misjudgement in March 1948 by declining to give Bengali equal status with Urdu as a state language — because Bengali, unlike Urdu, was spoken only in Bengal — it is to the Quaid’s great credit that he had the vision and the insight to recognise the historical aspirations of Bengali Muslim nationalism.
He was the only one of the three key protagonists in May 1947 (the other two being Congress and the British) who was prepared to accept an independent, sovereign state of Bengal, as proposed by H.S. Suhrawardy.
Injustices redressed, yet ...
Though the onus for parting is placed on West Pakistan’s actions from the start, was it reasonable to expect that wrongs inflicted on East Bengal by the British over the previous 200 years — making East Bengal the most undeveloped part of the region — could be righted at magic speed in less than 24 years? To overcome the formidable disadvantages with which both Wings began their respective lives, plus difficulties of a 1,000-mile distance, India’s congenital hostility, and West Pakistan’s own needs, to which was added the Kashmir problem? As it turns out, a great deal was done in 24 years to redress historical British injustices; improvements that are rarely acknowledged.
But disparities persisted. The East’s low absorption capacity was only one reason. Subliminal discrimination, insensitivity and incompetence were conjoined to allow the major share of foreign aid and foreign exchange inflows to go to West Pakistan. From 1958 to 1971, for 13 crucial years, the heads of state and government remained West Pakistani military men with most senior Bengali officers denied top appointments in their own province.
There was also arrogance in sections of the political, administrative and military leaderships. Along with other reasons, this attitude fuelled alienation. There were many exceptions, often ignored. Perhaps most laudable was Lt-Gen Azam Khan. As governor, he exemplified how a military leader from West Pakistan could sincerely engage with the Bengali people of East Pakistan with humility and exceptional efficiency. His forced return to West Pakistan was deeply lamented.
Dhaka cheers for Pakistan
It bears noting that just two-and-a-half years after the emergence of Bangladesh — despite all the extensive hate propaganda against Pakistan and its army for wildly exaggerated/yet believed cruel actions in 1971, and the PPP leader’s own role in the breakdown of talks in March 1971 — when prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto arrived in Dhaka in July 1974, huge crowds welcomed him with slogans that included ‘Pakistan Zindabad’. This emotional outpouring on the streets so dismayed the then Indian high commissioner in Bangladesh that he later wrote: “I have never been so distressed as I was that day”.
The forgotten genocide
Where utterly absurd, fabricated numbers of victims are blamed on Pakistan, there is the forgotten actual genocide. Neither global media and academia, nor, sadly, even sections of Pakistan’s intelligentsia have fully acknowledged this calamity. Qutubuddin Aziz, an eminent senior journalist, who later served as information minister in Pakistan’s high commission in London, painstakingly researched and documented this bloodbath in his book Blood and Tears (UPP; 1974) that carries 170 eyewitness accounts of the atrocities committed on West Pakistanis, Biharis and non-Bengalis and pro-Pakistan Bengalis in 55 towns of East Pakistan by Awami League militants and other rebels in March-April 1971.
In the Introduction, the author cites names and inconsistencies of several Western and a Pakistani journalist who deliberately omitted reporting these atrocities between March 1 and 26, 1971, when, ill-advisedly, the government expelled all foreign journalists from East Pakistan. This enabled disregard or neglect of inconvenient truths because it was so much more ‘credible’ to focus on the excesses of a ‘brutal’ West Pakistani army allegedly slaughtering millions of Bengalis.
The grotesque allegation of three million Bengalis killed was first demolished by the courageous American journalist William Drummond, the New Delhi bureau chief of Los Angeles Times, who visited both East Pakistan and Bangladesh between 1970 and1972 to ascertain evidence and found none to substantiate the claim.
In 13 chapters, with exact names of victims as far as possible, places, dates, even timings, Aziz’s book makes one shudder at the extreme cruelties inflicted on about 100,000 unarmed non-Bengalis — before the army response began.
The barbarism continued till the army regained control by end April/early May 1971. Many of the actual excesses attributed to the army between March 25 and December 16, 1971, were unforgivably but obviously committed as retaliation for the grisly sights of thousands of corpses of non-Bengali children, women and men left behind by the killers before the army’s arrival.
The silence on this genocide was further aided by the government’s decision not to allow reporting about the mass killings of non-Bengalis either by state media or by private media to prevent retaliatory killings of Bengalis in West Pakistan. Even after news of the massacres became more known post-1971, not a single Bengali person was harmed as revenge in West Pakistan. In contrast, between Dhaka’s fall and March 1972, spasmodic killings of Biharis continued.
Ironically, after about 25 years of erratic efforts to absorb about 200,000 Biharis who wanted to migrate to Pakistan, we turned our backs on them. And, instead, opened our doors to over four million Afghan refugees.
Two-Nation Theory thrives
Indira Gandhi, gleefully but with twisted understanding of history, declared that the Two-Nation Theory had sunk forever into the Bay of Bengal in December 1971. Each passing day over the past 50 years proves how wrong she was. Bangladesh remains independently predominantly Muslim, with no desire whatsoever to merge with the predominantly Hindu West Bengal despite sharing language, ethnicity and culture.
Though encircled by India on three sides, Bangladesh treasures its separateness and often, non-officially more than officially, rejects India’s hegemonistic ambitions. Indian Muslims remain Indian citizens, but they too perceive themselves to be a distinct nation-like community within a multinational Indian state, even more so after Hindutva’s ascent. Pakistani Muslim nationalism thrives robustly.
Progress and resilience
Many in today’s Pakistan rightly admire the speed and quality of Bangladesh’s progress in the past 20 years, and rue our own failure to keep pace with our former East Wing. Without detracting from Bangladesh’s achievement, it is vital to allow for the extremely different geopolitical and internal conditions faced by Pakistan.
Afghanistan’s fallout for the past 40 years is one example, India’s perennial hostility for 75 years, including its introduction of nuclear weapons into South Asia, is another. And unlike Bangladesh’s advantage of basic homogeneity, the new post-1971 Pakistan had to conduct an unprecedented struggle to infuse cohesion while retaining diversity, to renew, rebuild, rejuvenate both its national morale and its physical capacity, manage a higher population growth rate than Bangladesh’s, decentralise power to the provinces, cope with a still-unresolved civil-military imbalance and combat terrorism on a far larger scale than Bangladesh has had to.
Given all the crises, imposed by others as also self-created, as we take stock of where Pakistan stands today in 2022 compared to where we were in 1971, we should count our blessings. We have evolved a sense of ‘Pakistaniat’, a broad national identity in which we take pride even as we bemoan our continuing self-made disasters.
With much still left to learn, we should also draw strength from our charming self-confidence and good cheer. In the World Happiness Index we already rank higher than all other South Asian countries, including Bangladesh. A report on June 16, 2022, informed us that in a 19,000- people global survey conducted by the Worldwide Independent Network of Market Research of which Gallup Pakistan is a part, Pakistanis are at the very top of 24 nations when it comes to expressing love for their country.
When asked ‘How attached do you feel with your country?’, 90pc Pakistanis said they strongly do so; ahead of Finland, Canada, Japan, and 20 others. When asked ‘Will you defend your country in case of war?’, 96pc said ‘Without hesitation’; again more than all others. When asked ‘Will you leave your country when you have good opportunities abroad?’, 70pc said ‘No’.
The year 1971 shall never be forgotten, while the aeon beckons us to the next 75 years!
The writer is an author and former senator & federal minister. In 2021, he wrote and executive produced a 110-minute documentary Separation of East Pakistan: The Untold Story, viewable at www.1971Untoldstory.com.