Fact vs fiction: Pakistan must accept the uncomfortable truths about the 1971 war

Fifty-one years after the war, official discourse reveals and conceals selective aspects of the past, carefully crafting narratives that hide inconvenient histories while reinforcing national narratives.
Published December 16, 2022

The 1971 War, which culminated in the birth of Bangladesh, has been one of the most difficult histories for Pakistan to contend with. Textbooks brush over the subject, packaging a complex and nuanced history into a few paragraphs, and mainstream discourse on 1971 is limited if not absent, with efforts to sincerely reflect on the past curbed. Yet, it would be a mistake to argue that there is a blanket silencing of 1971.

The split between what were then known as East and West Pakistan is engraved into state consciousness, defining internal as well as regional policies and the national imagination. Most recently, General Qamar Javed Bajwa made reference to the 1971 war in his final public address as army chief, where he applauded the army’s bravery and termed the war a “political failure” as opposed to a “military one” — a rather futile distinction given the military was at the political helm at the time.

State-sanctioned narrative

The year 1971 is both too recent to be forgotten and too painful to be remembered. It occupies the liminal space between this desire to forget and the compulsion to remember for the state defines the parameters of what can be said and what remains unsayable.

Fifty-one years after the war, official discourse reveals and conceals selective aspects of the past, carefully crafting narratives that hide inconvenient histories while reinforcing national narratives. These efforts are of course not unique to Pakistan; several states use different techniques to “cope” with or deny histories at odds with national ideological frameworks, producing sanitised, purified, and digestible interpretations — or distortions — of the past.

In Pakistan’s case too, there are some common techniques that can be found across different mediums, including state-endorsed textbooks, military memories and museums. The result is not an absolute amnesia, but rather a partial and carefully guarded evocation of 1971.

Enter the silver screen

With the 50th anniversary of the war, however, Pakistan also saw the production of films, TV serials and documentaries. This cultural production has been rare and invites a reflection.

To what extent are these newer takes on 1971 able to punctuate or puncture the silences in official history? Do we find a reproduction of official narratives? Is the past viewed through the prism of official discourse or does art enable a different, more nuanced reflection? This piece looks at two commercial media productions marking the 50th anniversary to explore the extent to which they overlap, resist or subvert selective remembering of 1971.

The first is Khel Khel Mein, a 2021 film that opened to the big screens with much hype. The premise of the film is promising, centring around a quest for truth, a desire to fight false propaganda and distortions around 1971. The main protagonist is bent upon visiting Bangladesh, about mending ties, rebuilding the relationship and coming to terms with the past. These may be noble gestures, but one must ask how this is possible without an acknowledgement of that very past — one that Bangladesh has been asking for the past 5 decades.

Quickly, the film reveals that the quest for truth is a quest for partial truth — a truth Pakistan is already comfortable remembering, accentuating and reproducing. And the desire to come to terms with the past is a desire to “fix” misconceptions that Bangladesh has about its own history, by showing them the “truth” Pakistan has long known.

The permissible ‘truth’

This “truth” is what has always been permissible in Pakistan to be spoken and runs around two common themes. The first is the violence experienced by West Pakistanis and the Urdu speaking community during 1971.The second is the role of India in “breaking up” Pakistan as revenge for Pakistan “breaking up” India in 1947.

When the violence of 1971 is remembered in Pakistan, it is violence against select bodies that is admissible. Numbers are offered, bloodshed is quantified, made measurable to maximise violence against non-Bengalis — West Pakistanis settled in what is now Bangladesh, army officers fighting in the region, and members of the Urdu-speaking community (commonly referred to as “Biharis” although the Urdu-speaking community that migrated to East Pakistan in 1947 did not come from Bihar alone).

In comparison, violence against Bengalis and other ethnic minorities is either denied, ignored, trivialised, minimised or framed as an “excess”.

This excess can be critiqued or lamented as a tragic consequence or “collateral damage” of any war without necessitating a reflection or questioning of state policies. This language of excess enables a foreclosing of the possibilities of introspection or critique. The isolated narration of non-Bengali bloodshed is met with a non-narration of atrocities against Bengalis and other ethnic minorities.

Good vs evil

Further, akin to how Israeli and Indian state-machinery led, endorsed and directed violence in Palestine and Kashmir is justified and legitimised as a fight against enemy-state “sponsored terrorism,” there is an equation of state-backed violence with people’s political and rights-based struggles.

In the process, political movements are depoliticised, people’s grievances are undermined and false equivalencies are drawn between citizens picking up arms in the fight for their rights amid violent state crackdowns.

In the case of 1971, the people’s struggle for autonomy and independence is framed as an Indian conspiracy to fracture Pakistan. Bengali-led violence and India’s role in the war is foregrounded with the language movement — the political and economic struggle and the long and fraught 24-year history leading up to 1971 overshadowed, if not negated altogether.

Fifty-one years later, it is these permissible histories —India’s role and violence against non-Bengalis that are acknowledged, reinforced and reproduced whether in the education system, museums or other official platforms. These also seems to be the parameters set for Khel Khel Mein.

Searching for her grandfather, referred to as an atka hoa Pakistani — commonly also termed as stranded Pakistanis — the film highlights the tragic conditions of the Urdu-speaking community in Bangladesh.

In 2017, I visited some of the camps that many from the community continue to dwell in. Poor sanitation, cramped settings and precarious economic, social and political conditions have left thousands vulnerable. In the interviews I have conducted with those who continue to reside in Bangladesh as well as those who were able to migrate to Pakistan, violence, trauma and loss remain palpable.

However, in Pakistan, this genuine suffering and violence is appropriated, repackaged and shared without acknowledging the scale and impact of state-led bloodshed of Bengalis. One community’s pain is pitted against another’s, maximising one side’s causalities, only to minimise, neutralise and often justify state-led violence against Bengalis.

Moreover, the pain and suffering of the Urdu-speaking community is also remembered without an engagement with the fact that many of them continue to hold on to the promise of being repatriated to Pakistan.

As one of the camp residents in Dhaka said to me: “If Pakistan didn’t want us, why did it fool us all these years with false promises? For years, Pakistani leaders came and told us to be patient, that they would find some solution, they played with our emotions, our lives … Pakistanis come and go and do nothing, “chirya ghar banaya hua hai, dekh ke chalay jatay hain [They treat us like animals in a zoo. They come, ogle at us and leave].”

Though the film claims to be dedicated to the “dignity and patience of stateless people who await recognition”, [Note: A 2008 Bangladesh Supreme Court judgement granted citizenship to several thousands, although the process comes with its own limitations and hurdles] Khel Khel Mein doesn’t seem interested in engaging with these realities.

Instead, like official discourse, it uses this selective violence to argue that mistakes were made by either side, and both can therefore apologise: Aik ghalti hoe, kisi se bhi, maang lete hain mafiyan donoun [A mistake was made, whoever made it, let’s both ask for forgiveness]. The film asks both sides to seek forgiveness but Pakistan’s role in the war is completely erased, as is the violence against Bengalis. An apology by Pakistan then seems almost unnecessary — a simple, generous and selfless act even though it has nothing to apologise for.

If blame is laid, it is entirely on India. While India’s role in the war is well documented, the film, as well as Pakistan’s official discourse, reduces the people’s movement for autonomy, independence and liberation to an Indian conspiracy. The film constantly asks who benefitted from spreading hatred between two brothers who shared one mother, one blood, one religion — the eastern neighbour is faulted unequivocally for spewing venom, creating mistrust and backstabbing Pakistan.

Interestingly, the film also takes us to Balochistan, claiming that the policies India used in 1971 continue till date. In the process, the people’s struggle for rights then and now are depoliticised and framed as Indian-state sponsored terrorism. This is the same argument India uses against Pakistan in Kashmir, delegitimising the Kashmiri struggle. It is ironic then that the title track of the film bears an uncanny resemblance to Bismil in the Bollywood film Haider — based in Indian-occupied Kashmir — perhaps to indicate that India’s actions in East Pakistan and Kashmir have been equally deceitful in both places, without recognising that the people of erstwhile East Pakistan too were fighting for their rights.

Meanwhile, the serial Jo Bichar Gaye also centres around similar themes. The title evokes nostalgia, which reinforces how 1971 is registered in Pakistan as a loss or dismemberment.

But this regret or remorse is again attributed to India breaking apart Pakistan by spreading hatred and misguiding Bengalis. It is claimed that this was always the plan, with India creating wounds in Bengal and establishing the RAW spy agency to destroy Pakistan.

Told partly through the lens of army officers, the serial does an excellent job at humanising the soldiers and emphasising the difficulties they faced against India’s treachery. However, barring a few instances, the same humanisation isn’t afforded to Bengalis.

Framed as villains and traitors working at the behest of India with caricature like accents, student activists are depicted as outlaws, with Bengalis hunting and butchering West Pakistanis, outnumbering Pakistani soldiers and running slaughter houses. The violence Pakistan is accused of is turned on its head, with the weaponised military shown as helpless victims.

While the serial references some key aspects in history that are often whitewashed or taboo otherwise, such as Operation Searchlight — the night of March 25th when the army operation was launched in Dhaka — the operation is explained in the serial as a noble effort to protect West Pakistani lives under threat, ignoring and later justifying the violence unleashed on Bengali bodies.

Politicians are criticised while the army is shown as having been compelled to use force in the face of ruthless Bengali mobs, with their bravery championed. Statistics are flashed upon the screen, listing in the thousands the number of people killed by “angry Bengalis” funded by India, while sombre army officers are portrayed lamenting that though they are only there to fight and die for their country, history which they claim is written by ordinary people or politicians will only blame them.

In both Khel Khel Mein and Jo Bichar Gaye, the effort is to absolve Pakistan, the army and the state by showing people the “truth” of 1971.

And so, what we seem to be left with is an echo chamber containing that which is already utterable in Pakistan. What should remain silenced has long been established. Remembering then must be confined, restrained and limited. There is no space to remember what must be forgotten.

Header image: A survivor of the trauma of the 1971 war, who was captured through the lens of acclaimed Indian photographer Raghu Rai, who had accompanied the Indian forces to Dhaka during the war. — Photo courtesy Raghu Rai