Stop equating recent events with 1971. Period.

Whether this ire is the product of one party’s soured relationship with the army, or a principled stance against military interference, is something only time will tell.
Published May 19, 2023

Recent events in Pakistan have evoked a spate of strong sentiments across the country, which are now being expressed in charged commentaries online.

One of the strands being repeatedly found in these commentaries is the comparison between current developments and the events that culminated in the break-up of Pakistan in 1971, or as someone described the ongoing turmoil: “East Pakistan 2.0.”

An old postage stamp from Pakistan. — Source: iStock
An old postage stamp from Pakistan. — Source: iStock

What ostensibly animates this comparison is a sharp recognition and condemnation of military interventionism in politics, state brutality, and its disastrous consequences.

This recognition, with an eye on a particularly dark chapter of our history, is staggering and significant given how strictly controlled the state-sanctioned narrative about 1971 has been in Pakistan — categorising it primarily as an Indian conspiracy, a betrayal by the Bengalis, or as an inevitability owing to fundamental, unbridgeable differences between the two wings of the country. This is a narrative widely disseminated in Pakistani textbooks, examining which the late Rubina Saigol wrote:

“Bangladesh becomes a gaping hole in national memory. The only way to speak about it is through silence. They can only be erased from consciousness. This is precisely what the textbooks do — they erase Bangladesh by not telling the tale. There are many ways of not telling. One of these is to tell a different story, to speak half the truth. The story of Bangladesh is silenced between half-truths, and full lies.”

The image withers away

Despite the passage of 51 years, the state monopolisation of the narrative pertaining to 1971 has persisted. Any attempt at deviation from the state-manufactured and sanctioned narrative does not escape or slip through the state’s relentless project of censorship and denial. It was precisely this project, which in March 2021, forced the cancellation of an online conference organised by the Lahore University of Management Sciences (Lums) and Quaid-e-Azam University, which planned to bring together different scholars, including Pakistani and Bangladeshi academics, to commemorate and reflect on 50 years of the war.

Poster for the Lums online conference ‘Commemorating 50 Years of the 1971 War’.
Poster for the Lums online conference ‘Commemorating 50 Years of the 1971 War’.

The second branch of this project involves the promotion of various media productions, including drama serials, documentaries and films, many of which have been supported by the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), and which regurgitate military-centred nationalism and nationalist narratives that favour or exculpate their role in Pakistan’s present and past.

Despite all of this effort, it is telling that many Pakistanis responded to the Bangladesh Awami League’s tweet commemorating “The #1971Genocide in #Bangladesh carried out by the #PakArmy” with apologies and regrets earlier in March this year.

Fast forward to the present, and acknowledgements that the “Bengalis were right” and comparisons of current events to the doomed decisions that led to the civil war and the eventual creation of Bangladesh are rife on Pakistani social media. Not only does it indicate an astonishing refusal of the state-manufactured narrative about 1971, it also indicates how swiftly the military’s meddling in Pakistan’s political landscape in the past few years have squandered and shattered its carefully cultivated and maintained — sometimes through censorship — popular public image and goodwill that has long been a currency it has banked on.

But while these comparisons to a darkly tainted chapter of our history are being made to underscore the hazards of current circumstances and the gravity of their ramifications on the country, equating the events that led to the birth of Bangladesh with present events is both misguided and ahistorical.

Misguided and ahistorical

The brazen denial of the Awami League’s legitimate democratic mandate by Yahya Khan’s military regime was indeed a tipping point in the conversion of the Bengali nationalist movement into the Bangladeshi independence movement. But the point of no return came when the military launched Operation Searchlight in March 1971, resulting in a political and constitutional crisis that further metastasised into a bloody civil war, with atrocities committed by both sides.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, chief of the Awami League, addressing a public rally in Dhaka’s Paltan Maidan during his election campaign. — Source: Dawn/White Star Archives
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, chief of the Awami League, addressing a public rally in Dhaka’s Paltan Maidan during his election campaign. — Source: Dawn/White Star Archives

What happened in 1971 was not simply an outcome of rejecting a massive democratic mandate but the culmination of years of systemic economic exploitation, engineered economic and political disparities between the two wings, dismissal of calls for representation, denial of rights, schemes of subjugation, and a targeted campaign of cultural suppression that was deeply rooted in anti-Bengali racism. Despite Bengalis constituting the majority of the population and after 23 years of being a part of Pakistan, the Bengalis constituted only 34,000 out of 412,000 fighters in the Pakistani military, with a mere 300 officers ranking at, or above, major rank, and just one major-general.

In contrast, the PTI leadership has openly boasted of support from within the military’s ranks, saying the the army’s “rank and file” support Imran Khan and his party. The PTI chief, Imran Khan, has himself alluded to this support when he said that the “families of army personnel“ would march with him to Islamabad in the wake of his ouster from the prime minister’s office.

For its part, the military’s media wing, the Inter-Services Public Relations, has on several occasions refuted these claims, saying the “army is united under the leadership of the Chief of Army Staff and would remain united despite internal and external propaganda”.

In my own research, which interrogated the interplay of racialised masculinities and the employment of sexual violence in the 1971 war, I was able to locate this pervasive racism in the accounts, memoirs and narratives by members of the Pakistan Army who were important figures in the lead up to 1971 or who witnessed, participated or steered the war.

There is no doubt that the Bengalis were stereotyped and demonised as an inferior, effeminate and downtrodden race, dehumanised as a pathologically treacherous and unreliable people by “psychology,” “nature”, “culture” and even climate. They were otherised as being “Hindu-like”, hence proving that they were inadequately Muslim and only partially Pakistani. Declaring them enemies and traitors to Pakistan, who were a problem to be dealt with by deploying mass violence was only a short step from this.

Not the same story, nor a new story

It is noteworthy that many in the nation are finally coming around to recognising the injustice Pakistan enacted on the Bengalis and seeing the military’s culpability in it. However, stretching flat lines of comparison between the present moment and the catastrophe of 1971 risks trivialising the breadth and depth of systemic oppression that the Bengalis were subjected to, which eventually paved the path for their bloodied struggle for a separate state.

Any recognition of the wrongs rendered by Pakistan against the Bengalis, both in the lead-up to 1971 and during 1971, will only be meaningful when we fully and unequivocally educate ourselves about their scale and acknowledge it. And contesting or disagreeing with equating the ongoing crisis with the atrocities committed then is, in no way, a denial of this repression or a minimisation of its magnitude either.

Drawing straight parallels between 1971 and current events tends to exceptionalise what is happening right now. It tends to depict that a show of destructive military interventionism, and the lengths it can and will take — even at the expense of the country — has only happened once before. It also paints that no civilian leader has stood up to the military leadership before — Fatima Jinnah did just that a few years into Pakistan’s existence.

In fact, one need not even look as further back as 1971 to put ongoing events into perspective. It is important to look beyond in order to contextualise the canny and crafty evolution of the establishment and the expansion of its repertoire of strategies.

The Pakistani state, instead of learning from the debacle of 1971, decided to double down on its penchant for resolving political issues with force and continued to enact violence but largely at the peripheries. It is no surprise then that Tikka Khan, who had acquired the widely infamous reputation of the “Butcher of Bengall”, was tasked to counter the insurgency in Balochistan in 1974.

One doesn’t need misplaced historical comparisons in Pakistan to emphasise the perversions of democracy and rule of law undertaken by the establishment as there is plenty more and in the present that starkly demonstrates it — enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, unlawful imprisonments, wanton harassment and intimidation, suspensions and violations of basic human and democratic rights, weaponisation of anti-terrorism and sedition laws against dissidents and critics, and the denial of a dignified life.

This reign of tyranny and impunity has and continues to operate endlessly in peripheries such as Balochistan, Waziristan, Gilgit Baltistan, and even Okara when it comes to farmers and peasants. The news reports that measured restraint was shown in cities such as Lahore, but protesters were shot at in Quetta and several cities of Khyper Pakhtunkhwa only shows how the weight of the state’s reality and brutality is the heaviest in the margins of the country.

For many in the peripheries, none of what is happening is new — in fact it is all too familiar. All of this has been and is the norm, and this is the reason that they have given rise to movements (such as the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement whose slogans and speeches, only a while ago, were considered ‘anti-state’ and ‘seditious’, but are being echoed by others openly now) that have unequivocally named, resisted and battled the military, its machinations, and its might — while enduring crackdowns, media blackouts, and vilification campaigns declaring and disenfranchising them as foreign agents and terrorists.

Chairman of the PTM, Manzoor Pashteen giving a speech. — Photo by Khalid Mahmood/<em></em>
Chairman of the PTM, Manzoor Pashteen giving a speech. — Photo by Khalid Mahmood/

Punjab in the eye of the storm

What is different today is the undisguised extension and application of some of the state practices that have been the norm in the peripheries and its marginalised communities to the “core”, which Punjab and especially a city like Lahore have historically been. This is causing many to characterise the current events as “unprecedented” — in reality, they may be unprecedented, but only in the heartland of Punjab.

The Punjab has historically retained its “core” dominance due to its entrenched influence on Pakistan’s politics and state, and due to having traditionally been a vital constituency of popular support for the military too. This constituency is driven by the province being the principal recruiting base for the army and the networks of serving and retired military officials, and their families, it contains. What is interesting here is that, very much unlike Mujib’s position in 1971, the Punjab and the constituency it represents are also laid claim to by Imran Khan and his party, both in terms of favour and support.

But constituencies only constitute a part of an institution and that institution is hurtling towards another direction with the PTI. The conflict between the establishment and the PTI is conspicuously moving towards the dismantlement of the party, which is discernible by the leadership distancing itself from the protesters, the number of people arrested, the number of PTI-supporting accounts turning anonymous or disappearing from social media, and the number of apology videos and statements being publicly issued by them.

And no attempts appear to be made to put up any pretences for denial or to conceal the scale of harassment and intimidation that is taking place right now against those even slightly suspected of simply protesting peacefully. It is very much a deliberate tactic, and a clear message that nothing and no one is off-limits from the grip and wrath of the establishment, which does not bode well for the future of the nation’s civil liberties and democratic rights, irrespective of party affiliation.

At a moment like this, it is also perhaps necessary to probe and ponder what exactly has changed for such vast swathes of public opinion to now contain fury for the army, especially among people who were visibly in favour of it or held it in favourable light not too long ago.

How much of this ire is a product of a specific party’s soured relationship with the military, and how much of it is a genuine, principled stance against any and all forms of military interference and dominance in the business of the government and state, both past and present, is something only time will tell. But this indignation and anger was long simmering, and long overdue for a nation that has endured a painful price that wasn’t theirs to pay.

For now, what is evident is that much of what is happening has, in fact, and much to Pakistan’s misfortune, always been happening. It is a seven-decade-running loop of ordeal that is enough evidence that the source of the trouble is not one general, but an institution.

Header image: Refugees fleeing from East Bengal in search of safety. — Raghu Rai/