Historical Prejudices of 1971 War
Shamsa Ashfaq


As a Pakistani, and I would say a very proud Pakistani; I have always felt “bad” about the so called atrocities committed by Pakistan army in Bangladesh. I have read and researched a lot on the causes of important wars, the reasons behind them and the atrocities committed. 1971 war fought and lost by Pakistan Army was definitely one of the topics that intrigued my interest. I researched and have concluded that more than a war fought on ground it was a political war where secessionists supported Indians to break Pakistan into two parts.

Many Bengalis emotionally condemn Pakistan Army for all those alleged atrocities and killings of 300,000 people in 1971 war that led to the dismemberment of Pakistan. Of late, I have seen demands of an apology from Pakistan for its alleged atrocities in the 1971 war coming from some all-around commentators and experts even Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajid as well. As a person I too condemn every inhumane act even if it is conducted in wars but as far as the case of 1971 war is concerned it should be taken into consideration that as with most wars, the narrative of 1971 has largely been written by the victors. Thus partisan mythologies continue to imprison the remaining actors. In this backdrop, I find there is a need to understand a few dynamics of the war to rectify this bias
First and foremost aspect to remember is that IT WAS A WAR. On 3rd March 1971, General Yahya Khan announced that government will be formed only when there is a consensus, which was non existent at that time. Sheikh Mujib delivered his famous fiery address on March 7th, 1971 and stopped just short of declaring independence. Law and order situation was out of hands and army was called in to take over. Bengali students got involved in military training activities and were often sighted with weapons of any kind they could lay their hands on. What do you expect of an army in the world to do in that case?
Today, what the Bengalis call genocide, in fact, was an organised mass scale massacre of Pakistanis by the Indian-sponsored Mukti Bahini and hired teams of Indian trained mercenaries. Notwithstanding the facts, the Bangladeshi historians wrongly claim that Pakistan army mercilessly killed 300 students in Dhaka University on 15-16 March, 1971. Well, if that was the case then why did the monument in Dhaka university name only 149 students killed? It was because the other 151 were trained Mukti Bahini people. And Sheikh Mujib who then relies on crying out loud that Pakistan army has killed innocent unarmed people should have bothered to check the mass grave and brought the video proofs of that “massacre” in front of the world. He did not do that because it was far easier to pin it on Pakistan army rather than looking into facts, right? So much so that Bangladesh is free since 1971 but they have never bothered to conduct an inquiry into the facts so that truth be told to the world. Aren’t these facts sufficed to rectify the wartime partisan myths?
History is testimony to the fact that it was Sheikh Mujib’s Awami League that had entered into an agreement with India seeking latter’s help to secede the Bengali dominated eastern wing from West Pakistan. Evidently, the entire national narrative of Bangladesh's quest for nationhood needs to be investigated. It is known to many that Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman's Awami League used scare tactics, direct threats and in some cases outright violent reprisals against other Bengali parties and independent candidates prior to the elections before the war so that it could position itself as the only party looking out for the rights of the Bengalis. The Awami League, harassed other political candidates by threatening their families (resulting in many of them standing down), its militant-wing threatening voters who dared to support other Bengali parties who differed from Awami League's militant outlook. The eastern wing of the then Pakistan was not oblivious to this; they saw it all unfolding. Their reluctance to hand-over power to a militant-Bengali-nationalist party is worth more than just being brushed off as 'arrogance'.
As for charges of 'mass-rapes' and 'genocide' of Bengalis at the hands of Pakistan army - the nostalgia-filled legends of pro-India, pro-Bangladesh propaganda mouthpieces who have continued to dominate the media and academic circles for the last 40 years - the evidence is just not there. Similarly, gigantic figure of three million Bengalis killed by the Pakistani army is not based on any accounting or survey on the ground. An Indian writer Sharmila Bose in her book ‘Dead Reckoning: Memoirs of the 1971 Bangladesh War’ nullifying such claims wrote, "None of the popular assertions of three million Bengalis allegedly killed by the [Pakistani] army cites any official report. Claims of the dead in various incidents wildly exceeding anything that can be reasonably supported by evidence on the ground - 'killing fields' and 'mass graves' were claimed to be everywhere, but none was forensically exhumed and examined in a transparent manner."
The dilemma is while narrating or discussing atrocities committed in 1971 war pro-liberation side even our own media, thinkers and masses tend to demonize Pakistan army only for their allegedly "monstrous actions” without any evidence while depicting Bengali people as "victims". This has actually led to a tendency to deny, minimize or justify violence and brutalities perpetrated by pro-liberation Bengalis. In reality, the Bengali nationalists also committed "appalling atrocities" during and after the 1971 war.
In the ethnic violence unleashed in the name of Bengali nationalism, non-Bengali men, women and children were slaughtered. It also included West Pakistanis and mainly Urdu-speaking people who migrated to East Pakistan from India at the time of partition who were known as Biharis. Such atrocities took place in the towns of Chittagong, Khulna, Santahar and Jessore during and after the 10-month war. According to different data records, non-Bengali victims of ethnic killings by Bengalis numbered hundreds or even thousands per incident.
Those who tragically portray the killing of pro-liberation people by Paksiatn army in the dying days of the war stands out as one of the worst crimes of the conflict why not talk about the brutalisation and elimination of those with a different political viewpoint seemed to be the hallmark of nationalist Bengalis too". There are documented evidences of shocking bestiality as the hallmark of nationalist Bengalis who appear to have killed non-Bengalis indiscriminately and litter the land and clog the rivers with their corpses. It is on record that on 28 March 1971, Bengalis slaughtered large numbers of Biharis in the jute mills of South-western town of Khulna.
Irrespective of the war crimes committed by both Pakistan army and the Bengali nationalists, after the fall of Dhaka the officers and families of Bangladeshi army were sent off with full respect whereas a very few Pakistani families reached back unharmed. But no one ever took notice of the atrocities committed by Bengali nationalist against Pakistanis belonging to the western wing. May I know why this prejudice?
After 40 years of Bangladesh’s independence, they have failed to provide any concrete evidence against the Pakistan Army atrocities. It is merely for the information of pro-liberation advocates that out of 300,000 deaths reported in 1971 war, 200000 killings were by the Bengalis of non-Bengalis or Urdu-speaking Pakistanis. 8500 Pakistan army personnel were killed by the opponents. There were other civilian deaths during the war with India.
Apropos above, my point of view is not that no one got killed during the act of war by Pakistan Army. I only want to highlight that war is not a civilized act and in the state of war even civilian killings cannot be avoided. That is why wars are called a bloody business. But here Bengalis portraying themselves as the victims in the light of 26,000 killings versus 200,000 merciless killings, I don’t agree to their claim.
It’s been more than forty years now, and both sides are stick to historical bigotry. I think its time for both countries in general and Bangladesh in particular to reconciles with an incident that took away lives of both the peoples and make up for the lost opportunities for giving our new generations to grow and prosper.