By marking Genocide Day, Bangladesh seeks to remember what Pakistan wants to forget

March 25, the day before Bangladesh's Independence Day, will commemorate the genocide during the 1971 liberation war.


Earlier this month, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor boldly declared that Britain was suffering from “historical amnesia”. By censoring its colonial past, it was ensuring that younger generations grew up without an inkling of the atrocities committed by their ancestors. Britain’s attempt to shove its colonial past under the carpet is not unique. Belgium has gone through a similar process, reconstructing itself as a neutral country, and thereby becoming the prime candidate for hosting the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation headquarters, institutions believed to promote peace and stability. The country works hard to avoid exploring its dark colonial past in Congo and it is not alone.

But it is not only colonisers that have ugly histories. Many nations around the world have violent pasts that they long to forget. Some choose to access those histories in order to heal and move on, while others diligently work to not only reconstruct their present self-image but also manipulate their histories in the process. Newer, purer versions are offered, carefully tailored and packaged to fit the state narratives. Pakistan’s engagement – or lack thereof – with its past perfectly encapsulates this process.

Genocide Day

This March 26, Bangladesh will celebrate its 46th Independence Day. The date commemorates the fateful proclamation of separation from West Pakistan in March 1971. The night before, the Pakistan Army had launched Operation Searchlight in East Pakistan. As the name suggests, Operation Searchlight aimed to hunt down any Bengali who wanted a separate homeland, after decades of struggling for basic human rights under oppressive governments, dominated by West Pakistan. It was alleged that India had unleashed its agents in East Pakistan, converting Bengalis into anti-state elements that must be eliminated in order to ensure stability within Pakistan. West Pakistanis were told that it was a handful of troublesome Hindu Bengalis who were working under the directives of India and wanted to destabilise the country. A swift army operation would curb this unnecessary agitation and crush the negligible miscreants. The reality was that millions of East Pakistanis were exasperated by economic, political and cultural repression and had come to realise that independence was the only solution.

Under Operation Searchlight, terror spread like wildfire in East Pakistan. Innocent and unarmed Bengalis were targeted and eliminated one by one. The army used the support of Islamist parties and their paramilitary wings, the likes of Al Badr and Al Shams, to launch an accompanying jihad with the goal of purifying the Bengalis of Hindu influences and making them true Muslims and, hence, true Pakistanis. Mass killings and rape marked every street and corner. Though figures are contested, it is estimated that anywhere between 300,000 to 3 million Hindus and Muslims, Bengalis and non-Bengalis were killed from March 1971 onwards. Operation Searchlight ignited an all-out war that served a huge blow to the West Pakistani establishment. By the end of the year, Pakistan stood utterly defeated both politically and militarily. On December 16, 1971, East Pakistan became Bangladesh. Those who had fought for their independence stood victorious but also deeply wounded by the months of killings, rape and bloodshed.

On March 11, the Bangladeshi Parliament unanimously passed a motion declaring March 25, the night Operation Searchlight was launched, as Bangladesh’s Genocide Day, to commemorate the brutalities committed by West Pakistan.

Selective memory

Meanwhile, Pakistan has used these 46 years to ensure that people forget the bloody and humiliating past. The defeat was not taken well in Pakistan. Not only had the state managed to lose the most populated wing of the nation barely two decades after independence, it had lost out to its greatest nemesis, India. Every effort was made to silence the narratives of the 1971 Partition. Compared to the Partition of 1947, which is owned as a huge victory, 1971 is viewed as a great loss. This is rather similar to how Indians often view the creation of Pakistan as the break-up of the holy motherland, a bitter loss hard to stomach. In Pakistan, this loss was swallowed whole and then hardly ever spoken about. And it was easy to do so, especially once the Partition of 1971 was cast away as an Indian conspiracy.

Today, just as Britain resists acknowledging its exploitative and violent colonial past, Pakistan too remains mum on the issue. Perhaps the best way to ensure that the silence is maintained is by strategically eliminating any alternative discourse. This butchered history taints the pages of state textbooks. The Class 9 and Class 10 Pakistan Studies textbook of the Federal Textbook Board of Islamabad portrays all bloodshed and instability as propagated by Indian-backed Bengalis, who have been painted as unruly, uncontrollable and violent. An excerpt reads:

“Raging mobs took to streets… banks were looted and the administration came to a halt. Public servants and non-Bengali citizens were maltreated and murdered. Pakistan flag and Quaid’s portraits were set on fire… reign of terror, loot and arson was let loose. Awami League workers started killing those who did not agree with their Six Points Programme. Members of Urdu-speaking non-Bengali communities were ruthlessly slaughtered. West Pakistani businessmen operating in East wing were forced to surrender their belongings or killed in cold blood, their houses set on fire. Pro-Pakistan political leaders were maltreated, humiliated and many of them even murdered. Armed forces were insulted; authority of the state was openly defied and violated. Awami League virtually had established a parallel government and declared independence of East Pakistan.”

Meanwhile, Pakistani leaders of that time, such as General Yahya Khan, are shown as making desperate attempts to negotiate with these “out-of-control” Bengalis. At one place, the book states, “Yahya flew to Dhaka, in a hurry; he wanted to make a last effort”, but he was received by “obviously unacceptable” demands put forward by Mujibur Rehman. The leader of the Awami League is dismissed as impractical and his requests as unrealistic. Further, far from acknowledging the atrocities committed by the Pakistan Army and paramilitary groups, the textbook states that on the night of March 25 and March 26, “the Awami League militants committed a large scale massacre of West Pakistani families living in East Pakistan”. Later, the textbook complains, “Indians and Bengalis charged Pakistan Army with wholesale massacre and desecration of women. On December 19, 1971, world media teams were shown the dead bodies of Bengali professors, intellectuals and professionals who were allegedly killed during the said unrest. Large-scale killings were publicized in the media to defame Pakistan Army.”

Ideology, not history

No mention is made of the rape and murder of thousands of East Pakistani families. No mention is made of the brutality of West Pakistanis. Just as Hindus are portrayed as the sole instigators of violence in 1947, East Pakistanis are depicted as the perpetrators in 1971. The narrative becomes all the more powerful when they are equated with the impure Hindu “other”, funded and fuelled by the Indian state. India’s hand in the break-up of Pakistan is enforced and reinforced repeatedly in the chapter. At one place, the textbook states, “The Bangladesh crisis had provided India with an opportunity of the century to destroy her number one enemy, Pakistan.”

As state policy, Pakistan has always done an exceptional job at eradicating, distorting and denying its history. Roads or street signs that signify a non-Muslim past are hastily renamed, archeological sites that are meant to serve as evidence of history are shunned of their historical past; Hindu sites are recast as only Buddhist, painted over to denote selected and more acceptable versions of history. History as a discipline is replaced by Pakistan Studies in schools so that it is ideology – and that too of the Islamic Republic – and not history that is taught. The Partition of 1971 is just another victim in this process. As Bangladesh celebrates its Independence Day and, from this year onwards, also commemorates Genocide Day, a deafening silence will engulf the country. The “historical amnesia” of its coloniser will be embraced tightly as one of the most powerful legacies left behind by the British.

Anam Zakaria is the author of Footprints of Partition: Narratives of Four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians.

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