1971: the forgotten silence

by Raza Rumi

This week marks the 37th anniversary of the tragic events of 1971 that led to the dismemberment of Pakistan and creation of Bangladesh. This time the sixteenth day of that deadly December invited little attention in the mainstream media as the new Pakistan struggles to manage the multiple crises of statehood, governance and cohesion.

Whether we like it or not, history and its bitter truths have to be confronted. When the united Punjab was being ruled by the Unionists and the Congress and the NWFP had a chief minister from the congress-Khudai Khidmatgar alliance, and almost all the custodians of South Asian puritanical Islam were opposed to Pakistan, the peasantry and the intelligentsia of East Bengal were spearheading a movement for Pakistan. There were indeed economic reasons, but there was an unchallengeable mass support for and belief in Pakistan. What happened after 1947 is well known; and within two decades or so, those who wanted Pakistan in the first place were subjected to state excesses and brutal treatment by the groups and elites that had actually little commitment to Pakistan or its idea. Nothing could be more ironical.

It is of little significance to remember the exact chronology of events or to indulge in a blame-game. The truth is that we as a state and society lost our majority province after pushing its people into a situation where independence through a War of Liberation was the only choice. India, of course, played a huge role in transacting this deal, but the West Pakistani elites had prepared the ground, sown the seeds of mistrust to a great degree. Thus the Pakistan created by its founding members was no more in 1971, further subdividing the Muslims of the subcontinent. A bitter lesson of history was in the making. If only, we were capable of paying heed to it.

What followed after 1971 was even stranger. After the ritualistic mourning and let’s say a dozen memoirs of former soldiers and bureaucrats, a meaningful silence echoed in the remainder of Pakistan, save a few, sporadic voices from the beleaguered intelligentsia. It was not until three decades later, and that too under a military dictator, that Pakistan made a feeble effort towards an apology of sorts. The same military ruler, Gen Musharraf, was bold enough to publish sections of the Hamoodur Rahman Commission report. Perhaps, it was too late. Many a younger generation had no clue, given that the Pakistani textbooks had little to say; and whatever was recorded was purely from a narrow, jingoist Indo-Pak rivalry perspective where all evil was to be located in the misdoings of the Hindu teachers in East Pakistan. A footnote, at best.

This is why we have hobbled from one crisis to another. We, simply, are reluctant to learn from the fiasco of 1971. That the principles of federalism are important for diverse societies to flourish, and that civil-military imbalances cannot result in healthy states are lessons ignored, at best sidelined in the unimplemented clauses of the Constitution or red-taped files of national commissions and committees. Above all, admitting that we had wronged our citizens by invading them, howsoever misled they may have been. Or, political questions cannot be resolved without political processes and consultative systems of governance. Alienation of the citizen from the state therefore reigns supreme, especially in the neglected parts of Punjab and in various corners of the smaller provinces.

This distance from the state among the ruled is now coming to haunt us. So we have a young man from a small hamlet in Punjab who has neither education nor economic opportunity, except being recruited by questionable organisations, and who ends up in Mumbai and puts us all to shame. In southern Punjab, Balochistan and parts of the tribal belt, the examples are countless where citizenship is a non-existent concept. There is simply a void of services, of obligations outlined in the principles of policy of the Constitution and rights trumpeted as “fundamental.” The issues of import are as to which of the chief justices was right in favouring his progeny or if the appointments made by an acting governor are kosher or not. No introspection, no looking back or searching within the troubled folds of the body-politic?

The greatest legacy of 1971 and our collective, shameless silence is this utter lack of soul searching. The unprecedented existentialist crises of Pakistan are yet again being reduced to “foreign intervention.” If it is not the US, it is India and/or Israel. A country of 170 million cannot be hostage to an array of foreign intelligence agencies only. The rot in the state of Denmark needs to be looked at and accepted before correction. I am not arguing that foreign hands are not there or the geo-strategic imperatives of global and regional power-players are altogether absent. It is only when the fissures and cracks within a society move beyond the normal limits that foreign hands find it easy to exploit them for their self-interest. Nothing proves it better than the tragedy of 1971 – it was a collective, shared tragedy that has been underreported and under-played by the forces that perpetrated it in the first place.

The basic unresolved question of 1971–i.e., fair sharing of power between various centres of political influence–is alive in Jinnah’s Pakistan of 2008. True, that we have started the process of reclaiming civilian control of institutions but the process is fractured and fraught with the endless possibilities of reversal. Impatience with democracy and civilian institutions, now fuelled by an unregulated electronic media and the rendition of the entire country into a proxy war-zone, has put us back into the uncertain times.

Amazing, that despite the lapse of so many decades the rightwing is churning out the same diagnoses and solutions. The groups that were hankering for Bengali blood and crush-Hindu recipes are uttering similar diatribes. The information industry that was silent under censorship is reproducing the familiar tunes of jihad even when ostensibly free. Refusal to learn from history is surely our peculiar forte.

December, above all, reminds us that socio-political injustice cannot continue in perpetuity–it leads to grave consequences. It also faces us to restate that military might cannot be the only guarantor of our sovereignty and definition of nationhood. And, without a functional federal system, we cannot create a sense of belonging and move above ethnicity, tribe, sect, caste and biradari. Redistribution of power and fulfilling the mandates of a responsible state cannot be overlooked, nuclear prowess notwithstanding.

All is not lost. We have, at the end of the year 2008, a growing middle class, urbanised pockets of civic action, and fortunately a democracy of sorts. No foreign power has prevented us from reopening the issue of land reform, taxing the super-rich, investing in education and healing the festering wounds of Balochistan?

We ought to apologise to our Bangladeshi friends, and begin a new era of honesty. After all these years, what stops us from making Pakistan and Bangladesh visa-free countries for students and visitors and trade partners? Let us begin to tackle history, for a change.

The NEWS: Friday, December 19, 2008


Filed under Citizens, Islam, Pakistan, Partition, Politics, public policy, Society, south asia, violence, war

18 responses to “1971: the forgotten silence

  1. I second the logic and sentiments presented in the article. the Pak tea house ethos is to start a debate on issues whether we like those uncomfortable truths or want to brush them under the carpet.
    The Reality is that we need a NEW PAKISTAN

    Benazir Bhutto(before her tragic martyrdom- i didnot completely agree with benazir on 28 july 2007 in bradford but I will still call her martyr)started talking about a “NEW SOCIAL CONTRACT” among different power centres and lets not forget the “POWERLESS” in Rural punjab,pushtuns,Sindhis and Balochs.

    Army, feudals,industrialists,intelligentia, Judges middleclass, students,Lawyers, workers and peasants will have to look forward to a hope of NEW PAKISTAN- A NEW SOCIAL CONTRACT

  2. Adnann

    I read this write-up in The News a few days back. It made up for an excellent reading, and I forwarded it to a lot of my friends as a thoughtful analysis of one of our country’s greatest tragedies.

    I am struck by the complacency that the population expressed as the country hurtled towards an unmitigated disaster in 1971. The current times have an eerie similarity. The country suffers from misgovernance, combined with a thoughtless strategy where the bands of militants stand ready to take on the country establishment, that helped create them in the first place.

    While we blame our previous rulers for the current mishaps, it is sobering to note that many of those actions that led to disasters had massive public support. 1971 tragedy was perpetuated with a massive public support for the military action in East Pakistan. Except Air Marshal Asghar Khan and handful of politicians, the religious right and mainstream politicians wholeheartedly supported the policies and actions that led to dismemberment of Pakistan.

    Now, the right wing and mainstream politicians have had their heads in the sand, as militancy danger continues to get out of control. There have been excuses, excuses and excuses; world is up against Pakistan, US and its allies want Pakistan destroyed, 9/11 was an inside job, 11/26 is an inside job, slimsiest of evidences are embraced to make Pakistanis feel good about the utopia around them. As long as Pakistan does not accept its responsibility to stand up as a sovereign nation, it is likely not to be treated as a sovereign nation. Sovereignty demands responsibility, one tenant of that is our soil not being used to wage wars against foreign nations. Deal with past conflicts as mature people, not some warring tribes where kills are always avenged with kills, and where generations carry the baggage of their forefathers, and live and die by that baggage.

    Of course, India is not a perfect country. They have had their share of blunders. The world around is not a perfect place, and Pakistan would have to live in a conflicted world. However for Pakistan to survive and prosper, it needs to intospect and work on its own problems, before it can look around and blame everyone else for their follies.

  3. sherryx

    Will any one ask Jamate Islami to explain the genocide? killing of Intellecuals? Will we ask those who bombed Dacca University hostels to pay for killing the East Pakistanis?
    Will we ask our mujahids why Bengali woman gave birth to so many “war babies”?
    or all this will also be hushed up in name of Pakistan. Till when we will be forced to drink blood to show loyality to the state??

  4. takhalus

    The Hyderabad tribunal was the first sign that our leaders learnt nothing from 1971

  5. Pingback: Global Voices Online » Pakistan: The forgotten silence of 1971

  6. YLH

    “When the united Punjab was being ruled by the Unionists and the Congress and the NWFP had a chief minister from the congress-Khudai Khidmatgar alliance, and almost all the custodians of South Asian puritanical Islam were opposed to Pakistan, the peasantry and the intelligentsia of East Bengal were spearheading a movement for Pakistan. There were indeed economic reasons, but there was an unchallengeable mass support for and belief in Pakistan. What happened after 1947 is well known; and within two decades or so, those who wanted Pakistan in the first place were subjected to state excesses and brutal treatment by the groups and elites that had actually little commitment to Pakistan or its idea”

    Well said. Hence the need to hark back to Jinnah’s Pakistan again and again …

    The vestiges of feudalism… The Unionist types (both Chaudhries and Sharifs- the so called Muslim Leaguers of today) in Punjab, the waderas from Sindh… the tribal warlords of Balochistan…as well as the JUI-F (again the historic continuation of Jamiat-e-Ulema-Hind) … the Jamaat-e-Islami wallahs … etc all need to be over thrown by the people of Pakistan who must take control of their destiny now…

    I think PPP alone can achieve this today… but will it continue to be held hostage by elements of these very groups within its ranks?

  7. Pakistan has been highjacked by feudals and with a very heavy heart I dare say this that Pakistan will continue to be governed by idiots like Nawaz, Zardari etc etc. The sons of west and devils of east will leave no stone un turned to cause the destruction of Pakistan.

    It is amazing to see that how after BB’s death she has been portrayed as a “mother of democracy”. Whereas, in reality she was the mishap Pakistan had to suffer twice and due to her marraige to a failed feudal lord we will continue to suffer even after her demise. For Pakistan and Pakistani’s there is no hope, no light at the end of the tunnel. At one end of the tunnel there are greedy politician and on the other hand there is Army (which in my opinion has been better than civilian rule.)

  8. trp

    “The sons of west and devils of east will leave no stone un turned to cause the destruction of Pakistan.”

    hee hee, princefino,

    when will pakistanis like u take responsibility of what YOU r doing?YOU r part of the problem too as u r refusing to acknowledge the problem and trying to pin it on the devils of east. LET is YOUR problem and not your solution. unless u have the guts to face the facts, there’ll be no light at the end of the tunnel.u r acting like zardari, who after three weeks says his ppl have not yet reached faridkot and found out kasab’s identity 🙂 however pakistani jets have indeed reached lahore. ur powers are fooling u, and u r more than willing 🙂

  9. Trp,

    Once again an Indian advocate in denial. Look at your back yard before you open the front door. There is a can of worms within your borders. Once again why dont you ask your politicians to bring the evidence in media. The soo called Indian democracy can surely do that cant it?

    Lets wait and see where this all heads. I am sure you will then come up with something really different. 🙂

  10. trp

    No no i’m not in denial prince,

    we evil hindoos do want ur destruction, its written in our religion, advocated by our priests, taught in our school books and many many organisations working here just for that. and u r right its inevitable too, u r just incompetent. ur president himself is unable to send his people to faridkot even after three weeks and talk to amir kasab (natonal id 3530121767339), how will u fight evil hindoos (we also have brahmins and some jews :)).

    u r doomed mate.

  11. Beautiful piece of analysis! Kudos to Raza Rumi!
    The pace, the rhythm and the grit bristling in his perspectives should make every rational thinking soul introspect!

  12. Ash


    Do you really believe that I terrorist will go and attack in a different country and carry his identity card? Dude its not Bollywood blockbuster you are talking about.

    Lets wait and see where all this unfolds and please when you attack Pakistan come with your full might we will see who is the last man standing 🙂

  13. alok

    are you really so dumb 🙂

  14. alok

    and did you/your ancestors say the same dialogue before 1971….as they say history repeats itself

  15. trp


    Why r the religious types so stupid? a fake id card has real photos on it, the details are fake.

    Think abt it for sometime and slowly it’ll come to you.

  16. kpg

    Well ….. your Paki govt itself acknowledged tht Kasab is a Paki ……

  17. Milind Kher

    The genocide in Bangladesh in 1971 was really bad.

    Just as the Germans disown Hitler and his Nazis, Pakistan must do likewise to Yahya Khan.

    If Pakistan cracks down on the terrorist camps within its borders, it will significantly improve relations with India too.