1971: The Lessons We Did Not Learn

Posted on November 21, 2009
Filed Under >Imran H. Khan, Foreign Relations, History, Society
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Imran H. Khan

(Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of posts – from different perspectives – we will carry on the events of 1971 and their relevance to Pakistan today.)

Today, is November 21.

November 21, 1971, was a day of infamy for Pakistan. On this day that Indian Air Force planes crossed the international borders in East Pakistan and attacked PAF planes flying ground support missions well inside the Pakistani territory. While Indian ground forces had been covertly supporting Mukti Bahini, this was the first act of aggression across international boundaries that was the actual beginning of hostilities between India and Pakistan. On November 21, 1971, what had been an internal conflict within Pakistan territory became an international conflict when India attacked Pakistan.

The saga of East Pakistan Air Force during the 1971 war written by the Air Office Commanding EPAF can be read at the blog Planet Earth. In this post, I wish to look at what we in Pakistan can learn today from the events of 1971. With all the bloodshed and mayhem going on in Pakistan, it may seem inappropriate to talk about the subject of the 1971 war. Still I think there are many lessons that we can take from that part of our history and hopefully not make the same mistakes twice.

First, let me be clear that the root cause of Pakistan’s breakup in 1971 was a lack of implementation of democracy and majority rule. While seeds of dissension had been sown considerably earlier, it was when Mr. Bhutto threatened to “break the legs” of any politician who dared to go to East Pakistan and form alliances with Awami League, that the die was cast of the eventual breakup. Afterall, the Awami League had won the majority in the fairest elections ever held in Pakistan.

When President Gen.Yahya decided not to hand over the power to Mr. Mujibur Rehman, who was the elected leader of the majority of people of Pakistan, the West Pakistani leadership failed to live up to its constitutional obligations. Based on this alone the East Pakistanis had the right to demand that West Pakistan change its name to something else. West Pakistanis had decided not to follow Quaid e Azam’s emphasis on Unity. The problems of FATA today are in many ways are also linked to lack of democracy and civil institutions. We have only belatedly held elections in Gilgit-Baltistan, which is a step in the right direction. It needs to be followed up by similar elections in all the other areas still not enjoying the right to vote.

A second lesson from the 1971 experience is that the use of defense forces to quell civil unrest is excessive, which in the total analysis is far more detrimental to the resolution of root causes. In 1971 the Pakistani government should have used civil defense forces to stop the Mukti Bahini, and not military forces. Use of heavy guns, armor and air power actually played into their hands, as these blunt weapons invariably cause excessive civil casualties. Armies are trained to fight brutal battles where no holds are barred. Even the most precisely dropped bombs by airplanes result in widespread damage to life and property. It appears that we have not learnt this lesson. By not adequately training the civil defense forces and providing them the tools necessary to quell internal aggression, we have ended up using massive force in Swat and now in Waziristan.

There is something uniquely empowering when people who hold powerful offices are held accountable to public. When countries try members of their defense forces for war crimes, it actually strengthens their institutions and rule of law. If there are claims of war crimes alleged by Bangladesh government and conversely allegations of atrocities by Mukti Bahini, let us have joint war crime trials and let justice be served. After all they were all Pakistanis then. In the life of nations, thirty years are just a blink of the eye. The bitter truth is that we in West Pakistan are guilty of the greater fault in the breakup; we should therefore go further in rebuilding genuine relations with Bangladesh.

No country worth anything should ever abandon its citizens. Pakistanis of Bihari origin (‘stranded Pakistanis’) were loyal to Pakistan and they bore the brunt of the military loss in East Pakistan. There are still nearly a quarter million Pakistanis who have a refugee status and living in camps in Bangladesh. If Pakistan could essentially assimilate three million Afghan refugees, it is very difficult to justify allowing our most fervently loyal Pakistanis to continue living in squalor in Bangladesh. We must find a way to repatriate our brethren from Bangladesh.

History must never be forgotten, no matter whether it is flattering to you or not. It is well know than each nation tells its people the lies it chooses. We in Pakistan have done this too, including on the events on 1971. And so have the Indians. Recently, for example, the Indian Foreign Minister made the comment on Fareed Zakaria’s television show in USA, that Pakistan started all the wars with India. One hopes the Indian Foreign Minister will eventually make peace with the facts of November 21. And so must we in Pakistan.

This means accepting the mistakes we made – like all the ones I have listed above – but it also means honoring the valour of those who made sacrifices. Maybe it was the trauma of loosing a big part of the country, that we never really celebrated amazing acts of valor by members of our defense forces. Amongst the mistakes made by the defense forces, there were also great acts of heroism. One that stands out like a shining beacon is the heroic stand taken by airmen of PAF. Which country asks its airmen to take one squadron of aged sub sonic planes to fight eleven squadrons of considerable modern and supersonic planes. This is exactly what we asked PAF airmen to do in East Pakistan. They held off IAF for two days before the runway got cratered to an extent that they could not launch any fighters. IAF with over one hundred fighters and bombers at its disposal should have rendered the solitary airbase dysfunctional in a matter of hours. PAF pilots braved taking off when under attack, fighting an enemy with ten to one ratio and landing under attack. The PAF airmen turned the aircrafts around with bombs dropping all around them. I cannot think of anyone more worthy of Nishan e Haiders than the East PAF airmen in general and pilots in particular.

38 responses to “1971: The Lessons We Did Not Learn”

  1. amitk says:

    Mr Imran, you went a little overboard in discussing a good point. India DID NOT started 1971 war. It was pre-emptive air strike by Pakistan air force on December 3 that marked official start of this war. I checked many independent sources on this war on Internet and I could not find one telling that India started the war.The incident of 21 Nov that you are talking about happened in then east Pakistan. In East, bangla people had declared it as an independent state, 10 millions bangla refugees had crossed border to India, millions were killed and thousands were raped, India had declared support for Mukti Bahini and hence this insurgency can not be attributed as an official start of war of 1971. If Yahya was seriously considering this incident as start of war then he would have reacted militarily in a day or two, why wpuld he wait till December 3?

  2. amar says:

    you have hit the nail on its head the reasons for pakistans breakup was west pakistanis not accepting awami leagues success and not allowing mujib to become head of state. had mujib become head of state pakistan would certainly not broke up outsiders only interfere in household when there is internal squabbling bengali hindus certainly inflamed muslim bengalis for revolt which they paid heavily in number of being killed by pak army but bengali muslims were treated as second class citizens in their own soil from outset of independence from britain and british india similar to kasmiris in india.rather than blaming outsiders always when there is conflict in house or in nation first put stick under your own seat then blame others similar to kashmir scenario kashmiris are treated as second class on their own soil expansionist views are copied from western and german theroies about expansionism more territory for master race or german people than inferior races like russians which donot hold for india or pakistan because both are cartoon states fighting with imported western technology and weapons no indigenous industry or weapons like a clever person in village giving weapons to both parties and himself staying out conflict more breakup of nations in asia and africa in next 10 years written in steel sudan, nigeria indonesia india pakistan iraq malaysia burma into smaller states allow unrepresented nations to be free in asia and africa and south america not harp on territories like germans in world wars for blue eyed blond boys master race and intellect

  3. Benawa says:

    May the peace loving pragmatists prevail, no matter what
    country thay happen to be in!

    I wish there were more Indian like Ved and Mst. Bless you both!
    Unfortunately, sensible beings like you two are outnumbered
    by so many of your acid-tongued (or I shoud say “toxic-penned”) countrymen whose favourite past-time seems to be
    to spew venom about Pakistan, curse its existence, and lament
    partition. And they are all over the cyber-space– I suppose
    because there are many more Indians than Pakistanis.

    I just want Indians to move on and accept Pakistan’s existence
    once and for all. (Go with the “Libertarian”– assume that
    Pakistan is “toxic asset” and let it be! Just leave it alone.)
    To Libertarian: Quit quoting Jinnah out of context, and quit

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