1971: The Forgotten Silence

Posted on December 9, 2009
Filed Under >Raza Rumi, History, Society
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Raza Rumi

This post is the third in our series on recapping the fall of East Pakistan in 1971. The previous two posts of this series can be read here and here.

Every year 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. 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 favoring 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 right-wing 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.

34 responses to “1971: The Forgotten Silence”

  1. Anwer says:

    West Pakistan political leaders slate Bhutto

    Press report on March 16, 1971 (THE DAWN, Karachi-March 16, 1971)



    Leaders Slate Bhutto-Press report on March 16, 1971

    The President of National Awami Party, Khan Abdul Wali Khan, stressed here today that a “political solution” must be found to the present impasse. “Let power be transferred to the Constituent Assembly”, he said talking to newsmen this morning.

    The NAP President, replying to a question on the demand for transfer of power and lifting of Martial Law immediately, said power should be transferred to the Constituent Assembly which should be declared sovereign.

    Asked to comment on Mr. Z. A. Bhutto’s latest proposal that power should be transferred to the majority parties in East Pakistan and West Pakistan, Khan Wali Khan replied: “We would like to have clarifications whether the concept of a single State is there in his proposal.” He said it should be clear that West Pakistan ceased to exist politically since July 1, 1970.

    In the absence of fuller details of Mr. Bhutto’s speech at Karachi yesterday political observers wondered whether by talking of two Wings as two political entities, Mr. Bhutto was not suggesting something which was ‘diametrically opposite to the solidarity and oneness of the country. They also pointed out that Mr. Bhutto could not speak on behalf of West Pakistan as he had no standing in NWFP and Baluchistan. It is interesting that in expounding his “two-majority-party’ theory Mr. Bhutto conveniently overlooked the fact that West Pakistan no longer Was one political entity and was split into four provinces, these observers said.

    Professor Ghulam Azam, Amir of the Jama’at-i-Islami said that it had been crystal clear from the statement of Mr. Bhutto that he did not want to see Pakistan United.

    The Jama’at leader alleged that Mr. Bhutto had engaged himself in ” a conspiracy” immediately after the last general elections to divide the nation to fulfil his desire.

    He made an appeal to the President “not to help Mr. Bhutto in any way to break Pakistan”.

    Prof. Azam said that immediate lifting of Martial Law and transfer of power to the elected representatives of the people could only save the nation from crisis.

    Maulana Siddique Ahmad, Secretary General of Pakistan Central Jamiat-i Ulema-i-IslAm and Nizam-i-Islam Party, has demanded that the PPP Chief “be tried for attempting to disintegrate the country by his mischievous activities”.

    In a Press statement here tonight the Maulana said that Mr. Bhutto had in his latest statement demanded the distribution of power between the majority party of the respective Wings, but it was his dangerous role that had brought the present impasse for the nation.

    He said that Mr. Bhutto has “no right to poke his nose in the present critical situation “.

    Maulana Siddique said that the only solution to the present crisis was to transfer power to the majority party leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman after accepting his four-point demands, ” and for that purpose, President Yahya Khan and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman were the two parties involved”. Mr. Bhutto is in no way connected with it, he added.

    Dubious Stand

    Mr. Mukhlesuzzaman, an ex-MNA and Secretary General of Gono Oaiya Andolon said that Mr. Bhutto had once again exposed himself by his ” dubious stand on Bangla Desh. The people of Bangla Desh would not accept him any more “, he added.

    He said that Mr. Bhutto had no right to speak for whole of Western Wing having majority in Sind and Punjab only.

    (THE DAWN, Karachi-March 16, 1971)

  2. Imraj says:

    Kokon, first find out who did what.Do you know what happened in Joydepur and cadet college near Chittagong?Please findout unless you decided to ignore these rapes and massacers by Bengali mobs and soldiers.There were crimes commited against Pakistani women and children,breasts of alive women were cut and infants were bayoneted. I hate to mention many more instances.This is how it started.
    Tell me how many from west Pakistan stayed back in east Pakistan while there were many who stayed in west Pakistan and are still living as happy citizens.This west Pakistan bashing must stop.It is people like you who do not want the gap to be bridged.Stop it for all our generations to come.
    One thing more Yahya held fair elections and announced on record MujiburRehman as the next Prime Minister of Pakistan,then what happened?Who created all the mess for enemy to intervene.Mujib and ZA Bhutto.With us togather none of them could have become Prime Minister nor Indira could have dared to intervene!This is history and not fiction.
    Remmember we loved that part of our country as did people from there.We still have fond memories and many friends there.

  3. Watan Aziz says:


    Shubho janmadin December 17!

    Apni kemon achhen?

    Ami bhalo achhi.

    Aami tomake bhalobashi. Tomake bhasha khubsurut. Aami baba jakhan dhakay. Aami bangla shikhchhi bidyalaya. Aami Lahore shahar thaki.

    Tomake byatha dekhun. Ami gabhir niswas. Ami kshama korben.

    But if you please, 40 years later, the core basis of misunderstanding remain. Your blanket and black and white statement about breadbasket and Punjabis are reminders of false truths.

    Yet your post, is also a painful reminder of ills of successive rouge governments that knew no limits of injustice and inequity. Sometimes lead by Bengali leaders too.

    I do not think we can wash these away but simpler statements.

    Frankly, East Pakistan was lost on January 1, 1965, the day Fatima Jinnah was “made” to lose the election by Ayub Khan. It may not help you to know, that my father, a Punjabi, paid a price for her victory because he did not allow any vote fraud.

    Allow me to add, not all West Pakistanis are Punjabis and not all Punjabis were silent. And not all Pakistanis have been silent on this since ’71. It is perhaps the interaction of the Internet that makes it appear that Pakistanis are late. Far from it.

    Everyone knows the real name of “The Butcher of Dhaka” and no one mourns Yahya.

    It will not come to you as a solace that Pakistani governments even after 1971 continue to exercise injustice and inequity. Seems the lessons have not been learned.

    If you read some of the posts here, you will get the sense that Pakistanis are 24/7 talking about the injustice and inequity in Pakistan.

    East Pakistani were good. The system was bad.

    Pakistanis are good. The system is bad.

    Pakistanis here and all over are speaking up for a better system; a system based on equity and justice. Peace and security for the entire South Asia depends on equity and justice for all of its peoples.


    Jai Bangladesh
    Pakistani Zindabad

  4. Khokon says:

    Off Ke osshobo. It still pains me to see nearly 40 years later people in WP do *not get it*

    Right from the beginning of the state, East was the breadbasket and West was the basketcase in production of food. The administration of essential functions were dictated from Islamabad.

    The token bengalis in the administrative corridors of power at best there to provide assistance.

    East had a higher % of literacy, more emancipated and benevolent outlook towards women and their education, which the funding for higher education in bengal was less than any state in WP.

    The disgust the punjabi sahibs towards bengali was evident in they way they spoke down. Even in the blog the “us” Vs “they” is obvious in the ways you’ll have phrased this soul searching.

    Stop blaming India or US or anyone else for this loss. Not one single drunk sepoy or brigadier was punished for murder, rape and essentially the humiliation of the bengali diaspora.

    Can anyone tell me how many hundreds of thousands of women you people raped ? How many teachers, writers, scientists, intellectuals you’ll murdered ?

    A pakistani child in ’71 will never get it, and the bengali child will never forget it. The “it” is the year of 71….

    Learn bengali first – even elementary; to understand the bengali soul…


  5. Sandy says:

    You have written so many times that Pakistan must learn from 1971, yet you have not written a single word on how women were raped by Pakis. Isn’t that a form of denial. It is truth that all Pakistanis are still ashamed to even acknowledge.

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