This is the first post in a series on the 1971 War, also known as the Liberation War of Bangladesh. The series aims to be an honest portrayal of both sides of the war and its aftermath, from the atrocities committed against the Bengali people, to those also committed by the Bengali Mukhti Bahini, to the refugees in West Bengal, as well as the later persecution of the Bihari (Urdu-speaking) people in Bangladesh. If you have a story you’d like to share, please let me know:
As many of you know, I am Pakistani. My allegiance to this country has been the driving factor when I decided on my educational focus, my career path, and of course, this blog. What many of you don’t know, however, is that my mother is Bangladeshi, and I am very proud of my Bengali heritage and family.
My quest to better understand my own identity frequently led me to study a pivotal moment in both Pakistan and Bangladesh’s history – the 1971 War, known interchangeably as the Bangladesh Liberation War and the 1971 Indo-Pak War, depending on your perspective. The conflict ended with the secession of East Pakistan and the birth of Bangladesh, but it also resulted in the loss of many Bangladeshi lives at the hands of Pakistani soldiers, (the death toll varies from 20,000 to three million depending on the source). The atrocities were endless, and many today label 1971 the “Bangladesh Genocide.”
Throughout my life, I never had to look far to learn about 1971 – the entire Bangladeshi side of my family was somehow involved in the war. What I heard first hand was haunting – stories of mass graves, protests, torture and defiance. But growing up in Pakistan, these anecdotes clashed considerably with how the war was presented and perceived in Pakistan. While I am very aware that there is no black and white to any conflict, such a discrepancy was a challenge to better understand and share my own observations of the war.
I write this piece fresh from a trip to Dhaka and a day after convincing my lovely cousin to accompany me to the Liberation War Museum, which displays the history prior to and during the 1971 War. The museum sits in a house in Shegunbagicha in Dhaka, leased out by the family of one of my cousins and managed by curator Akku Chowdhury.
The museum is rich with information, filled with remnants of a history that heavily defines the Bangladeshi collective. One of the first rooms you enter is a display on the 1952 Language Movement, which called for the recognition of Bangla as a second official language of Pakistan (Urdu was established as the sole national language after 1947). This protest over language, bringing men and women alike on to the streets, sparked a nationalist fervor and marked the beginning of the Bengali demand for their democratic and cultural rights. In 2000, UNESCO established February 21 as International Mother Language Day, in tribute to the movement and the subsequent lives lost.
As I walked through the museum, jotting down thoughts and taking illicit photographs (please note: you are not actually allowed to take photos in the museum, my apologies to the museum staff who tried valiantly to stop me), several pieces caught my attention. The first was a poster of the iconic cartoon by ‘Patua’ Quamrul Hassan depicting former Pakistani president Gen. Yahya Khan as a demon, accompanied by the text, Annihilate these Demons. From my understanding, the “demons” referred to the Pakistani soldiers undertaking the military operation that began in March 1971.
I was also struck by a copy of a memo written by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for former U.S. President Richard Nixon. Addressed April 28, 1971, the paper presented policy options for the U.S. involvement in the 1971 War. Nixon had checked policy option #3 – “An effort to help Yahya achieve a negotiated settlement,” with a scribbled note, “Don’t squeeze Yahya at this time.”
In a recent article for the Daily Star, Asif Mahfuz noted that U.S. policy followed a course later known as “The Tilt,” due to Nixon’s friendship with Yahya and a strategic interest in China. He wrote,
By using what Nixon and Kissinger called quiet diplomacy, the administration gave the green light to the Pakistanis. In one instance, Nixon declared to a Pakistani delegation that “Yahya is a good friend.” Rather than express concern over the ongoing brutal military repression, Nixon explained that he “understands the anguish of the decisions which (Yahya) had to make”…. In a handwritten letter on August 7th, 1971, to President Yahya, Nixon writes: “Those who want a more peaceful world in the generations to come will forever be in your debt.
The museum display was a telling example of how strategic interests and realpolitik often outweigh what is morally right or acceptable. Walking through the Liberation War Museum, I was constantly reminded of this fact. Many of the rooms contained uniforms, photos, and belongings of the innocent civilians killed, as well as those of the Mukthi Juddha (“Liberation Fighters” who were part of the militia, the Mukhti Bahini). One particularly memorable and disturbing display featured the 70 skulls and 5392 other bones recovered from a “killing field” in Mirpur, Dhaka, where many who were killed by the Pakistan Army were discarded.
Rape was also widely perpetrated during the 1971 War. According to the museum sources, allegedly 250,000 women were tortured and raped by Pakistani soldiers during the conflict. However, while many women were victims of the atrocities, I was also struck by how many were central figures in the war for independence, fighting alongside the men. The Liberation War Museum was filled with photos of Bengali women outfitted in white saris, holding rifles and conducting military exercises. One poster displayed in the museum encompassed this phenomenon perfectly:
It has been 39 years since the 1971 War, and there are still many lessons for Pakistan to not only learn but also accept. As Imran Khan over at the blog ATP recently noted, “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.” A nation, in my opinion, is strengthened by its ability to accept responsibility for its mistakes. This is applicable to today as it was back then.
I’ll end this piece with a rather telling poster from the Liberation War Museum, which showcases the secular nature of the Bangladeshi state that still persists today (for the most part). The text reads, “Banglar Hindu, Banglar Christian, Banglar Buddhist, Banglar Muslim – We are all Bengali.”