Ghost of 1971 war shadows Bangladesh election

Conflicting narratives over Bangladesh’s bloody war for independence continue to plague relations with Pakistan.

Ties between Bangladesh and Pakistan have been strained since the 1971 war of independence [EPA]

The conviction and execution of a Bangladeshi opposition leader over crimes committed during Bangladesh’s war of independence is forcing people in both Pakistan and Bangladesh to question the official version of what transpired in 1971.

Two months after the creation of Bangladesh in December 1971, 2,400km away from a lush Dhaka racecourse where Pakistan signed its “instrument of surrender” to India, a Bengali woman gave birth to a boy in Karachi, now Pakistan’s largest city.

Abdul Hayee was born in a new Pakistan, where old rivalries reigned and ethnicity mattered. This context is especially important for Hayee, since ethnic Bengalis went from being Pakistan’s biggest ethnic group to one of its smallest.

“I have never visited Bangladesh,” Hayee told Al Jazeera, “but Bangladesh has always been a part of me in Pakistan. It defines who I am.”

When Hayee was in the eighth grade, his schoolmates would make fun of the way he spoke and how he looked. His heavy Bengali accented Urdu, coupled with his darker skin, seemed alien to his Urdu-speaking classmates. 

“They would taunt me. They would call me a dirty Bengali,” Hayee said. 

Forgotten history?

“Pakistan’s history books have been silent on the events that led to the fall of Dhaka in 1971,” said Ayesha Siddiqa, an author and commentator, speaking to Al Jazeera from Islamabad.



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Abdul Quader Mollah, a Bengali religious activist in Bangladesh, was a stalwart of the religious right and a rising star of the Jamaat-e-Islami political party – a group that had opposed the creation of Bangladesh and supported a unified Pakistan.

As the civil war kicked off in the former East Pakistan, Mollah became part of the Al-Badar brigade, a paramilitary force comprised of “like-minded pro-Pakistan Bengalis”, which was used by the Pakistani military in a killing and raping spree of Bengalis over an eight-month period.

As part of Al Badar, Mollah is said to have been involved in such intense violence that it earned him the nom de guerre “The Butcher of Mirpur”.

In December 2013, he was executed in Bangladesh for helping the Pakistani army kill and rape thousands of Bengalis during the 1971 independence war. 

“We treated Bengalis so poorly from 1947 to 1971 that it caused the majority of Pakistanis to seek independence from the minority in West Pakistan through a violent struggle that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh,” wrote Babar Sattar, a commentator for Dawn, Pakistan’s largest-circulated English newspaper.

Mollah: ‘A friend of Pakistan’

Not many Pakistanis know that Pakistan was an aggressor against its own people in 1971.

by - Ayesha Siddiqa, author

International media coverage of Mollah’s conviction and his subsequent execution in Bangladesh has given an opportunity to centre-right political forces in Pakistan to reassert Pakistan’s narrative of the war.

Pakistani lawmakers passed a parliamentary resolution condemning the execution of Mollah, calling him “a friend of Pakistan” and his execution a violation of Pakistan’s acceptance of Bangladeshi independence.

“Not many Pakistanis know that Pakistan was an aggressor against its own people in 1971. The civil war has been framed and narrated as an Indian conspiracy using ethnic Bengalis to dismember Pakistan,” Siddiqa said.

The prevailing narrative has come under threat from a globally interconnected news environment spread across the World Wide Web, and a youthful Pakistani population who are increasingly spending more time online, questioning the official version of events of 1971, according to Siddiqa.

“As a result, Pakistan’s nationalist state has had to make the 1971 civil war argument more sophisticated. The story has evolved,” said Siddiqa.

Numbers game

This view is also articulated by Sarmila Bose, a scholar who got in trouble for trying to establish the exact number of war dead in her controversial book Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War. Bose wrote of mass killings of Biharis – who were supporting the Pakistani state in the civil war – at the hands of Bengali nationalists, namely the Mukti Bahini or “Liberation Army”.

The numbers mattered, and matter still, because they make the difference between seeing the war as a tragedy and seeing it as a terrible crime, indeed as a genocide

by - Martin Woollacott, former Guardian journalist

One critique of Bose’s work was to downplay the total number of Bengali deaths. It’s difficult to ascertain the correct number of dead, as figures of Bengali deaths range from 300,000 to 3 million killed, according to the Bangladeshi government.

“The numbers mattered, and matter still, because they make the difference between seeing the war as a tragedy and seeing it as a terrible crime, indeed as a genocide,” said Martin Woollacott, a former Guardian newspaper reporter who covered Bangladesh’s war of independence. 

“That in turn is important because it profoundly affects the way in which the peoples of South Asia understand both their separate and their common histories.”

Downplaying the number of Bengalis killed in the 1971 war is seen in Bangladesh as a betrayal of the independence movement. In Pakistan, it has the opposite effect. A lower death toll allows for the development of an alternative story for 1971.

“According to this narrative, Pakistani Bengalis were killed fighting to protect Pakistan. Abdul Quader Mollah is a hero, not a villain in this story,” said Siddiqa. 

Framing the historical debate is highly politicised – especially in Pakistan.

Researcher Saurabh Sahi was afforded access to Pakistan’s Bangladesh files as he tried to quantify the killing of Biharis and their ill treatment in Bangladesh. The numbers he found vary between 25,000 and 150,000 Biharis killed by the Mukti Bahini after independence. There remain at least 250,000 Biharis still in Bangladesh living in squalid conditions in urban refugee camps.

“Much that is both wrong and dangerous in the subcontinent today, from Pakistan’s paranoia to India’s extreme self-righteousness and Bangladesh’s sense that it is neglected and ignored, can be traced to the 1971 conflict, even if the roots go back further still,” said Woollacott.

The argument that the Pakistani state committed atrocities in response to ethnic Bengali aggression doesn’t hold weight said Siddiqa. According to her, the Pakistani states created the circumstances and the environment in which citizens would allow for mass killings.

“By asking who started the rape and murders and whether Mukti Bahini was more vicious or the Pakistani Army, we confirm that the bigoted mindset that led 56 percent of Pakistanis to carve out Bangladesh to protect their rights is still thriving in Pakistan,” said Sattar.

He said the Pakistani state’s role in then-East Pakistan was inexcusable. “Mollah has not been executed for his love for Pakistan, but for the murder and rape of fellow Bengalis, even if he did so in the name of Pakistan,” Sattar said.

Back in Karachi, Abdul Hayee, who now cooks for some of Pakistan’s wealthiest families, wants his son’s future to be different.

“He is a Pakistani and a Bengali and I want him to be proud of both his identities,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera