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After 50 years, it's time to bury the ghosts of Bangladesh's liberation war

There can be no lasting peace on the subcontinent unless Pakistan, India and Bangladesh let go of their flawed narratives of the war

After 50 years, it's time to bury the ghosts of Bangladesh's liberation war

Students light oil lamps on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Victory Day in Dhaka on Dec. 15. (Photo: AFP)

Published: December 16, 2021 03:58 AM GMT

Updated: December 16, 2021 04:20 AM GMT

Festivities have gripped Bangladesh as the nation marks the golden jubilee of independence from Pakistan. Patriotic songs, red-green Bangladesh flags and patriotic cultural shows are on full display on Victory Day today.

On this day 50 years ago, millions of Bengali people shed tears of joy and relief when Bangladesh emerged as an independent nation as Pakistani troops accepted an unconditional surrender to the India-Bangladesh Joint Forces following a bloody nine-month civil war.

The cruel birth of Bangladesh, just 24 years after the British partition of India and Pakistan along religious lines in 1947, was a heartbreaking pointer to one of the worst historical and political blunders of the 20th century.

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The war came after the military regime refused to hand over power to the Awami League party led by Bangladesh’s founding leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, following the party’s landslide win in the 1970 general election.

More wars were fought on the subcontinent before and after 1971, but it remains one of the defining chapters in the history of South Asia and continues to shape political and diplomatic discourse in the region.

This was also a proxy war overshadowed by the Cold War. Russia and India lent support to Bangladeshi independence, while the US and China backed the Pakistani regime.

Numerous villages and towns were razed to the ground amid a campaign of massacre, terror, looting and arson when the military brutalized its own people

The sad reality is that the combatants failed to bury the ghosts of the past and to learn good lessons. Propaganda, vilification and hatred dominate the written and oral history of the 1971 War of Independence stemming from narrow perspectives.

The Pakistani military and Islamist militias stand accused of a genocidal crackdown, codenamed Operation Searchlight, that left three million dead and as many as 300,000 women raped and forced into sex slavery. About 10 million people took shelter in India as refugees.         

Independent researchers put the death toll at around 500,000. Even at this scale, it was still a genocide. Hundreds of mass graves across Bangladesh bear testimony to the slaughter.  

Worst of all, the military and their local collaborators brutally tortured and killed about 1,000 Bengali intellectuals for supporting independence with an intention to cripple the infant nation. Such atrocities can only be compared to Gestapo killing squads in Nazi Germany.

Numerous villages and towns were razed to the ground amid a campaign of massacre, terror, looting and arson when the military brutalized its own people. In many places, amid a scarcity of people to bury the dead, rivers turned into waterways of corpses.

Pakistan neither acknowledged the genocidal brutality nor did it ever call the military actions over a political problem a grave mistake. It has never prosecuted politicians and military commanders for their ruthless actions that led to the permanent loss of its eastern wing.

Pakistani leaders continue to describe the birth of Bangladesh as a conspiracy to break up Pakistan by arch-rival India. Pakistan never forgot its humiliating defeat and its constant meddling in Kashmir is just a way of finding consolation by hurting India for the loss in 1971.

Pakistan continues to deny Bangladesh’s independence came from a genuine struggle by Bengali people for freedom from an oppressive regime of the Islamic state. Its incorrigible inability to confront the bitter past is the single major reason why Pakistan-Bangladesh relations have always been cold, sour and confrontational.

Pakistan’s powerful military keeps dictating politics, religious minorities face extreme abuses and the military battles nationalists in an unwinnable war in Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province, much like the events leading to the 1971 war.

While younger Pakistanis are more interested in knowing the true history and correcting historic wrongs, most of the older generation are reluctant to overcome their ego to move forward.  

India portrays the 1971 war as the nation’s historic victory over Pakistan. Vilifying Pakistan scores great political mileage in India. This campaign has intensified under the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party regime of Narendra Modi.   

India keeps meddling in domestic politics and lobbies internationally to ensure pro-India regimes are in power, no matter how incompetent, corrupt and authoritarian

Bangladesh was born while India played the role of a successful midwife. There is no doubt it could have taken years for Bangladesh to gain independence without military support from India, from where guerrilla fighters got training and arms to attack Pakistan’s military. But it was Bengali fighters who fought and won the war before India declared the conflict officially over.

India never admits it was drawn into the war for its own interests. It wanted to see 10 million refugees who overran its territory return home, to ensure a weakened Pakistan lost its eastern wing and to create a country that would become the largest export destination of Indian products.

India’s neo-imperialist policies continue to dictate politics in South Asia. It keeps meddling in domestic politics and lobbies internationally to ensure pro-India regimes are in power, no matter how incompetent, corrupt and authoritarian. This also points to India’s desperation to keep South Asian nations, from Bangladesh to Nepal, outside the growing political, economic and military influence of its regional rival China.  

The exploitation of so-called Bangladeshi infiltration into India and the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act are just two of many instances of India’s unjustified and hegemonic influence.

India’s superiority complex toward South Asian neighbors is one of the legacies of the 1971 war that boosted its political and military confidence over Pakistan in the following decades. Unfortunately, it is also a major cause of the lack of genuine peace and political stability in the region.

For people in Bangladesh, the 1971 conflict is an emotive war engraved in the public psyche forever. This war continues to define political, economic, cultural and religious aspects of Bangladeshi society. Thanks to bitter experience with Islamic Pakistan, Islamist politicians who mostly opposed independence have never been a strong political force in the country.

In recent times, the war has been hijacked by the Awami League party that led the independence struggle. In power since 2009, the party exploits the war as its principal political asset. It regards any legitimate criticism of the regime as defiance of the custodian of “liberation war spirit” that should be punished.

The party that defied Pakistan’s military regime in 1971 for denial of democracy and lawful rights is now accused of turning the country into a one-party state amid the slow death of democracy and muzzling of freedom of speech with repressive laws and policies.

It seems the global praise Bangladesh gained by sheltering one million stateless Rohingya from a genocidal crackdown is now all but in tatters      

The ruling regime got away with two controversial, allegedly rigged national elections in 2014 and 2018, thanks to backing from India. Since the 1990s, the Awami League and opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) alternated in power, which somehow maintained a political checks-and-balance system in the fledgling democracy. That is now a thing of the past.

The government constantly takes credit for the remarkable socioeconomic development of Bangladesh in recent decades, from a basket case to a development miracle today, but it won’t admit its role in undermining the basics of democracy, freedom and rights in the country.  

Scores of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and other forms of human rights violations over the years resulted in recent US sanctions on an elite security agency and its current and former top officials, putting Bangladesh on a list with China, Russia and Myanmar. Bangladesh was excluded from the Summit for Democracy in the US on Dec. 9-10 where representatives of 110 countries participated.

The sanctions just days before Bangladesh Victory Day were surely shocking for all concerned citizens. It seems the global praise Bangladesh gained by sheltering one million stateless Rohingya from a genocidal crackdown is now all but in tatters.      

As long as the ruling regime aims for development at the expense of democracy and human rights, Bangladesh will continue to struggle without a true sense of freedom.   

Europe changed drastically in the 50 years following World War II and turned into continent of peace from a continent of turbulence. Expecting such a transformation on the subcontinent is no less than thinking the unthinkable.

There can be no lasting peace on the subcontinent unless Pakistan, India and Bangladesh decide to right historic wrongs by letting go of their deliberate and flawed narratives of the war.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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1 Comments on this Story
ABID HABIB
I lived to see those sad days. Pakistan was totally humiliated. We were drummed with propaganda. Seeing the history from all angles, I now say, Bangladesh I am very sorry for how we mistreated you people. It is my prayer that may God bless you and your people. I hope that we may see better days in future where we both work to bring about peace and harmony in the territory. I hope to see that may the three countries India, Pakistan and Bangladesh may live in harmony.

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