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1971 India-Pakistan War: The divergent narratives around the liberation of Bangladesh

While Indians and Bangladeshis pay rich tributes to the martyrs of the war, the day is a grim reminder of the ultimate repudiation of the two-nation theory — the very basis on which a “Muslim homeland” was formed.

Victory or defeat in a war can effect considerable changes in the psyche of a nation. This is true when one understands the post-Second World War history of former Axis powers Germany and Japan. Likewise, one can say that 1971 war did an irreparable damage to the very idea of Pakistan – that religion can be the distinguishing factor on the Indian subcontinent.

Tariq Mahmud, a former bureaucrat, in his opinion piece in The Express Tribune, points out that the geographical distance between the two wings of the country, made the leaders from UP and Punjab to ignore the aspirations of the majority Bengalis. The subsequent military dictatorships under Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan further widened the economic disparity between the west and the densely-populated east, fuelling regional aspirations for more autonomy. The six-point programme by Awami League’s Mujibur Rahman spelt a more federal structure, with the only defence and foreign affairs remaining with the Centre.

 1971 India-Pakistan War: The divergent narratives around the liberation of Bangladesh

Representative Image of Vijay Diwas. PTI

However, as the writer says, “no one in the western part of the country seemed to be ready for this. A complex political problem was subjected to an administrative and later on to a military solution which spelt disaster for the country.”

The '1971 debacle' has often been termed a ‘conspiracy’ against Pakistan. As Tahir Mahdi writes in Dawn, “Pakistanis feel uneasy coming to terms with the reality that is Bangladesh.” Often narratives are shaped by revisiting history. Mahdi writes that the root cause of the ultimate debacle may lie in the early days of the nascent state. While democracy was to be the political foundation of Pakistan, the writer continues, “the Bengalis were more in number than all the rest put together, and under a democracy, nothing could bar them from getting a majority share in the new state".

However, colour of the skin and significant cultural differences came in the way of a fledgling democracy. “The dark-skinned Bengalis, who shared their language and culture with their Hindu compatriots did not cut a figure to fit the coveted slot”, Mahdi writes.
Yusuf Rafiq, writing for The Daily Times, laments the lack of a proper national narrative to determine the significance of the debacle.

According to the writer, almost every other ‘average Joe’ blames the military for the disaster. However, the reasons for the ultimate separation had begun to precipitate in the 1960s, when the Bengalis had become “second-grade citizen”.

The writer compares the complicity of Pakistani administrators to cancer and writes, “As a nation we have long developed the bad habit of dealing with the symptom rather than the disease. We allow problems to linger till they assume large, very dangerous proportions. The East Pakistan problem was the perfect example. We ignored it and let it grow till it became a cancer. Rafiq also opines that despite losing Bangladesh, Islamabad seems to have not learnt any lessons from 45 years ago.

Murtaza Shibli, while writing for The News International, gives the 1971 war narrative, a complete different colour. In his opinion piece, he questions the exaggerated accounts of the civil war and the consequent 13-day war, while blaming the R&AW for flaming up the trouble in East Pakistan. Painting India as an aggressor, the writer quoted a Bangladeshi journalist as saying, “Thousands of army vehicles were used to carry looted goods to India. History has recorded few such cruel and heinous plunders”.

Meanwhile, in Bangladesh, the victim country that went through a harrowing nine-month civil war, the 1971 war is a moment of remembering the fallen.
“It is time to remember the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman), and the four national leaders who, inspired by Bangabandhu, led the nation to victory”, The Daily Star editorial noted while pointing out the days of oppression under Pakistani rule.

Bangladesh while paying homage to the freedom fighters — called the Mukti Bahini, also point out the fact that the country has a long way to go in their fight against rampant corruption and growing economic inequality, despite significant progress since 1971. “The martyrs must be turning over in their graves. What they died for remains unattained, if not gotten worse than before. Exploitation persists. Disparity exists. Deprivation perpetuates. The farce continues long after the faces have changed”, the publication notes.

What about India? We take pride in winning one of the shortest wars — 13 days — in modern history, while also taking 93,000 Pakistanis as Prisoners of War. It also cemented India's position as a military power in the Indian subcontinent. Nevertheless, Sushant Singh notes in his op-ed in The Indian Express that it was the 1971 war that has shaped the Pakistani policy against India. Internally, Islamabad turned to Islamisation to secure the country, “Pakistani society and polity doubled down on building up Islam in public life. As prime minister, ZA Bhutto first declared Ahmedis non-Muslims, announced prohibition and took steps which laid the foundation for General Zia ul-Haq to build the whole edifice of Islamisation of Pakistan.” Islamabad’s involvement with Punjab and the Kashmir problem can also be linked to the humiliation in 1971, he opines.

Notwithstanding the narrative, the 1971 War will remain etched in the collective memory of the Indian subcontinent for years to come.

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Updated Date: Dec 16, 2016 15:35:25 IST