When Pakistan questioned its history
Discovering hidden stories of the Bangladesh war was understandably uncomfortable for Lahore liberals
21 February resonates with special meaning for Bangladeshis. That morning in 1952, hundreds of students of what was then known as Dacca University came to their campus to protest against restrictions placed on public assembly. The students were part of the movement that sought equal recognition for the language spoken most widely in East Bengal, and the mother tongue of most, Bangla. Bangladesh was part of Pakistan then, and the national language was Urdu.
The police arrested some students, and more students went to demonstrate at the East Bengal Legislative Assembly. When some students attempted to enter the premises, police opened fire and several students were killed. For Bangla nationalists, 21 February became martyrs’ day; the language movement, which would ultimately culminate in what Bangladeshis call the war of liberation, and the country’s independence in 1971 was now unstoppable.
On 21 February this year, I was in Lahore. I entered the hall at the impressive Alhamra Art Centre, the home of the Lahore Literary Festival, before a nearly-packed audience of Pakistanis, who were curious about my book, The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy, published last November. The talented radical musician Taimur Rahman, who is part of the progressive group Laal, and teaches political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, had the unenviable task of steering a discussion about my book—and the 1971 war, which broke Pakistan—that was bound to reopen old wounds. My co-panelists were Sadaf Saaz Siddiqi, a poet from Dhaka who has worked for the rehabilitation of birangonas, as the Bangladeshi women who survived sexual violence in 1971 are known, and the brave human rights activist from Lahore, Hina Jilani, who protested against the war and would later during that hour tell us about her experience of trying to get Pakistanis to oppose violence in East Pakistan by signing petitions on Mall Road in Lahore, only to be ridiculed, and she recalled others telling her they were occasionally spat at.
Taimur was generous in his praise for my book; he called it “a readable unreadable book,” saying it was easy to read, but the stories it contained made him uncomfortable as a Pakistani. Our initial conversation was like in a tense test match—straight deliveries, played back with a straight bat. But then Taimur turned, as he should, to the tougher questions: here I was, in Lahore, telling Pakistanis what they had done. How did I feel?
It wasn’t an easy question to answer. The audience included at least half, if not more, who weren’t born at the time of the war. They were interested in literature and ideas; they were Lahore liberals, willing to listen to another point of view. They had shown courage in attending a literature festival, taking place within days of a bomb blast. There were security vehicles and armed guards outside the arts complex to prevent any terrorist act; there were snipers on the rooftops, and uniformed men with weapons inside the complex. They knew, and applauded, Jilani’s views on Pakistan’s army. But what I had written about went close to the bone.
Some probably saw me for what is part of my identity—a man born in India, with a Hindu name. India, not any other country, but the one with which Pakistan fought wars, and which local textbooks blame for dismembering Pakistan and deviously helping Bangladesh become independent.
We all have our baggage: my textbooks told me that India intervened in 1971 only after the Pakistani Air Force struck Indian airfields on 2 December, and that Indian motives were primarily driven by the humanitarian impulse—to end conflict, to bring peace, and to help the nearly 10 million refugees return home—a view not only many Pakistanis, but some Bangladeshis, too, question.
Those in the audience in front of me were not responsible for what Pakistan’s army did in 1971. Yahya Khan wasn’t elected; his was a military dictatorship that was refusing to hand over power to the Awami League, which had won the majority of seats in the elections. All Pakistanis did not endorse the government. So I mentioned some courageous, positive examples—like the story of an air force officer who became conscientious objector and refused to bomb civilians; of a colonel who left the army, and over the years wrote poetry and tried to reconcile the two nations; of another officer, who wrote about the incidents of rape he knew were happening; of an anguished Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who would write the moving ghazal, known as Dhaka se wapasi:
Ham ke thehre ajnabi itni madaaraaton ke baad
Phir baneinge aashna kitni mulaaqaaton ke baad
(The Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali translated it as:
After those many encounters, that easy intimacy, we are strangers now—After how many meetings will we be that close again?)
Horrible things were done in your name and there has been no accountability, I said to the audience.
Hina Jilani was not one to let her compatriots off easily. She challenged my interpretation; she said that hardly any Pakistani spoke up. She recalled how her father, who wrote a letter to Yahya Khan protesting the military crackdown, was arrested and was kept in jail from March to September 1971. She recounted the humiliating taunts pacifists on Mall Road endured. Things were done, she said; we were silent, she reminded the people; we were responsible. And she got resounding applause.
Taimur then asked me about the controversy over numbers—were three million people killed? Or 26,000, as the Hamoodur Rahman Commission said? And were indeed 250,000 to 500,000 women raped? I had explored this in my book. What did I mean? I explained my conclusion—that the number is not crucial, what happened is crucial. It wasn’t as low as 26,000, and may not be as high as three million—but many, many innocent civilians were killed; there were dozens of camps where women were taken against their will; many were raped often every night; and this went on for months. Doing the math gives you a very large number. Was it a quarter million? Half a million? How can we estimate, when the few records that were kept had been destroyed, many children were adopted, and many fetuses aborted?
Sadaf Saaz Siddiqi explained how the records were unfortunately destroyed: Bangladesh is a conservative society, and rape carries a stigma. For privacy reasons, the records were not kept, she said. But one consequence of that is that it has become difficult to establish what had happened, and making a legal case against alleged perpetrators has become complicated. After 1975, when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated, the rehabilitation work ended. It is now carried on by NGOs like Nijera Kori and Naripokkho, among others.
But the women are alive, and many still live with that experience. Sadaf has met them, and so have I. She spoke movingly about the lives that birangonas live today. They are growing old; some of their families have disowned them, sometimes years after the war, sometimes by children who discover what was done to their mothers and they conclude it is their mothers’ fault somehow; some are told they won’t be buried with their families. Their lives have been ruined.
At this point, a man rose from the audience and shouted loudly: “This is rubbish.” He began walking out of the hall, saying, “This is Indian propaganda; Pakistan army zindabad.” I told him to let Sadaf complete, but he ignored me.
Several Pakistanis shouted at him, saying he should be ashamed; that Pakistan owed Bangladesh an apology.
The mood had begun to turn. A man got up and emotionally apologized to Sadaf and all his Bengali sisters. Others too rose, asking why they were not being told what really happened in 1971. The conversation that was difficult to begin in Pakistan was finally getting started, on 21 February.
The man who had heckled was escorted out.
But his intervention allowed others to challenge me. Ahsan Akbar, the British-Bangladeshi poet who attended the session, later told me: “Too often, we romanticize the notion that the youth of today’s Pakistan are right-thinking and want to acknowledge and apologize for the atrocities of 1971. It is romanticization because I was there and the packed auditorium was tense. I saw the number of young people who challenged what Sadaf and you had to say. It is not only the elderly who are stuck to one view. The damage is deeper and too often, we like to be optimistic, and say, ‘at least the next generation is acknowledging,’ even though I’m the first to say it is not their fault at all. But that is not always the case, as I witnessed and learned from speaking to people in Pakistan.”
And those questions followed: what about the atrocities committed against Biharis? What about the war crimes of the Mukti Bahini? Taimur said that my book does not spare the Mukti Bahini, and there is a part where I write about the Bihari plight. But one man said: “That’s not what you are saying. Your speech is not neutral.”
How does one stay neutral talking about rape? But instead of saying that, I spoke of the perils of whataboutery: two wrongs don’t make something right; a wrong committed by X does not permit Y to commit a similar wrong, nor does Y’s committing a wrong absolve X of what he did. Hina Jilani rightly explained the overriding principle: that a state is held to higher standards than a non-state actor—which the Mukti Bahini was, being a rebel army. An army accountable to a state cannot retaliate the way it wants against a guerrilla force. I mentioned the obligations international humanitarian law, through Geneva Conventions, places on armies.
Read the book, I told the skeptics. “If you don’t believe me, and if you don’t want to buy it, borrow it from a library, but read it first,” I said.
Is it possible to move on? Can there be closure? Taimur asked me. And I recounted what the Bangladeshi researcher and academic Meghna Guhathakurta had told me, and that story became part of my book. Her father, professor Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta, was one of the first intellectuals killed by the Pakistani army on 25 March 1971. She said it is easy to ask the victim if she is willing to forgive and move on. But before she can forgive, there has to be someone expressing remorse. And where is the remorse? And what would remorse look like? If Berlin can have a Holocaust Museum, can Islamabad have one?
At this, there was applause, louder than I have heard anytime when I’ve spoken. It was long and thunderous; it still reverberates in my ears. It was a powerful sentiment, and it possibly made many people uncomfortable, but it needed to be said. And I was merely the messenger; the voice came from the survivors of 1971.
Later that afternoon, many Pakistanis came to me and asked me how I could stay so calm when challenged. I said I believed in the power of the stories I had heard, which I believed, and which I had told in the book. And I wasn’t taking it personally, just as I was not accusing anyone personally in the audience. If what you are saying is the truth, then you are never alone, as Mohandas Gandhi had taught us in India, I said.
Many bought my book and got me to sign their copies. Several came and took photographs with me. Some exchanged email addresses, a few have written and I’ve written back. Most of them were young. They had grown up on histories written by the Establishment. They were discovering parts of the past kept hidden from them. They found those stories understandably uncomfortable.
Mofidul Hoque of Dhaka’s Liberation War Museum once told me the story of a young Pakistani woman who visited the museum and made a video, addressed to her parents’ generation, where she says:
Tumne chhupa ke rakha
Meri kaum ne chhupa ke rakha
Hamne chhupa ke rakha
(You kept it hidden.
My community kept it hidden.
I kept it hidden.)
In Kamila Shamsie’s 2002 novel, Kartography, Maheen tells Raheen: “The truths we conceal don’t disappear, Raheen, they appear in different forms.”
Pakistan needs such conversations.
21 February is now recognized as the International Mother Language Day. The day after in Lahore, I read in local newspapers that young students in Sahiwal, a town 170km from Lahore, had danced and performed folk songs, celebrating the International Mother Language Day. At the Lahore Literary Festival itself, there were conversations not only in English and Urdu, but also in Saraiki and Punjabi.
Somewhere beyond that auditorium, in spite of that heckler, and in spite of understandable scepticism among some in that audience, a simple message was getting across—that people have the right to speak and express themselves in the language of their choice, and which comes naturally to them. And, as Romila Thapar had reminded us while opening the festival, history is a dialogue between the present and an assumed past, and therefore, we should all question our histories.
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