Dhaka Painted Red: Pakistan Must Apologise To Bangladesh For 1971 War Crimes
December 16 is a day that brings painful gory memories to Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. However, the Bangladeshis seem better off in terms of enjoying freedom and independence from perpetual subjugation by their own state institutions. In case of Pakistan, the day brought destruction of national morale twice in different ways – in 1971 and again in 2014 when schoolchildren were massacred in Peshawar. The former left us maimed without our majority province while the latter remains an open wound without appropriate justice that the culprits of and people responsible for the massacre never appeared to face. Looking in the hindsight, chances are that both events had roots in similar problem – the same original sin.
Both times, the government of Pakistan established inquiry commission – like it does religiously in the wake of almost every tragedy that innocent people of Pakistan face because of the flawed strategic decisions they are not even part of making. Both times, the inquiry reports were hidden from people. The report for the former tragedy was ‘leaked’ as opposed to presented officially to the people, while for the latter, the victims’ families had to wait for six years before it was released to media as opposed to being presented to the parliament for questioning and examination by people’s representatives. Both the reports told half-truth, in latter case not even half, while exonerating the powerful persons in position of authority.
Despite its serious shortcomings and huge economization on truth, the Hamood ur Rehman Commission Report on Pakistan army’s shameful surrender in East Pakistan in 1971 relinquishing sovereignty over more than half of country’s people and territory, does give useful insights to those eager to learn from the past blunders and bloodshed. But perhaps we are seriously short of people and institutions having a slightest readiness to introspect and learn.
Some changes in military’s command structure aside, none of the recommendations of the report appear to be heeded by country’s permanent or temporary rulers.
Contrary to the continuous propaganda by pro-establishment media and state institutions, the inquiry report does not even name Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, one of the two political rivals and contenders of power during the time atrocities were being committed by the state of Pakistan in what is now Bangladesh. This, however, looks more like omission rather than exoneration, which could be attributed to the fact that the Commission worked on this report while Mr. Bhutto was Prime Minister of Pakistan. Judiciary in Pakistan has never been accused of having a spine when it comes to speaking truth to power and making the powerful accountable before law. This remains the same to this day. Any individual who dares to break this spell, is dealt with like Qazi Faez Isa is being currently treated.
The report takes a strong view against the “moral degeneration among the senior ranks of the Armed Forces” that it claims was set in motion by their involvement in civilian matters, greed forpolitical power in the wake of Martial Law in 1958 and then in 1969, and lust for money. “A considerable number of senior Army Officers had indulged in large scale acquisition of lands, houses and other commercial activities”, which it says, ‘seriously affected their professional capabilities”. You don’t have to make any strenuous effort in order to see how far this trend has changed.
So much was the influence and power of senior military officials that civilian bureaucracy including the Police experienced total breakdown. Quoting one instance, “A West Pakistan Deputy Inspector General of Police in the field was not permitted by the local Martial Law Authorities to come to the Provincial Headquarters for a conference with the Inspector General of Police”, the report seems to narrate the exact similar circumstances Pakistan is facing today. The abduction of Sindh’s police chief by some “overzealous” officials of military might still be fresh in our fast fading collective memories.
When interviewed by the Commission, Maj Gen Rao Farman Ali, one of the main culprits of the massacre and butchery of citizens in east Pakistan, justified army’s control of civil administration even after the civilian government had been established under Dr. Malik. In doing so, he echoed exactly the same sentiments by retired military officials that you can’t miss in current times on 24/7 news media circus. The contempt for civilian leadership and justifying authoritarian interference in politics by the military officials – well that seems quite current. To quote him, “A fully civil government could not be formed in East Pakistan as had been announced by the ex- President. Dr. Malik an old man and politician, had a weak personality”.
The report further records the testimony by Mr. Mohammad Ashraf, former Deputy Commissioner Dacca, ‘“The installation of a civilian governor in September 1971 was merely to hoodwink public opinion at home and abroad. Poor Dr. Malik and his ministers were figureheads only. Real decisions in all important matters still lay with the Army. I remember the first picture of the new Cabinet. Maj. Gen Farman Ali was prominently visible sitting on the right side of the Governor, although he was not a member of the Cabinet.” So much so, the report records, “even the selection of candidates for the by- elections ordered by General Yahya Khan was made by Maj Gen Farman Ali.” Do I need to say more on the current reflection of similar attitude in today’s Pakistan?
The report shamefully exonerates military officials from committing sexual violence against women in East Pakistan, calling the number of raped women ‘exaggerated’. After writing pages and pages condemning the lewd, the sex habits and morally degenerate behavior of military officials towards local women, the report offers a ridiculous cover-up by quoting the number of terminations of pregnancies by the “abortion team” that Sheikh Mujeeb ur Rehman had commissioned from Britain. “Its workload involved the termination of only a hundred or more pregnancies”, the report thus concludes that this must reflect the total number of rapes.
While unfairly exonerating infamous characters like General Umar and General Tikka Khan (people gave him the title of ‘Changez Khan’ and ‘Butcher of Bengal’), the report nevertheless makes some very important points and recommendations that could have been complied with if the ruling classes really wanted to make things better for the people in whatever was left of Pakistan. Among those, one most important point was to keep army away from civilian matters especially political decision making. Among the prime recommendations, the commission insisted to hold thorough investigation of war crimes including sexual violence against women, arson, loot, extra judicial killings of intellectuals and litterateurs, alongside the court martials of the culprits in armed forces, and establishment of an independent inquiry commission to ascertain the responsibility and causes of destruction and bloodshed.
All the current empirical evidence, however, points to the fact that neither the people nor their representatives or military establishment are ready to face the facts. The first step towards learning from past blunders is to admit those mistakes and tender a sincere apology to Bengali brothers especially sisters for the shameful conduct of our state institutions in 1971. If we are still adamant to keep these skeletons safe in our closet, we certainly don’t want to correct course. Unless all of these are taken out from the dark and deepest corners of our existence and are burnt down to ashes, they will keep haunting us and the consequently, will keep re-appearing every few decades. The Baloch youth, the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), the Sindhi nationalists – they are no Mukti Bahini. They are living and breathing humans who are just asking for what is theirs – right to live with dignity.
The writer is a freelance journalist and human rights defender. She has been part of women’s movement for over twenty years