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Healing the Wounds of War between Bangladesh and Pakistan

The flight from Karachi to Dhaka spans the heartland of South Asia and gives travelers an appreciation for the complexity of The Great Partition. So many linguistic and ethnic divides had to be traversed to formulate national identities for countries that now exist in the area. Nearly a fourth of the world’s population resides here....

Waiting for Peace?: Rickshaw Traffic in Dhaka. Photograph by Saleem H. Ali

The flight from Karachi to Dhaka spans the heartland of South Asia and gives travelers an appreciation for the complexity of The Great Partition. So many linguistic and ethnic divides had to be traversed to formulate national identities for countries that now exist in the area. Nearly a fourth of the world’s population resides here. Identities in any geographic context are inherently synthetic and evolving, and the region that most acutely depicts such dynamism on the subcontinent is Bengal.

This is the land where the mightiest rivers of the subcontinent, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, converge to form the world’s largest delta. The fertile planes of the delta lured scores of peasants to the region over the centuries, now making it the most densely populated place on earth. In the medieval period, there were moments of Bengali imperialism, with dynasties such as the Pala and Sena gaining ascendance, but these were were largely non-expansionist in cadence. The Bengalis contributed their talents to whoever ruled them, whether Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim, with great generosity of spirit. While tenaciously guarding their language, Bengalis were, to their great credit, willing to embrace other communities and “outsiders”.

It was in Bengal that the British first established their foothold through the East India Company which later became what has been termed “the world’s first corporate raider.” Yet the resistance to British rule in its various forms also had its epicentre in Bengal. The Muslim League, which now prides itself as the vanguard of Punjabi politics in Pakistan, was also founded in Dhaka in 1906. At the same time avowedly anti-religion Marxists also find a home in Western Bengal. Such is the diversity of Bengali society. This land has also produced numerous notable scholars and artists that have made Bangladesh proud, and at one time Pakistan could also lay some claim to their fame. Nobel laureates such as Rabindranath Tagore, Amartya Sen and Muhammad Yunus, or singers like Runa Laila or film icon Shabnam.

A Tragic Sense of Loss and Gloating

Pakistanis often encounter a peculiar mix of nostalgia and relief when they visit Bangladesh. There is a bittersweet affection that visitors feel as if being reunited with an estranged sibling. On the one hand, the clogged traffic of Dhaka, the cyclone-ridden hinterlands and the levels of poverty that by some measures exceed those in Pakistan  are by no means enviable. In recent years, Bengali friends tend to mildly gloat on Pakistan’s misfortunes that makes it out of bounds for international cricket and other events due to security,  while there is relative peace in Bangladesh. However the differentiation in that regard seems more illusory with extremist incidents sadly rising in Dhaka as well in 2015.

Pakistanis must reflect further on what a devoted and talented citizenry  they have lost to the arrogance of electoral politics in 1971.  Bengali nationalism is still very strong and memorials to the Liberation War are found all around the country. There are some indelible impressions of the country’s Pakistani lineage as well, such as the parliament building in Dhaka whose construction started during the Ayub Khan era. Designed by the famed Jewish-American architect, Louis Kahn, the building is emblematic of the kind of grand urban planning that Ayub Khan endorsed in the construction of Islamabad as well.

During my visit to Dhaka in 2009, I frequently heard the Bangladeshi account of the brutality of the 1971 war. There is an entire museum devoted to this period with some very graphic details of how civilians were affected by this tragic period in our history. At the campus of Dhaka University is a monument to the struggle for Bengali language, commemorating a 1952 shootout with the police who were trying to enforce Urdu. Several students were killed in this clash. The United Nations recognises February 21, the day of that tragedy, as the international day of language.

No doubt the linguistic imperialism of West Pakistan deserves censure but international norms should also not be misused to claim excessive victimhood by Bangladesh.  For example, the oft quoted demographics of the casualties in the 1971 war and labeling it  “a  genocide” by some Bengalis is highly  divisive and unhelpful as the international legal definition of genocide does not apply to this conflict. There are also counter-claims of atrocities by the Bengali Mukti Bahini guerrilla forces. Unquestionably tragic as they were, over-playing the 1971 events and trying to establish some moral equivalence with the Holocaust or other genocides will serve no purpose and will only entrench hatreds further. The erudite British-Indian writer and human rights activist Salil Tripathi has grappled eloquently with historiographic precision on this matter in his landmark book The Colonel who Would not Repent: The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy.

Anger and Arrogance

A definitive historical question that is frequently asked in both Bangladesh and Pakistan on the events of 1971 is : “Why did Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (the West Pakistani leader) not let Mujibur Rahman (the Bengali leader) become the prime minister when he had a majority of the seats in the 1970 election?” It was this power struggle that spurred the 9-month civil war within Pakistan (Liberation War for Bangladesh), leading to the independence of Bangladesh. In my personal view, Mr. Bhutto, indeed demonstrated despicable hubris in his conduct at the time which was emblematic of his supreme arrogance in international relations. There was also an undertone of racism in the behaviour of many West Pakistanis towards Bengalis which enabled such conduct. Historians can argue ad infinitum about the causes of the break-up of the country. Perhaps it was inevitable given the geographic and cultural divide; perhaps it was galvanized by Indian intervention. Whatever the confluence of circumstances, it was a horribly tragic event in the way the separation occurred.

Time should heal wounds of war but sadly South Asian politics in the contemporary context are stoking the demons of the past through vengeance narratives. Rather than learning from countries like South Africa and Japan in turning the page on past oppression through a politics of healing and reconciliation, there is a craven impulse to dismiss any gestures of concord. In 2002, erstwhile Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf visited the Liberation War memorial in Dhaka and officially expressed remorse for the atrocities committed by the Pakistani army during the 1971 war. Yet for many Bengali politicians this is still not enough and the revenge impulse continues to dominate. The obstinacy to accept healing narratives is an ominous sign. As the famous 5th century Theravadic Buddhist commentator Buddhaghosa in his famed text  Visuddhimagga noted: ““Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of harming another; you end up getting burned.” The politics of hatred is burning both Bangladeshis and Pakistanis alike, not to mention the regional hegemonic power India that smolders in its own embers of ethno-religious nationalism but whose security hawks continue to spell doom for neighboring countries. India, Bangladesh and Pakistan need to reject such fear, hate and hegemony, and to learn from Partition rather than be poisoned by its bitter past.

Parted but Peaceful

As exemplified by the break-up of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993, there is a civilized and peaceful way to undertake such deliberate nationalism. Perhaps the same could have happened in South Asia too, if there had been greater regional leadership and a willingness for mediation from past colonial powers such as Britain.  Yet during those troubled days of the Cold War, and the peaking pique of Indo-Pak rivalry, such a path was not followed.  However, we have to stop languishing in past follies and there are proponents of peace in Bangladesh and Pakistan that deserve to be heard. Despite strong resentment towards Pakistan, there is also a palpable political maturity in some parts of the Bangladesh intelligentsia that do not use the ill-fated actions of a few politicians to build hatred towards Pakistan. However, many of these forces of moderation are being marginalized by contemporary Bangladeshi politics. Some of my Bengali friends living abroad are now afraid of voicing support for peace with Pakistan because of the bullying tactics of the current regime in branding them traitors for questioning the ultra-nationalist narrative. They have personally voiced fears that their families back home would be targeted by ultra-nationalist forces if they showed any peace-building solidarity with Pakistan. Indeed, the opposition party itself is being intimidated for showing ostensible loyalty to Pakistan in public statements. Sadly, academics have become embroiled in this muzzling of any conversation with Dhaka University issuing an end to even academic collaborations with Pakistani universities. This is a very troubling sign of what some analysts have referred to as the “narcissism of victimhood.”

On a personal level, this is very distressing for me and my family who have always viewed the pluralistic culture of Bangladesh with admiration. Some of my Punjabi mother’s best friends during adolescence days in Lahore in the 1940s and 1950s were Bengali. I grew up with fond stories of these friends and she has continued to maintain affectionate correspondence with them even after the parting of our two nations. I am sure there are multitudes of such stories of human connection and camaraderie that must be cherished and passed on to the next generation. Showing a spirit of forgiveness and magnanimity will only make Bangladesh stronger —  not weaker. It should also be noted that Bangladesh and India both agreed to the terms of clemency and forgiveness in the 1974 tripartite agreement whereby no further trials would be conducted.

Tenuous democracy has returned to both Pakistan and Bangladesh in the last few years. Yet old political families still control electoral politics in both countries. The families of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Mujibur Rahman — two political rivals in the erstwhile West and East Pakistans still have major political sway in both countries. Both politicians were tragically killed in their own divided lands by internal political forces, and possibly with external interference. The assassination of Sheikh Mujib and much of his family by assailants of his own ethnicity and many from his own army in 1975 was particularly bloody and left a bitter legacy for the nascent nation. Let us hope that the next generations will learn from the unfortunate fate that befell their forefathers. Pakistan and Bangladesh are now in a state of cold peace that needs a healing process to further a more functional and mutually productive relationship. A joint reconciliation commission (an important follow-up to the unilateral West Pakistani led Hamoodur Rahman Commission which also squarely criticized the Pakistani army) should perhaps be established by both countries which allows for a recognition of past injustices, but with a positive goal for moving towards a fruitful future together as two friendly nations. Tough issues such as reparations of funds lost in the Partition can be addressed through such a joint commission. With abject poverty and myriad other social and ecological problems confronting both countries, we must move beyond the momentary gratification of settling scores and work towards constructive reconciliation.

Some parts of this article are derived from material published earlier by the author

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Saleem Ali
Saleem H. Ali is Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware (USA) and a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is also a Senior Fellow at Columbia University's Center on Sustainable Enterprise. Dr. Ali is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for 2010 and World Economic Forum "Young Global Leader" (2011). His books include "Environmental Diplomacy" (with Lawrence Susskind, Oxford Univ. Press) and "Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future" (Yale University Press). He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali.