The events of 51 years ago have left a very distinct memory in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, respectively.
Each of the countries participating in the 1971 war, which resulted in Bangladesh’s independence, has institutionalized a unique recollection of the events of that year 51 years later. The conflict is regarded in Bangladesh as the fight of the Bengali people against an oppressive Pakistani army.
The conflict is frequently referred to as the third Indo-Pakistan war in India and Pakistan. Many Bangladeshis dislike this image because they believe it minimizes their contribution to what they see to be a liberation fight.
However, there are other issues that the three nations disagree on in addition to who had the main role in the battle. Today, 1971 has different connotations throughout the subcontinent, with Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India each having their own deeply held war myths.
Bangladesh’s liberation struggles
Soon after Pakistan obtained independence as a state with two separate areas known as West Pakistan (today’s Pakistan) and East Pakistan (today’s Bangladesh), the fight for Bengali rights began. Relationships between the two parts were strained by the early rejection of Bengali as the official language of Pakistan, economic inequality between the two parts, the hegemony of the West Pakistani ruling class over Pakistan, martial laws, and a demeaning attitude toward Bengali culture and the Bengali population.
Tensions rose when the East Pakistan-based Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman won the national elections in December 1970, but the West Pakistani political party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) rejected and refuse to handover. Tensions between Bengalis and Biharis – an Urdu-speaking community who migrated to East Pakistan from various parts of India after the partition and were considered pro-West Pakistan – have led to attacks on some Bihari communities. In March 1971, Pakistani forces intervened, using violence as a pretext, to step in the rise of nationalist sentiment in the east. Local pro-Pakistani, including members of the Islamic organization Jamaat-e-Islami, recruited his Bengalis and non-Bengalis for operations against the Bengali faction. As the violence escalated during the summer, large numbers of refugees poured into Indian territory, which New Delhi used as a pretext for military intervention in early December 1971. The nine-month conflict ended with the surrender of Pakistani forces on 16 December. The death toll is estimated at 3 million from his 300,000, and hundreds of thousands of women have been raped. Since the end of the war, different powers have tried to dominate the story of Bangladesh. This was particularly the case with the Awami League, which has been viewed as “pro-Indian”, and the Bangladesh Army and Bangladesh National Party (BNP). Considered “pro-Pakistani” and “pro-Islamist”. This undermines the transitional justice process and has frustrated many victims and their families for decades.
After playing a key role during the war, Mujib came to power after independence. He outlawed his Jamaate-e-Islami and introduced a special law allowing for the arrest and prosecution of those accused of “collaborating” with the Pakistani military. After Mujib was assassinated in 1975, General Ziaur Rahman seized power and began to change the public narrative of the liberation war. He emphasized the role of various military actors in the conflict and sought to push the civilian role into the background. He also released war crime suspects and lifted the ban on Jamate Islami. In the years that followed, his political party, the BNP, placed several party members accused of war crimes in positions of influence, increasing the concern of victims.
In the early 1990s, civil society groups established a commission to eradicate his 1971 killers and collaborators, conducting mock trials of war crimes suspects. Although it had no legal justification, the commission put pressure on his BNP government, who imposed sedition charges against the organizers. Mujib’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina, who became the leader of the Awami League in the 1980s, capitalized on the momentum created by the Commission in its power struggle against the BNP. She tried to reconstruct what was happening in 1971 as a struggle that only the Awami League was engaged in. During the 2008 election campaign, Sheikh Hasina also promised to bring war criminals to justice through the establishment of courts and sought to properly apply the transitional justice process. But the war crimes trials that were initiated were overshadowed by controversy. Some critics argue that Sheikh Hasina used them to punish his enemies and keep them away from power is likely to become increasingly elusive. Today, Sheikh Hasina has successfully cemented her narrative of the 1971 war, and her criticism of the party is perceived as a criticism of liberation itself and, by extension, anti-state. Meanwhile, the Bihari community, stateless after the war until they were granted citizenship in a 2008 Supreme Court ruling, never brought people accused of assaulting, killing, or raping members of the community to justice.
India’s finest palm
Although there may be less active remembrance of 1971 in India and Pakistan, it continues to be crucial to how both countries see themselves and one another. The war is warmly remembered in India as the country’s greatest victory, a demonstration of its military power and dominance, and as payback for Pakistan “breaking” India in 1947.
However, 1971 also has another meaning for modern India. A large number of deportees, estimated by the Indian government at about 10 million, flooded Indian homes and caused major domestic problems. Pressure between deportees and people in host countries has been replaced by fears that deportees from opposite Bengal may be permanently settled and previously oppressed. It puts pressure on traditional financial resources and shifts the demographics of host countries. This unwelcome feeling towards the deportees did not abate after the war.
Their presence remains controversial in the Indian state of Assam, where many Bengalis have settled over time. The final list of the National Civil Registry was recently published and March 24, 1971 was set as the deadline for inclusion on the register. It was the day before Pakistan launched a military operation in East Pakistan, pushing large numbers of Bengali across the border. About 2 million people who could not prove that they or their family lived in the state before March 1971 would be excluded from registration and could become stateless. Critics allege that the register is being used to target Muslims in a country with a declining Hindu majority, related both to the savior story and to the question of who really belongs.
Pakistan: forgotten conflict
The state of Pakistan has resorted to selectively erasing what took place in 1971. The war, which was seen as a humiliating setback, is barely mentioned in textbooks, and little attention is paid to the military repression that led to atrocities in East Pakistan. Every December 16, Pakistanis uneasily recollect what Bangladeshis celebrate as liberation as the Fall of Dhaka or the splintering of Pakistan. When 1971 is brought up, it’s common to emphasize the non-Bengalis who were killed prior to the war and how this served as reason for taking military action. But just because 1971 isn’t discussed much in popular culture doesn’t mean it hasn’t had an impact on Pakistan’s culture anyway. In reality, the events of 1971 continue to be among the most significant in the history of the country, influencing both its self-identity and regional policies.
The military needs to be stronger to avoid another defeat, as was learned from the lessons of 1971. Additionally, Pakistani textbooks were updated in the years following the war with a blatantly anti-India and anti-Hindu tone. Little thought was given to Pakistan’s own actions, which led to a widespread movement for independence among Bengalis, and the defeat was attributed to its “arch-nemesis.” The Pakistani narrative continues to make some exaggerated accusations, such as that Hindu professors with Indian influences were manipulating their students and inciting secessionist feelings in East Pakistan. Scholars have suggested that Pakistan used tactics similar to those India had in East Pakistan to promote these movements as fresh independence fights developed in the area, including the Khalistan movement for a separate Sikh state and the movement in Kashmir. Local complaints were carefully examined, and assistance was given to organizations battling the Indian state, much as India had assisted Bengalis against the Pakistani state.
In the Army Museum in Lahore, Pakistan has erected a plaque that characterizes the Bengali drive for independence as Indian-sponsored terrorism, much as India accuses Pakistan of supporting terrorism in Kashmir and rejects legitimate Kashmiri grievances as Pakistan-sponsored. In both situations, the struggles of the people are taken and hijacked, and skillfully created narratives are used to turn the public against self-determination groups. Nearly 50 years after the war, both on a national and a state level in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, 1971 still has a strong emotional impact on individuals. It is essential to each state’s national project and continues to influence people who endured and observed the war. 1971 emphasizes the liberation of Bangladesh, India’s victory, and Pakistan’s defeat, reinforcing diverse narratives. All three nations cling tenaciously to their conflict narrative and cast each other in the context of that crucial year. The year 1971 has made an enduring impression on the three Partition children.