Estranged Siblings: Pakistan and Bangladesh, 40 years later | Daily Times

December 2011

16 December 2011 marks exactly 40 years since1971, when Pakistan became the first State to disintegrate after World War II. Vastly outnumbered, completely encircled, grossly disadvantaged Pakistan's Armed Forces numbering only 45,000 were ordered to surrender to Indian troops which invaded East Pakistan 3 weeks earlier to ensure the secession of Bangladesh. 

Some beginnings also contain their endings. Pakistan's birth in August 1947 alongside India as the only nation-state created with 2 wings with each wing containing significant parts of the population separated by 1000 miles of hostile territory represented the vision of an awkwardly-constructed yet inspiringly ideal dream-state. The premise was that the faith of Islam shared pre-dominantly in the 2 wings could transcend distance and bind enormous diversities of language, ethnicity and culture.

Even though, in 24 years, the dream turned into a nightmare and ostensibly rejected the theory of a separate Muslim nationalism in South Asia, 64 years after the original Pakistan was born and 40 years after Bangladesh was established, religion remains a fundamental determinant of identity for both nation-states.

Their respective histories feature notable similarities as well as sharp divergences. First, the commonalities. Bangladesh did not want to be left behind Pakistan's preference for 2 military dictatorships in 24 years: Ayub Khan, 1958-1969; Yahya Khan, 1969-1971. Despite itself being the result of a popular revolt against the military government of Yahya Khan, the breakaway state endured military rule twice in the four decades since independence: General Zia-ur Rahman, 1977-1981 ; General Mohammad Irshad, 1982-1991. In a third instance, as the 21st century commenced, the military played the decisive role in installing a prolonged caretaker government.

Assassinations and un-natural deaths of major leaders occurred in both countries. Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan's first Prime Minister was shot in 1951. Two more former Prime Ministers, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, executed in 1979 and his daughter  Benazir Bhutto targeted in 2007 completed a tragic triumvirate. General Zia ul Haq: while still President and Army chief died in a mysterious plane crash in 1988.
Almost in perverse parallel, Shaikh Mujib ur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh was killed alongwith several family members in 1975. The country's first military ruler, General Zia ur Rahman was put to death in 1981.

Leaders of both countries left turbulent legacies. Haseena Wajid, Shaikh Mujib's daughter, the present Prime Minister is locked in relentless political combat stretching over 30 years with Khaleda Zia, widow of General Zia ur Rahman, and herself a former Prime Minister. In Pakistan, after Benazir inherited her father's mantle and passed away, her widower, Asif Ali Zardari was elected President but is also fiercely challenged by the Opposition.

Poverty, misgovernance and corruption plague both states. Violence and turmoil often disrupt daily life. In spite of achieving progress in social, commercial and physical infrastructure, the two countries rank disturbingly low in the Human Development Index. As of 2011, Pakistan is at 145 out of over 170 countries, Bangladesh is close behind at 146. Yet each country has produced its own Nobel Prize winner. Pakistan's Professor Abdus Salam for Physics in 1979, Professor Mohammad Yunus for his work on micro-credit in 2006. 

Each society has a rich heritage of civilizational history, performing arts, literature, music,dance ,poetry, architecture  and culture largely unknown to the western world and currently evolving and being partly reflected in vigorously free media.

Multi-party electoral democracy has re-asserted itself in both states. But acrimonious partisanship frequently distorts the development process. In ironic contrast to volatile internal conditions, the two states are the also the two top-most contributors of
troops to the UN Peace-keeping forces around the world.

There are distinct divergences between Pakistan and Bangladesh. The most basic variation is in ethnic and linguistic homogeniity. Bangladesh is pre-dominantly Bengali by race and the Bangla language is the lingua franca. While Urdu is the official national language of Pakistan, there are wide diversities of ethnicity and language between and within all 4 Provinces of Sindh, Balochistan, Khyber-Pukhtunkhawa and Punjab. Radio Pakistan broadcasts daily in over 20 languages and dialects.

The majority of the people of Bangladesh treasure their bond with Islam. At the same time, the state of Bangladesh has taken a big step towards giving legal, practical expression to the principle of secularism. In 2010, its Supreme Court rendered a judgment banning the use  of religion-related names and terms in the titles of political parties. While religion-linked political parties in Pakistan have obtained only a small percentage of the popular vote in 8 general elections held to date, they wield a coercive, disproportionate influence to prevent reform of obscurantist laws.

Though religion-based violence has occasionally occurred in Bangladesh, the phenomenon is comparatively restricted. In Pakistan, the continuous failure of the state to curb bigotry and extremism, the indoctrinated products of some ( not all ) Wahabi madrassas funded from Saudi Arabian and neighbouring sources and other factors have combined to produce an aggressive primitivism and intolerance in segments which intimidate the much larger, non-violent Sufi majority.

Perhaps location is one-- but not the only one! -- of the pivotal reasons for this particular divergence. Whereas Bangladesh is physically encircled by Indian territory on 3 sides and its southern frontier is the Bay of Bengal, Pakistan is an immediate neighbour to Iran, Afghanistan, India, China and Russia. Near neighbours include the Gulf states, Turkey, Central and West Asia. Factors of religion, ideology, territorial ambition, gas and oil have meshed together through cataclysmic events such as the Iranian revolution, the Soviet and the American invasions of Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq war, the Gulf war, the American invasion of Iraq, the post 9/11 war on terror  to place Pakistan in the midst of the global and regional geo-political  maelstorm. Fortunately for Bangladesh while its population alone ensures its importance and though its topography makes it vulnerable to global warming, its location does not expose it to global power conflicts.

Bangladesh and India have contentious issues regarding water and pockets of territory along their border. However, Pakistan's dispute with India over Kashmir has led to outright war more than once and the dispute remains both bilaterally unresolved as also on the unfinished formal agenda of the UN Security Council to which India took the problem in 1948.Here too, water is rapidly becoming a source of new tensions.

Responding promptly to the introduction by India of nuclear weapons to South Asia in 1974 and to its explosions in 1998, Pakistan demonstrated exceptional scientific and technical capacity to expand its already-established use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes by conducting its own tests of weapons in 1998. As Bangladesh sees no existential threat from India to its survival, its own interest in nuclear power is confined to energy-use. Over the past 40 years, the passage of time, the great healer, encounters in cricket, exchanges in music and trade have healed some of the bloody memories. But a thick fog of figures keeps a  wound festering. The estranged siblings estimate the cost in human lives of their painful parting like polar opposites.

In the narrative adopted by Bangladesh and echoed by India and most of global discourse, about 3 million Bengalis were killed and about 300,000 women were allegedly raped  by  the Pakistani Army during the 9-month conflict resulting in the secession of Bangladesh. 

These numbers fail spectacularly on the anvil of factual scrutiny, documentation and rationality. In the 262 days between 26th March and 16th December 1971, Pakistan's Armed Forces did not exceed 45,000 troops at optimal levels. The 90,000 prisoners-of-war held by India included over 50,000 non-combatant, unarmed West Pakistani civilians. Spread out in small, embattled formations across East Pakistan, facing a newly unfriendly or uneasy population, an India-supported insurgency, preparing for an Indian invasion, constantly under-supplied and under-equipped, the Pakistani forces would have had to kill 11,450 Bengalis and rape 1145 women every single day for 262 days to reach the levels claimed. Not  a single credible  document has been cited in the 40 years to substantiate such absurd allegations of scale.

By unverified frequent repetition of the grotesque figures, the names of Pakistan and Pakistan’s Armed Forces have become synonymous with the charge of a “genocide“ in East Pakistan which actually never took place. The unfounded charge amounts to character assassination of a whole nation and of its Armed Forces who bravely fought to defend their country’s territory  against overwhelming odds.

The Pakistani version is diametrically different. The official Commission of Inquiry headed by a former Chief Justice could only estimate 36,000 dead. Other estimates go between 100,000 to 200,000 killed. To contrast the two claims is not to demean the gravity of the catastrophe by cold statistics. Every human life is sacred. Every human being's dignity is sacrosanct. Any violation of either is reprehensible. Some atrocities by Pakistani troops did take place.  Several eye-witness accounts state that the targets were almost always adult males, that women and children were spared. The killings were not one-sided.

Many thousands of non-Bengalis and West Pakistanis, including women and children were brutally slaughtered by Bengalis between 1st March and 26th March 1971, and subsequently as well, as also after 16th December 1971. About 4000 Pakistani troops also perished in the conflict.

The need to re-visit this facet of history to conclusively establish the truth is superbly highlighted by the meticulous research recorded by a scholar who is neither a Pakistani nor a Bangladeshi. In her unusually sensitive and remarkably balanced book " Dead Reckoning : memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War ", Sarmila Bose, an Indian Bengali Hindu by birth, a Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University powerfully and persuasively presents the case for a rigorous, evidence-based search for the truth.

As countries projected to remain 2 of the 10 most populous  nations of the world over the next 40 years, the estranged siblings  have a solemn responsibility to reconcile truths and to invigorate co-operation for mutual benefit and regional stability.

(The writer is a former Minister and Senator of Pakistan  and author of the book " Pakistan : unique origins ; unique destiny ?".)