Towards 1971 I: A Personal Journey

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[Part 1 of 6]

Forgetting is imposed as a strategy to hide the haunting memories that cannot be revealed without destroying our romance with nationalism.

~Yasmin Saikia

During the many blackouts and power outages in the Pakistan of my childhood, my family used to sit in the veranda of our home cursing the electricity department and cooling ourselves down with hand-fans. But on cool autumn nights, blackouts were rather enjoyable, and we would ask Ammi to sing. ‘Aa ja sanam, madhur chandni mein hum,’ a Raj kapoor and Nargis number, apt for a moonlit night in the veranda, was her favorite. That was also the song that she and her favorite nephew (her eldest brother’s first son) used to sing at Eid dinners as a duet. The whole family adored him. He was brilliant and a high achiever. Every kid in the family, to this day, is compared to him: Those that do well in their studies are likened to him and those that don’t are chided to try to be like him. I never got to meet my cousin.

One day in 1978, my Mamu was told that his son, my mother’s favorite nephew, a 28-year-old major with the Pakistan Army, had committed suicide. Mamu never believed that his son committed suicide. His son had told him that he had taken on his superior for some financial malfeasance. My Mamu believed it was for this reason that he was murdered. The story that I grew up with was that the alleged suicide note had a blood stain on it and that Mamu had taken the matter to court, where the judge had said that it was not a suicide. The forensic investigation on his remains was never completed. Some military high-up threatened my Mamu with an offer to arrange for him to meet his dead son. Mamu stopped pursuing the matter, but his grief lingered and the story lived on in my family.

Despite the scar left on my family by the Pakistan Army, I, like so many kids, was fascinated by soldiery, even as I heard my father swear at the TV every night, as he watched General Zia on the TV screen. My brothers and I used to stage elaborate battles between two armies of toy soldiers separated by a Ludo board or an old desk calendar, and lob stones at the other side. Sometimes the artillery included lit matchsticks that had to land on, or sufficiently near, the enemy soldier for it to be counted as a fatal hit. That game of ours, in its indoor manifestations by the windowsill, ended when the curtain caught fire, but the war fantasy continued in other games. My brother and I would line up two chairs, one in front of the other, and throw a heavy blanket over them. This tent would sometimes be a helicopter, and at other times a tank, firing and dropping bombs at the imaginary enemy.

I grew up in 80’s with a heady dose of nationalist songs valorizing soldiers and military. Pakistan was heavily involved in the Afghan war at that time. All the same, war seemed distant to me— something that happened in the past or happens far away. My father would sometimes tell us the story of blackouts in Lahore when he was a young man. He told us of seeing flashes at the distant horizon and hearing sounds of gunfire. Our favorite story was about Dad sleeping on the roof and smoking a cigarette during a blackout and being visited by army men who respectfully asked him not to smoke.

The war of 1971, unlike the 1965 war, was not mentioned much in popular culture. This was perhaps due to the shame associated with Pakistan being defeated and dismembered at the hands of India. When remembered, it was always as a war between India and Pakistan and an episode in the continuing saga of antagonism between the two nation-states. The Bangladeshis themselves are simply forgotten, except as betrayers of Pakistan, collaborators with India against Pakistan, or at best, as victims of India’s plot who were duped or brainwashed by the enemy. There was not much understanding or recognition of the fact that Bangladeshis were once Pakistanis, and explanations such as the ‘betrayal by Bengalis’ or ‘Indian designs’ only work as convenient frameworks to stunt any meaningful reflection on why it is that East Pakistanis are now Bangladeshis. A discussion of Pakistan’s own conduct is simply not on the table. A search inward stops at the nationalist complaint of soobaiyat [provincialism] breaking up Pakistan, which in turn takes one back to Indian designs and affirms Pakistan’s raison d’être. Silence ensues, and endures.

What little public conversation about 1971 exists in Pakistan is saturated by nation-state-centered commentaries and that too of the zealous nationalist variety. Western commentators are assumed (and not without cause) to be tainted with Orientalism, West-centric chauvinism, racism, and Islamophobia, and both Indian and Bangladeshi commentators with their own nationalist partisan bias. So, what to do?

Genocide and mass rape are serious charges leveled against Pakistan that simply can’t be brushed aside by taking an identity-centric view that operates on an insider-outsider binary. This is a view that dispenses with all outsiders, and labels dissenters within as furthering outsider agendas. The near total dearth of dissent on the 1971 war –with admirable exceptions from the Communist Party of Pakistan, and some poets and writers such as Faiz, Jalib, and Eqbal Ahmad— in the face of a national and popular culture crowded with militarist nationalism and anti-India jingoism makes it that much harder to find one’s bearings and begin a search for a narrative outside the official history and collective memory.

The ‘foreign hand’ continues to deflect our attention elsewhere. A friend of mine who works for the Pakistani Army, when asked for his opinion on whether Baluchistan will eventually become another Bangladesh since it has been treated like East Pakistan was prior to its liberation, coolly remarked that there are many countries involved in fermenting separatist trouble in Balochistan, but not to worry, “hum ne wahan sab pakar liye hain” [We have apprehended/captured all of them.] Indeed, many have been apprehended, and some released as dead bodies on the roads bearing torture marks, something that Justice Raja Fayyaz, a Pakistan Supreme Court Judge, aptly described as “a reign of terror like Gestapo.” Power, blind to its own violence, projects its own inability to speak any language other than force on those at the receiving end of the imperial stick. This demeaning view of people and how to deal with a political conflict is captured in a Pakistan Rangers’ officer’s comment to Human Rights Watch regarding the Okara Uprising, that “It’s nothing we cannot deal with. These people only understand the language of the stick.”

During the people’s movement (popularly referred to as the Lawyer’s Movement) to oust General Pervez Musharraf in 2007, I started taking issue with the Pakistan Army’s heavy involvement in the socio-political life of Pakistan and its heavy-handedness in dealing with its citizenry. This dissent awakened me to the need to develop a social conscience that does not let my elderly uncle’s (and my mother’s) grief over losing his young son and being forced to abandon his search into the causes and circumstances of his son’s death, fade from memory. It also offered me a line of inquiry with which to probe the murky events in Pakistan’s history, such as the Balochistan issue. With such unraveling of the official narrative, it becomes somewhat possible to think of the 1971 war outside the tropes of Bengali betrayal and Indian designs, which, in turn, is sorely needed to understand and examine the present state of Pakistan and how we got here.

The pillage of East Pakistan and its bloody birth into Bangladesh offers an illuminating case to see the history of Pakistan’s centralizing state and society’s narrowing vision of what Pakistan is, the dominance of Pakistan’s Armed forces over the state and society and its repression of contending visions of Pakistan and Pakistan’s constituent parts. No meaningful public exploration, either in the roots of the East Pakistan conflict or the conduct of war was undertaken in Pakistan, and that has grave consequences. In Sepoy’s words, “the complaints of Swat, of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, of Balochistan for justice, for recognition are echoes of the cries of Dhaka.”

In this the 40th anniversary year of Bangladesh’s liberation and the war of 1971, two historians, Sarmila Bose and Yasmin Saikia, have published their studies of the war of 1971 and how it is remembered, focused primarily on Bangladesh. Neither book offers a narrative of the Bangla Language Movement that sprang up in East Pakistan almost immediately after Pakistan’s independence. In the posts that follow this one in the coming week, I will offer a reading of the Bangla Language Movement as gleaned from Saadia Toor’s new book, to elucidate the relationship between East and West Pakistan, and then review Bose and Saikia’s books to discuss the events of 1971 and probe issues of history and memory.

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