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The Forgotten 1971 Genocide in Pakistan

Which narrative do you believe? That of the powerful state trying to appropriate land, resources and taxes from the weak? Or the subjugated in their quiet resistance or outright revolution against the subjugator?

Surely, alone, neither narrative comprises the complexity of historical circumstance. There is the story behind the more powerful actor. Perhaps they had been subjugated or even enslaved at one point. Somewhere along the line, they became more centralized than the weaker polity/society, built a larger military and had stronger connections to international hegemons, who supplied them with weapons and military intelligence. For various reasons, they came to rely on their weaker neighbor, or marginalized people within, due to the latter’s size of workforce, lucrative industry or strategic place on the map. In the subjugator-subjugated relationship, while the subjugator’s history may be all ‘organic’, it often acts much like a parasite to the weaker populace either within or outside the polity.

Therefore, while history must take the intricacy of the subjugated and subjugator’s lineages into account, it is important to not defer to the narrative of the powerful or those who militarily vanquish their weaker enemy. History need not be written by the victors or the influential.

Also, for the amateur historian who wants to impress people at parties, it is best to avoid relying on only one personal source (and likely a skimming of a Wikipedia page) in developing a historical perspective. While it may impress some who lack any knowledge of a specific historical occurrence, it will likely strike others as glib, at best, and offensive, at worst. This is compounded when the glib words justify rapacious acts of colonization and domineering states’ illegal behavior. For instance, a common rationalization for why Native Americans lost nearly all their land, from 1492 through the early 20th century, is that they had no private property and didn’t use the land for agriculture (the latter, a tall tale). Likely, we’ve all heard this before.

But what about a more forgotten genocide? How does one react, when at a Fourth of July cookout, a ‘smart guy’ decides to reiterate the narrative of a genocidal subjugator?
Such was the case recently of a 4th of July partygoer justifying Pakistan’s 1971 genocide against Bengalis that would ultimately lead to Bangladesh’s liberation.

Following Great Britain’s abrupt exit from South Asia in 1947, not only did millions die in forced migration in Punjab, but East Bengal was brought under the rule of a newly-formed Pakistan due to their common religion. It mattered little that Bengali culture was very different than the Punjabi and Pashtun cultures of West Pakistan, or that they spoke different languages. Islam was a quick and easy fix for Britain’s brusque exit from India, which local South Asian leaders also advocated.

After independence from the British, East Pakistan had an equally, if not more, brutal experience under West Pakistan’s governance. Bengalis in East Pakistan were treated as culturally and ethnically inferior, Urdu was made the sole national language and the Pakistani government was dominated almost exclusively by West Pakistanis. This was all despite the fact that East Pakistan had a significantly greater population than West Pakistan and the East provided the majority of the country’s exports.

When Pakistan’s first general elections were held in 1970, the East Pakistan party Awami League received a majority. Not wanting to yield power to the repressed Bengalis, Pakistani leader Yahya Khan declared martial law. In turn, Bengalis engaged mass protests in East Pakistan. The Pakistani Army responded with Operation Searchlight, in which soldiers engaged in mass rape and slaughter of Bengalis, targeting Hindus and political activists with widespread assassination. Only a few days into Operation Searchlight, U.S. diplomat in Dhaka, Archer Blood, declared the Pakistani Army was conducting a “selective genocide.” Bengalis responded with guerrilla warfare against the Army, the latter of which was supplied and supported by the U.S. and China. Upper estimates of the death toll incurred on Bangladeshis reached 3 million in one year.
India received over a million East Bengali refugees into West Bengal and covertly supported Bengali guerillas. Finally, in December 1971, India declared war on Pakistan. With the help of Bangladeshi guerillas, the Pakistani Army was swiftly defeated, and Bangladesh was liberated.

Throughout this time, President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were hell-bent on concealing the Pakistani Army’s genocide against Bengalis. Nixon held a visceral dislike towards Indians and Bengalis, while admiring West Pakistanis’ supposed martial attributes. More importantly, Pakistan was a large recipient of U.S. weaponry, a staunch anti-Communist ally in the Cold War and, specifically, Yahya Khan acted as a key conduit in bringing about Nixon’s détente between the U.S. and China. So, while U.S. diplomats in Dhaka were horrified by the Pakistani Army’s atrocities, as was the young Senator Ted Kennedy when he visited Bangladeshi refugees in West Bengal, these concerns were rigidly censored by the Nixon administration. (Blood Telegram)

As the great powers U.S. and China were accomplices in Pakistan’s 1971 genocide against Bangladeshis, it is no wonder that this is among one of the most forgotten genocides in the 20th century: the powerful construct the historical narrative. Just four years after Bangladesh’s liberation, many Bangladeshis believe (with some justification) that the CIA played a role in the assassination of the country’s ‘Father of the Nation’, Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Meanwhile, Pakistan has remained an ally of the U.S., despite its often less-than-covert support of terrorism and housing of Bin Laden in Abbottabad.

Which brings us back to the ‘smart guy’ at the Fourth July party. A Chinese man, upon finding out that a fellow partygoer was Bangladeshi, expressed some knowledge of Bangladesh. In America, this is rare – many would be hard-pressed to even locate Bangladesh on a map. Almost lecture-like, the man explained to the Bangladeshi and several others in earshot that Bangladesh used to be East Pakistan until the early 1970s. I concurred, commenting that Bangladesh achieved liberation in 1971. Citing a Pakistani friend, he suggested that it was not really a liberation but merely a consequence of India’s 1971 war with Pakistan, due to India’s desire to diminish Pakistan’s strength. Pakistan was formed in 1947 upon religious lines, he explained: East and West Pakistan were both Muslim. The way he delivered this implied that there was almost a universal rule for polities: they should be based solely on ascriptive religion, with no other factors considered.

Partygoers nearby nodded their heads, as though imbibing deep, unknown truth about a region of the world they knew little about. Contesting the Pakistani narrative, I highlighted to the group the cultural differences between East and West Pakistan, their geographical divide of over a thousand miles, West Pakistan’s oppression of Bengalis and, finally, Pakistan’s 1971 genocide that killed approximately 3 million Bangladeshis. After I spoke, someone quickly suggested a change of subject. Perhaps that was a good idea.

The narrative frame of the victor, the more powerful or well-connected is something to be wary. First off, history is complex, including past of powerful actors and hegemons. However, to defer to narrative of the powerful is a disservice to history. It treats the subjugated as a natural host to the subjugator’s abusive behavior. Such framing masks the slave rebellion or the oppressed people’s revolution with the state’s tall tale.

Of equal historical error is to rely on one acquaintance (and perhaps a skimming of Wikipedia as well) in developing a historical perspective. Referencing a Pakistani acquaintance, who views the liberation of Bangladesh through the sole lens of India’s ploy to weaken Pakistan, is basically taking the unrepentant committer of genocide at his word. Imagine if unrepentant children of Nazis wrote Holocaust histories!

On the contrary, India acted in accordance to the UN’s Responsibility to Protect (R2P) inputting a halt to Pakistan’s genocide. Surely, India had its own strategic reasons for its 1971 war against Pakistan and wanted to stem the flow of Bangladeshi refugees into West Bengal. However, it ended a genocide while it was occurring – that is something truly rare in international law.

But, of course, if we believed the Pakistani account, we would think Bangladesh’s liberation a farce and we’d be deferring to the well-connected, more powerful state actor in conceiving history.

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