The conflict in erstwhile East Pakistan during 1970-71 was one of the bloodiest and most contested in the post-WWII era. While Bangladesh has always called it genocide, Pakistan has always denied both the intent and the scale of killings. Pakistan believes that the killings of non-Bengalis before the 1971 war presented a justification for military action. For some time now, there seems to be a concerted effort by Pakistani scholars and writers to undermine the nationalism of Bangladeshi people as a cause for the separation of erstwhile East Pakistan. Analysts say that each country involved in the conflict has institutionalized a distinct memory of the events of that year.
Pakistani think tanks systematically criticize Bangladesh for creating the Committee for Eradicating the Killers and Collaborators of 1971. They believe it is a farcical mechanism for holding mock trials against suspected war criminals. They accuse Sheikh Hasina of trying to recast what happened in 1971 as a struggle led solely by the Awami League and of using it against the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). They try to defend the Bihari community, which collaborated with the Pakistani military during 1970-71, and express concern that “those accused of attacking, killing and raping members of their community will never be brought to justice. In official memory, as institutionalized by the Bangladeshi state, only crimes against Bengalis are remembered.”
Pakistan has resorted to selective forgetting of what happened in 1971. The defeat left a lasting imprint on Pakistan’s psyche. The loss of East Pakistan created a “never again” mentality. Resolving never to let a similar situation arise again, Pakistan increased its defense spending and launched a nuclear program to develop a nuclear weapon as early as January 1972. Perceived as a humiliating defeat, the war is brushed over in textbooks, and there is little acknowledgment of the military oppression and the resulting atrocities in East Pakistan. Pakistani revised textbooks with an overt anti-India and anti-Hindu slant, blaming the loss on its “arch-nemesis,” with little reflection on Pakistan’s own policies that resulted in a mass movement for independence among Bengalis. To this day, the Pakistani narrative makes some exaggerated claims, such as Indian-influenced Hindu teachers manipulating students and breeding secessionist sentiments in East Pakistan. Local grievances in India were closely studied, and support was offered to groups fighting against the Indian state, like the Khalistan movement for a separate Sikh state, comparing it to perceived Indian support to Bengalis fighting the Pakistani state.
Operation Searchlight, as the West Pakistani military called it, started on the night of March 25, 1971. It aimed at wiping out an entire generation of Bengalis. Intellectuals, activists, artists, journalists, politicians, or ordinary people going about their daily lives, nobody was spared by the Pakistan Army. Such was the degree of impunity with which Operation Searchlight was carried out that an officer participating in the operations infamously boasted, “We can kill anyone for anything. We are responsible to none.” All of this is conveniently ignored by Pakistan. Pakistan think tanks do not provide any context to the conflict. Even if provided, it is restricted to the official narrative of Pakistan. Aggressive think tanks cover the separation of erstwhile East Pakistan with a partisan approach, narrating only what fits the official policy and ignoring anything that is in breach of the official policy. Pakistani academics pursue this war-oriented narrative characterized by triumphalist military language, an action-oriented focus, and a superficial narrative with little context, background, or historical perspective.
Successive Pakistani establishments have been unwilling to back Bangladesh’s efforts at delivering justice to the victims of Pakistan’s crimes. In 2015 Pakistan criticized the execution of two convicted war criminals – Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leader Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury and Jamaat-e-Islami leader Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojahid –also infuriated Bangladesh. Islamabad stood against the trial of suspected war criminals and the “concern and anguish” that Pakistan’s Foreign Office expressed over recent executions.
The United States and China tried to suppress the reports of genocide and bloodbath in the then East Pakistan during Bangladesh’s nine-month-long liberation war. According to Donald W. Beachler, professor of political science at Ithaca College, “The government of Pakistan explicitly denied that there was genocide. By their refusal to characterize the mass killings as genocide or to condemn and restrain the Pakistani government, the US and Chinese governments implied that they did not consider it so.” China’s professed aim to end exploitation worldwide while extending assistance to West Pakistani exploiters expectedly provoked both academics and activists. The fact is that China’s centralized party-state has suppressed freedom of expression, which has adversely affected the growth of independent research thinking. This trend has resulted in a relatively narrow and conformist social science research. Hence the denial of genocide and acknowledgment of atrocities committed by its Pakistani partner.
The sustained Pakistani narrative has ensured that the struggle of East Pakistanis to form their own country has been reduced to a civic-political demand and not an ethnic-based claim to distinct nationalism. The reality is that the genocidal violence unleashed in former East Pakistan amounted to the systematic wiping out of the ethnic distinctiveness of its people through ideological, economic, political, and military means. The fundamental problem in denying that the massacre of East Pakistanis was not genocide is that it does not consider the ideological and political background of the conflict; instead, it focuses on the secessionist movement alone. For this reason, the analysis of the killing of Bengalis in noncombat situations as political killings of secessionists or suspected to be secessionists deprives them of applying the UN definition of genocide. The recognition of the massacre in former East Pakistan during its Liberation Struggle as genocide is not only ethically demanded, but this recognition also demands a qualitative widening of the current legal understanding of genocide.