On March 26, Bangladesh celebrates 50 years since the day Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – considered the Father of the Nation – demanded the country’s independence from West Pakistan. Over the next nine months, the people of Bangladesh waged a guerrilla war against the Pakistani military. In the process, Bangladesh endured one of the worst series of human rights abuses in the world – acts considered genocide by many, yet widely undocumented. The campaign for independence was eventually victorious, dismembering Dacca (now Dhaka) from Yahya Khan’s centralist rule and cracking Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s treasured vision of Pakistan as a home for all of the subcontinent’s Muslims.
In the 50 years of its independence, Bangladesh never received full recognition of the war atrocities committed by the Pakistani military in 1971. Dhaka has repeatedly asked for official recognition, and an apology, from the Pakistani government – requests that were either turned down or not responded to. Politically, it is not rare for countries to deny the atrocities they commit. However, now that Pakistan seeks to build a sustainable peace with India, it is crucial to understand why Pakistan has never fully recognized the 1971 war in particular. I posit that fully recognizing the atrocities will be equivalent to acknowledging that the Two Nations Theory has failed, significantly altering Pakistan’s identity and voiding the grand strategy that has shaped the country’s political beliefs and aspirations for decades.
South Asia’s history is not written by the victor. It is not written by a neutral observer either. Colonial India in the 1900s either identified with Jawaharlal Nehru’s Congress or spoke of the “vindictive” subjugation of Muslims through the singing of the independence anthem “Vande Mataram” at national gatherings. In his seminal 1940 speech, “Quaid-i-Azam,” Jinnah clearly outlined that Indian Muslims are not a minority, rather a nation deserving of its own political structure and a united home. In his Lahore address to the Muslim League, Jinnah claimed that Muslims, because of their religion, have different “religious philosophies, social customs, [and] literatures” compared to Hindus. The two groups “neither intermarry nor interdine together, and indeed they belong to two different civilizations, which are based mainly on conflicting ideas and conceptions.”
Since then, the Pakistan project’s primary responsibility was to protect Jinnah’s “foresight” and the religious integrity that drove the project home. In that regard, when Bengalis in East Pakistan revolted against the institution of Urdu as the state language in 1952, they were shot in the streets. When Sheikh Mujibur Rahman led the Awami League to stand for a federal Bengali state in East Pakistan – citing the peaceful coexistence of different social customs, language, literature, and political philosophies – West Pakistan’s first line of response was to enforce religious chauvinism.
Part of this was the idea that Bengalis were not true Muslims, and therefore unqualified to rule Pakistan, in whole or in part. As Ahsan I. Butt points out in his book “Secession and Security: Explaining State Strategy against Separatists,” religious chauvinism also appeared as a widespread belief that West Bengal’s secularist and communist politicians had hijacked East Pakistan’s Muslim identity. So, the “general unease” with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the Awami League’s faith in the Pakistani project manifested in thinking that the uprising was “India’s Trojan horse” – a joint product of a few East Pakistani miscreants and Indian subversion. Such impure and secessionist aspirations, Pakistan’s leaders believed, should be thwarted with an iron fist. They thought that it was not only un-Islamic to oppose the Pakistani project, but also “ridiculous” for non-elite Muslims – who “want to count for something in the world” – to seek autonomy, as former Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto put it.
The Pakistani memory of the 1971 war is a narrative of “punishing” Bengali “traitors” for collaborating with the Indians, and avenging “non-Bengali killings” that took place before March 25, 1971. Since the post-war years, Pakistani textbooks have been revised with an overt anti-India and anti-Hindu slant. The Army Museum in Lahore still holds up a plaque claiming the movement for independence as India-sponsored terrorism:
“Listen Nadir, we have got the root cause of this problem, and that is the Hindu. The decision was taken to kill Hindus. If Hindus are finished then this problem will be solved forever.”
– Colonel Nadir Ali, recounting a conversation with his superior
The Hamood-ur-Rahman Commission report, a judicial inquiry into the 1971 war, noted that military superiors delivered verbal instructions to eliminate East Pakistani Hindus. Several cables were sent to Washington by U.S. diplomats and consuls in what was then Dacca, noting that Hindus bore the significant brunt of violence during the war. Lieutenant Colonel Aziz Ahmed Khan’s testimony to the commission included Brigadier Abdullah Malik’s written order to target and kill Hindus during the war. Captured Muslims were asked to recite the kalma (the central doctrine of belief in Islam) to prove their faith; Catholic schools were warned not to help Hindus. Various observers noted West Pakistan Muslims claiming that Hindus had corrupted Bengali Muslims, and that “one cannot be a Bengali and a Muslim simultaneously.”
For Khan and Bhutto, however, religious chauvinism in East Pakistan also served as a staunch signal to the Pashtuns and the Balochs, two other restive ethnic groups in Pakistan’s border areas. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Pashtuns and the Balochs were seeking autonomy in the Hindu Kush and southwest Pakistan, respectively, creating a significant headache for Pakistani unity. For decades, scholars have consistently found that provincial feeling has been perceived as a threat to the Pakistani state. For Islamabad, it would be easier to justify Dhaka’s fall as an Indian invasion – an illegitimate political aspiration – confirming the need for the Two Nations Theory upon which the country still stands, and still oppresses its minorities.
Even today, growing calls for independence in Pakistan-administered Azad Kashmir – home to predominantly Muslim Kashmiris – are met with covert resistance from the Pakistani military, despite a willing Prime Minister Imran Khan standing for Kashmir’s right to self-determination. Swathes of politicians in Pakistan believe the Two Nations Theory has been proven a success, pointing to the Modi government’s notorious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and rising intentions to govern Pakistan-administered Kashmir territory. Proponents of Jinnah’s principle argue that Muslims in Pakistan are treated significantly better than their brethren in India.
Given this context, any recognition of atrocities in 1971 would be tantamount to walking back the “successes” of the Two Nations Theory, which once aimed at unifying all Muslims in South Asia under one large, often unwanted, umbrella. Recognition of atrocities would require any Pakistani government to accept the unique political aspirations of Bengalis in 1971, and deny all characterizations that painted the War of Liberation as an Indian subversion. Such a highly sought-after diplomatic move would radically alter Pakistan’s perceived identity and grand strategy.
The 1971 war left a strong “never again” aftertaste within the Pakistani military. To resolve this, Pakistan increased its defense budget from $635 million to over $1 billion within eight years after the war, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The country adopted its nuclear program with the goal to achieve a working weapon as early as January 1972 (but could only conduct its first test in May 1998). Pakistan refused to adopt a “no first use” nuclear policy and has repeatedly stated its comfort with striking first if it felt provoked. Every missile test is assessed by its ability to strike Indian bases and “deny” a second-strike capability. Pakistan’s realist foreign and strategic policies have been shaped by threats from India to the point where Islamabad, as indicated by retired Brigadier Muhammad Arshad, attempts to counter India’s “power maximization” in the region with “security maximization.”
Maleeha Lodhi, in her book “Pakistan: Beyond the Crisis State,” notes that the persistent fear of India has turned Pakistan into a security state, with the army and the bureaucracy still dominating the elected bodies. The structural imbalances in its political system led to a “weak democracy,” with a “lack of public accountability, uneven resource distribution, and tensions between federal and provincial governments,” where internal instability remains a significant threat to the Pakistani project. The Pakistani grand strategy has since its very founding rested on anti-India sentiment. Recognizing the full scope of atrocities in the Bangladesh war would require Pakistan to acknowledge the Bengali struggle as a unique political aspiration, free from Indian influence, voiding the premise that has significantly shaped the country’s past and present political beliefs.
On March 19, Pakistan’s army chief, General Qamar Jawed Bajwa, called on India to “bury the past” and move towards “cooperation.” Considered as a continuation of efforts to build peace following the historic ceasefire along the Kashmir Line of Control in February 2021, Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi also commented that Pakistan will eagerly move toward building sustainable peace if India reciprocates. For Bangladeshis, the rhetoric is familiar: Pakistan presented similar “burying the past,” “forgive and forget” narratives to Bangladesh in 1974, hesitantly acknowledging that “some” of their soldiers “may” have committed violence, despite the Bhutto government being fully aware of major atrocities cited in the Hamood-ur-Rahman Commission Report submitted in July 1972.
To achieve long-lasting peace, Pakistan can bury the past, and perhaps it is a good starting point. For reconciliation, however, it also needs to revisit the 1971 war and fully recognize the human rights abuses committed in Bangladesh, especially since the Pakistani memory of 1971 still rings harrowing bells of eliminating “the Indian” in the form of Bengali Hindus, and misperceiving the Bengali struggle for independence as anti-military, non-elite, un-Islamic Indian subversion. In his 2011 autobiography, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan acknowledged that he succumbed to the official state television propaganda that branded “the Bengali fighters as terrorists, militants, insurgents or Indian-backed fighters.” If Pakistan is to bury the past in the interests of greater regional cohesion, it might as well settle the record and take responsibility for the murder, rape, and scorched earth that it left behind in Bangladesh.