December 16, “Bijoy Dibosh”, is celebrated in Bangladesh as the day marking the country’s formal victory over Pakistan after then chief of the Armed Forces of Pakistan, General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi, surrendered with 93,000 forces to joint forces led by the Bangladeshi freedom fighters, popularly known as “Mukti Bahini” and the Indian armed forces. The systemic ignorance towards and disrespect of the civil and political rights of then East Pakistan’s Bengali population by their counterparts in West Pakistan sparked mass protests in March 1971 which ultimately ended in a brutal conflict. Over three million Bangladeshis lost their lives and thousands of women were subjected to assault. As Bangladesh commemorates 50 years of its historic victory, it is worth revisiting exactly why Pakistan’s leadership has remained hesitant so far to offer a formal apology to those aggrieved and what this means for the future of Bangladesh-Pakistan relations.
The humiliating nature of the defeat left strong feelings within Pakistan’s military establishment, reflected in the increase in the country’s defence budget — from $635 million to over $1 billion by the end of the 1970s. Despite then Pakistan leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto being fully aware of the scale of atrocities committed, according to the Hamoodur Rahman (former Chief Justice of Pakistan) Commission Report from July 1972, Pakistan put forth a carefully crafted “forgive and forget” narrative during the tripartite agreement in 1974. This was the first instance when Islamabad came close to acknowledging excesses committed by “some” of its armed forces and promised to hold them accountable at war crime tribunals that led to Bangladesh handing over hundreds of Prisoners of War as a reconciliatory measure. Five decades later, however, none has been brought to book.
During the state visit of former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf to Bangladesh in 2002, he expressed regret for the death en masse in 1971 while visiting a national war memorial but fell short of the formal apology that Bangladesh has been seeking. Despite acknowledging a susceptibility to official state propaganda that branded Bengali demonstrators of the 1970s as “terrorists, militants, insurgents, or Indian-backed fighters” in his autobiography from 2011, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has toed the official state narrative on the issue.
Pakistan has attempted to gesticulate its intent to strengthen diplomatic relations and economic ties with Bangladesh in recent years without necessarily making the concerted efforts needed for reconciliation. Largely perceived to be under control of the armed forces, Pakistan’s official position and narrative on the events of 1971 are a fair distance from case studies elsewhere. Particularly after Pakistan’s Foreign Office dismissed Bangladesh’s fresh demands in 2009 for an apology for the atrocities committed in 1971.
Opposed to Bangladesh’s independence, the Jamaat-e-Islami and its student wing, Islami Chatro Shangha, along with splinter groups such as the Razakar, al-Badr, and al-Shams were among the local outfits that aided Pakistan’s armed forces. After coming to power in 2009, the current Bangladesh government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has prosecuted and in some cases executed senior leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami which did not go very well with their counterparts in Pakistan’s political establishment. In particular, the resolution by Pakistan Parliament led by MP Sher Akbar Khan in 2016 protesting hangings of war criminals of 1971 drew sharp reaction and protest from Bangladesh. In 2015, the University of Dhaka cut off ties with the Pakistani establishment in protest against the cold-blooded assassination of numerous prominent intellectuals, academicians, and thinkers of Bangladesh on December 14, 1971 just few days before the country formally earned victory.
In May 2021, 113 years after Germany’s colonial government massacred approximately 80,000 Herero and Nama people in Namibia between 1904-08, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas acknowledged it as a “genocidal” event, seeking forgiveness and offering $1.35 billion to spend on development projects over 30 years.
Nazi war criminals accused of participating in the Holocaust continue to stand trial and any attempt of denial is met with punishment. Pakistan’s attempts at whitewashing their responsibility for 1971 have been criticised and Prime Minister Hasina has shared with the Pakistani High Commissioner to Bangladesh how it is difficult for Bangladesh to forget about atrocities by Pakistan in the 1971 war.
Bangladesh’s progress in the last 50 years has been remarkable in key performance indicators such as exports, social progress, and fiscal prudence, all of which eclipse Pakistan’s growth during the same period. Bangladesh’s GDP growth, for example, stands at 7.9% while Pakistan is at 1.5%. Bangladesh’s GDP per capita had grown by 9% in 2020 rising to $2,227 while Pakistan remains at $1,543. Bangladesh’s export volume and foreign exchange reserves are almost twice as that of Pakistan’s as well as its position on the global passport index, microcredit financing, and women’s rights.
In literacy, Pakistan lags behind with 58% to Bangladesh’s 75%. In 1971, Pakistan and Bangladesh remained neck-and-neck on fertility rates — seven live births per woman. Today, according to the World Bank, Bangladesh’s fertility rate stands at 2.01 while Pakistan is at 3.45, indicating the enormous progress the former has made.
Safety and security remain pressing concerns as well. Pakistan has lost many civilians to terrorist attacks between 2000 and 2019. Concerns of terrorism, radicalisation, and extremism continue to hurt Pakistan’s potential and credibility, making it unsafe to travel to, and in many instances unattractive to trade and invest. On the other hand, Bangladesh has been praised for its tough stance against any form of fundamentalism and radicalisation and boasts a moderate Muslim majority country with liberal and progressive socio-cultural values.
For a new chapter
For Pakistan to bury its past to start a new chapter in its relations with Bangladesh, taking responsibility and ensuring accountability for events of the period is a critical first step. Expressing hope and sincerity for reconciliation and friendship stands hollow without any mention of 1971. Before one can start forgetting, one has to be able to forgive. How can Bangladesh forget when Pakistan has not even offered an apology which could have started the healing process for a country which saw millions die, thousands assaulted and where there was much shedding of so much blood and tears in the process? This is a much needed step to heal historical wounds and help both countries forge better diplomatic and economic relations in the coming days for realising a shared vision for the region’s future.
Syed Munir Khasru is Chairman of the international think tank, The Institute for Policy, Advocacy, and Governance (IPAG), New Delhi, India with a presence in Dhaka, Melbourne, Vienna and Dubai