Selective amnesia or whitewashing history? Pakistan yet to come to terms with 'bitter truth' of 1971

“Indeed, the West Pakistani elite — politicians, bureaucracy, military — all played a role in aggravating the crisis,” a Dawn editorial said, adding: “Unfortunately, we as a nation have yet to come to terms with the bitter truths of 1971.”

Mahendra Ved Nov 30, 2022
Pakistan yet to come to terms with 'bitter truth' of 1971

Separation from the erstwhile east wing five decades ago seems to surface in Pakistani discourse each time there is a crisis. The current political turmoil over the army chief’s selection and the opposition's demand for early elections has again heightened that sentiment with recall of the 1971 events and a debate over “attempts to rewrite history” by various stakeholders.

Before General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who retired as the army chief on November 29, did it, two former prime ministers, Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif, likened themselves to Bangladeshi leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. But the context of the political leaders was different. They complained of being denied power, like Sheikh Mujib was, warning darkly of the repetition of history. Ironically, the two rivals have addressed their messages to the military whose "proxies" they once were till they fell out.

Gen Bajwa,  in his farewell address to his officers, blamed the emergence of Bangladesh as the outcome of “political failure” and not a military debacle. He also claimed that only 34,000 Pakistani soldiers fought in the eastern province and were "outnumbered" by the joint forces of India and the Mukti Bahini.

The figure of 93,000 men in uniform who surrendered on December 19, 1971 is well established. Without elaborating, Gen Bajwa sought to reduce the figure to 34,000, probably counting actual combatants, which is what any defeated army does. Old records indicate that 65,000 to 81,000 army personnel surrendered, excluding the paramilitary and police personnel.

Questions are being asked why the Pakistan Army took 50 years to come out with the new figure. While Dawn newspaper has unquestioningly "welcomed" Gen Bajwa’s "clarification" on the numbers, others have termed it an attempt at "rewriting" history, instead of acknowledging and reconciling with past failures.

Bitter truth    
On retirement, Gen Bajwa may find time to study the Justice Hamoodur Rahman Report and the subsequent War Report of 1976 – both classified but unofficially released later -- that “exposed many military failures, from the strategic to the tactical–intelligence levels, while it confirmed the looting, rapes and the unnecessary killings by the Pakistan military and their local agents." It laid the blame squarely on Pakistan Army generals, accusing them of "debauchery, smuggling, war crimes and neglect of duty.”

 The War Commission had recommended “a public trial of Pakistan Army generals on the charges that they had been responsible for the situation in the first place and that they had succumbed without a fight, but no actions were ever taken against those responsible, except the dismissal of chiefs of the Pakistan Army, Pakistan Air Force, Pakistan Navy, and decommissioning of the Pakistan Marines.”

Pakistani media has questioned Gen Bajwa’s contention that it was a “political failure”, reminding that General Yahya Khan was in power from 1969 till the end of the conflict. Yahya allowed himself to be manipulated by politicians led by Z A Bhutto and other politicians. Bhutto's “idhar hum, udhar tum” (we rule here, you rule there) declaration is being recalled. Yahya himself mistrusted the Bengalis, and even earlier, his predecessor Ayub Khan, as per his son Gauhar Ayub’s memoirs, would call Bengalis “trouble-makers.”

“Indeed, the West Pakistani elite — politicians, bureaucracy, military — all played a role in aggravating the crisis,” a Dawn editorial said, adding: “Unfortunately, we as a nation have yet to come to terms with the bitter truths of 1971.”

In an impassioned demand for better treatment of repatriates from the eastern wing now living in Pakistan, writer and social activist Rakhshinda Perveen (“1971: atonement awaited”,The Friday Times, November 21, 2022) writes: “Imagine a military dictator ridiculing you, as Bhikaris (beggars) and stripping off your nationality. Imagine your dearest aunt, sister, wife, daughter, or mother being raped. Imagine you are gang-raped before your husband, brother or father, and your sari is used to tie them, and they are burnt alive. Imagine little children made to witness the cutting of their mother’s breasts.”

No introspection
Analyst Umer Faruq (November 7, 2022, The Friday Times) calls the comparison with Sheikh Mujib by Imran Khan and earlier, Nawaz Sharif  “a joke”.

“Nothing could be more preposterous than these claims made by Punjab-centric leaders like Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif. Nawaz Sharif is totally dependent on the votes of Punjabi middle classes residing in the area between Jhelum and Sahiwal—if you move along Grand Trunk Road.

“Now we are witnessing a process through which these Punjabi middle classes were seemingly shifting loyalties towards Imran Khan. But Imran Khan is no less a Punjab-centric leader than Nawaz Sharif.

Calling the two “darlings of the state” the writer says: “Pakistanis don’t seem to remember why Eastern Pakistan was separated into an independent country. And Pakistan media never tells them that Punjab-centric parties and their politics will not change anything in the power structures of the country, no matter how revolutionary both Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan may try to sound…..  Marginalized communities like Balochis and to some extent Sindhis are not part of their stories.”

She concludes that “Both Sheikh Mujib on the one hand and Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif on the other are victims of the military’s high-handedness.”  

As Pakistan moves from one crisis to the next, there seems little likelihood of any introspection, and Bangladesh may return from time to time to haunt a people now used to shadowboxing by their rulers.
(The writer is a veteran journalist and South Asia watcher. Views are personal. He can be reached at

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Thu, 12/01/2022 - 19:25
Bhutto whose seat count in 1971 elections both in West Punjab and his province Sindh was less than Sheikh Mujib's Awami League with 162 seats ...forced the dictator Yahya Khan to deny Mujib the legitimate right to form the national govt ...This triggered the Awami League protests and the subsequent events of repression and liberation war...So, Gen Bajwa is partially right in making the 1971 debacle a combined failure of politicians, army, bureaucracy..But surrender of 93000 Pak soldiers is an undeniable fact...
Mahendra Ved
Sun, 12/11/2022 - 08:46
Thanks for the comments. The interesting thing is that both, military and the politicos have claims to make as part of their blame game. ZAB was able to manipulate Ayub in 1965 and Yahya in 1971. But the same military finally got him.