1971 War

Should Pakistanis apologise to Bangladeshis? An online appeal reopens old wounds

A Rwanda-based Pakistani is pushing his compatriots to admit that their country committed war crimes on Bangladesh, something Pakistan's rulers have never conceded.

An online petition stark in its simplicity has revived an over 30-year-old debate in Pakistan. “We the undersigned Pakistanis deeply regret the atrocities committed in our name against the people of Bangladesh in 1970-71. Yours with utter humility,” it says.

Created a couple of months ago by young Pakistani Imaduddin Ahmed, the petition took on new life after the Pakistan’s Director General South Asia and SAARC summoned the Acting High Commissioner of Bangladesh to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Islamabad on November 30.

In a press statement released by the Foreign Ministry after the meeting, Pakistan rejected the Bangladesh government’s “insinuation of complicity in committing crimes or war atrocities”. The statement said that Pakistan holds the 1974 Tripartite Agreement as “the bedrock of relations” between the two countries (India being the third party).

According to that agreement, the concerned parties had agreed essentially to forgive and forget the mistakes of the past. Bangladesh would also, “as an act of clemency”, not proceed with the trials of those accused of war crimes or collaborating with Pakistan. However, later, the Awami League government set up a tribunal to pursue the 1971 war crimes. Human rights groups in Bangladesh and abroad have since called into question the fairness and transparency of the trials, while lawyers and witnesses representing the accused have reportedly been harassed.

In the run-up to the cataclysmic events of 1971, complete media censorship in then West Pakistan kept the people from knowing what was going on. The West Pakistan establishment took selected journalists on guided tours of East Pakistan.

“We either never wrote about it, or just wrote what we were told to,” I remember a former senior journalist saying at a seminar on freedom of expression in Karachi some years ago.

One Pakistani journalist who refused to toe the line was Anthony Mascarenhas, who had to flee to the UK from where he filed his reports for The Sunday Times. Mascarenhas became persona non grata in Pakistan and a hero in Bangladesh.

In school textbooks and media too, both sides tell their own versions of the story, painting their own side as heroes and the other as villain.

Implicit and explicit apologies

The online petition currently garnering signatures and moving comments is not the first time that Pakistanis have attempted to make amends for the past. In 1996, the umbrella group Women’s Action Forum issued a statement on behalf of its members around Pakistan:
“As Bangladesh celebrates its 25 years of independence, the state and the people of Pakistan must reflect on the role played by the state and the Pakistani military in the unprecedented and exceptionally violent suppression of the political aspirations of the people of Bangladesh in 1971. Continued silence on our part makes a mockery not only of the principles of democracy, human rights, and self determination which we lay claim to, but also makes a mockery of our own history.”

The statement noted that “even in cases of war, and other forms of conflict, there are certain parameters beyond which violence cannot and must not be condoned, and further that those perpetrating and responsible for such violence should be held responsible. In view of this, and in the larger interests of our own humanity as a nation, we must condemn the repression by the state of its own citizens in 1971.”

Imaduddin Ahmed, 32, says he was unaware of or had forgotten about the Women’s Action Forum apology, but was glad to be reminded of it.

Better known is the implicit apology of military dictator Gen Pervez Musharraf. On a official visit to Bangladesh in 2002 as president, he paid his respects at the National Mausoleum of Liberation War Martyrs at Savar on the outskirts of Dhaka, and penned a note in the visitors’ handbook:
“Your brothers and sisters in Pakistan share the pain of the events in 1971. The excesses committed during the unfortunate period are regretted. Let us bury the past in the spirit of magnanimity. Let not the light of the future be dimmed.”

He later repeated his regrets at an official banquet in Dhaka. This was the first time a Pakistani military ruler had acknowledged the excesses of 1971. The Bangladeshi government welcomed Musharraf’s gesture, hailed by many as a bold step but denounced by some as inadequate.

It was also in the Musharraf era, in the year 2000, that the Hamoodur Rahman Commission report, a judicial inquiry into the events of 1971, was de-classified. The report found “substance in the allegations that during and after the military action excesses were indeed committed on the people of East Pakistan”. However, “the versions and estimates put forward by the Dacca authorities are highly coloured and exaggerated. Some of the incidents alleged by those authorities did not take place at all, and on others fanciful interpretations have been deliberately placed for the purpose of maligning the Pakistan army and gaining world sympathy.”

Two wrongs

In 2012, Bangladesh asked Pakistan for an official apology. In response, Pakistan said it had already expressed regret in different forms and that it is time to move forward.

Ahmed’s petition has come under fire from those who point out that East Pakistanis as they were then, also committed atrocities against West Pakistanis. There is no denying that arson, looting, rape and murder were committed by both sides, although the scale and numbers continue to be disputed.

To those who say that Pakistan shouldn’t apologise unless Bangladesh apologises for the actions of the Mukti Bahini (East Pakistan rebels), Ahmed responded: “as if two wrongs make a right, or as if a terrorist outfit represents a nation”. He terms as “disgraceful” the Pakistan government’s rejection of the insinuation that its armed forces committed atrocities against the people of Bangladesh.

Two years ago, the Pakistan National Assembly’s resolution on the occasion of what Pakistan terms “the Fall of Dhaka” – December 16, 1971, when the Pakistan army surrendered – “also disgraced the Pakistani people by telling the Bangladeshi government not to rake up the memories of 1971,” said Ahmed.

The Assembly also termed as “judicial murder” and condemned the execution of Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abdual Quader Mollah, convicted of committing war crimes in 1971.

Brainwashed by institutions

Ahmed says he was spurred to create the petition after a conversation with a former Pakistan High Commissioner and retired Pakistan Air Force Commodore in Rwanda, where he works as an advisor to the Treasury of Rwanda. It is a country, he says, where “certain categories of genocidaires have been reintegrated into communities after serving sentences and apologising”.

Talking to these two senior retired officers made him think that there might be other “right-minded Pakistanis who aren’t brainwashed by their institutions and would sign an apology”.

Ahmed’s family members, descendants of a war hero, support the petition, he says. His grandfather, Maj Gen Rehmat Ali Shah Bokhari, fought on the frontline of two Indo-Pak wars and was one of two officers who distinguished themselves with a “best war performance report” in 1971, he says.

“Instead of progressing towards an official apology since Musharraf’s hand-written note, we have regressed,” said Ahmed. “It is important for self-respecting patriotic Pakistanis to express their regret and show that the government of Pakistan is misrepresenting them.”

“It’s up to us to circumvent them and crowd-source an apology. This is as much for the people of Bangladesh as it is for ourselves.”

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