Born in Meerut in 1946, Asif told me that his family was a staunch supporter of Pakistan. His uncle had served as the president of the All India Muslim Students’ Federation and many of his family members were active in student politics. “My uncle had even met Jinnah...my family would always be talking about Pakistan. They were madly in love with Pakistan, madly in love with the idea of Pakistan,” he said.
I asked him what Pakistan meant for them. After a moment’s reflection, he said, “As a student of history, when I try to understand the emotions of that time, I can see that the Muslims felt very threatened, especially the young and educated ones. They asked themselves, ‘When the British go away, what will happen to us?’ They felt that their jobs might become insecure, they might be victimised, discriminated against, their careers in jeopardy. I think the basic idea behind Pakistan was economic well-being.”
And so, in 1947, when a new nation was born, Asif’s family, like lakhs of others, decided to migrate to Pakistan, a land that promised prosperity, security and progress for the subcontinent’s minorities. ‘They had lots of properties there [in Meerut], they owned fully furnished houses and businesses. But I think the overriding idea, the overriding passion for Pakistan was so great that they didn’t bother about any of that and just left everything behind. When I went back to Meerut years later, people didn’t understand why my family had migrated. An old man who knew my grandfather, asked ‘Why did your family leave? They didn’t have to. They had everything here.’ The only answer I could offer was that it was for the love of Pakistan.”
Asif’s family was one of the fortunate ones that were able to quickly re-establish themselves in their new country.
“My uncles (chachas and mamas) were in the construction business. They set up a huge business in West Pakistan and then, in 1959, shifted to East Pakistan. The business was performing well there.” As a young boy, Asif had heard stories about Dhaka and Chittagong from his uncles who settled in the east wing. “They would tell me that it was a beautiful place, that the people were very gentle, very friendly. So, I always had this fascination for East Pakistan. My first visit to Dhaka and Jessore – where my family lived – was in 1962. I was still studying in Hassan Abdal (near Islamabad) at the time and had three months’ vacations. My uncles called me to visit them and I happily obliged.” Later, taken in by the charms of erstwhile East Pakistan, Asif would move there for a few years, learning Bengali and pursuing his education at Madan Mohan College in Jessore.
However, over time, as tensions between the east and west wings escalated, Asif found himself caught in an increasingly violent and complex situation. That morning in the quiet staff room, he told me how he had lost one of his closest friends in Dhaka, how his friend was killed before his eyes. Asif was one of the handful of non-Bengali boys at Dhaka University in 1971 (by now he was out of college and working in his family construction business. He happened to be visiting his friends at Dhaka University that March of 1971). On the day his friend was killed, he witnessed the firing at the university, he witnessed several students succumb to their injuries, added numbers to a death toll that was only going to surge over the next few months.
“By then [March 1971], the movement for independence had picked up and the government had given orders that all hostels be vacated, that the universities should close and students should go home. A lot of atrocities had been committed by the Mukti Bahini, especially in Chittagong. Many West Pakistani officers and their families had been brutally killed.”
A retired colonel in Lahore, who became a POW, penned down some of the events that had taken place in Chittagong, in which West Pakistanis were the target.
(This was written for his family and has been reproduced here with permission.) He writes that when he was posted to Chittagong in September 1971, he found “the air was thick with sombreness...the violence had subsided by then but the hostility was simmering beneath the apparent calm. I was posted at the arms supply depot from where ammunition and provisions were supplied to the units...[I heard about the] brutal carnage of non- Bengalis in Chittagong Cantonment and the city [that had taken place before my arrival]. It sent chills down my spine, wondering if man could be so ferocious...[There were stories of] innocent children being hung upside down and punched to death, of children’s eyes being slashed with blades, women raped and beheaded...men...slaughtered while being told that the blood they had sucked from Bengali veins would come gushing out. The Bengali soldiers of Bengal regiments rebelled and arrested all non-Bengalis [and] Chittagong...witnessed the worst brutality. No non-Bengali could manage to survive there. All men and women were indiscriminately killed. Army units of West Pakistan had to take action in response. Military operation started...”
Anthony Mascarenhas, a Pakistani journalist whose reportage in the Sunday Times of 13 June 1971 is known to have “exposed for the first time the scale of the Pakistan Army’s brutal campaign to suppress its breakaway eastern province in 1971”, also detailed terrifying stories of what had transpired prior to the military action in places like Chittagong, where non-Bengalis were maimed, raped and killed.
Later, when I travelled to Karachi to meet some of the Bihari families that had survived, I would hear first-hand harrowing details of how much they had suffered.
The visits to the refugee camps in Dhaka, where so many Biharis remained caged, revealed more such stories. According to the official Pakistani version of these events, it was these killings and violence that propelled the military operation – or Operation Searchlight – in March 1971. The stories of Bengali brutality are used as a raison d’être for the violence the Bengalis would later be subjected to.
From the Pakistani state’s perspective, it is the events prior to 25 March 1971 that hold significance. The factors that may have led to such resentment against the non-Bengalis, or the events after these killings, are obfuscated. When Mascarenhas was called in to report on the conflict, it was these events that he was meant to cover, the torture of non-Bengalis, not the “genocide” – the headline of the report he wrote for the Sunday Times – of Bengalis that followed.
Ironically, in the official Bangladeshi version of history, the violence prior to 25 March is not spoken about. There, history begins from where it ends for the Pakistani state, both countries conveniently forgetting the actions that may complicate or threaten their “national truths”. However, eyewitness accounts unearth a more complex reality in which the conflict predates 1971 by several years: the economic, cultural and political exploitation of Bengalis, the violence against non-Bengalis, and the mass killings and rapes of Bengalis all part of one horrid truth. Asif had been witness to much of it.
Excerpted with permission from 1971: A People’s History of Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, Anam Zakaria, Penguin Books.