'Regrets' for 1971

Print edition : August 17, 2002

General Pervez Musharraf, visiting Bangladesh, expresses regrets for the '1971 events' during the War of Liberation, but seeks to shift the blame for genocide from Pakistan's armed forces and misses a chance to heal the wounds of history.

PAKISTAN President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's recent visit to Bangladesh was described by the host as well as the guest as "fruitful and successful". The Pakistani leader termed the outcome as "more than expected". Hopefully, the two countries will now be closer both in political and economic terms. Notwithstanding the fact that the two governments failed to resolve two vital issues - the repatriation of Pakistanis stranded in Bangladesh and the sharing of Bangladesh's pre-Independence assets - the tour drew significant public attention. The visit came at a crucial point in his country's politics. So far as Pakistan's internal politics is concerned, Musharraf is clearly not in a comfortable position.

Musharraf is the fourth Pakistani head of government to visit Bangladesh after 1971, when nearly three million Bengalis in former East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, were butchered by Pakistan's "occupation forces" during the course of the nine month-long war of independence. Musharraf's reference to the historic developments of 1971 included his "regrets" for the "1971 events" that separated the two wings of Pakistan 32 years ago.

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf with Bangladesh Prime Minister Khaleda Zia during the welcome ceremony at Dhaka airport on July 29.-SHAWKAT KHAN/AFP

After the birth of Bangladesh in December 1971, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh signed the historic Tripartite Agreement in 1974. It was essentially aimed at reconciliation. The then Pakistani Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, visited Bangladesh the same year, but reconciliation remained a far cry. The new-born nation was then under the rule of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, whose unique political leadership had led the country to freedom. After Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif also visited Bangladesh. But none of those visits generated as much public debate and interest as Musharraf's visit now has. It even overshadowed the previous ones, possibly because he had chosen to speak on certain sensitive issues at opportune moments, and which his predecessors had missed.

Following the assassination of Mujibur Rahman, the "Founding Father" of Bangladesh, in 1975 successive military and pseudo-democratic governments carefully kept themselves away from the ideals over which the nation had fought a bloody war and won its independence. The apology due from Pakistan for the "atrocities" of its armed forces - genocide, rape, arson and destruction - on unarmed civilians was, therefore, forgotten for two long decades, although many civil rights groups and freedom fighters' organisations raised the issue from time to time. The issue of Pakistan's "unconditional apology" and "sharing of pre-Independence assets" gained ground only when Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Sheikh Mujib, was in power from 1996 to 2001.

But though Hasina tried to strike a balance in her government's foreign policy approach vis-a-vis South Asia by not sidetracking Pakistan completely, her tenure saw a few major diplomatic rows between Islamabad and Dhaka. These include Hasina's formal appeal to the United Nations to take necessary action against "unconstitutional rule" in member-countries for the sake of democracy and the subsequent "cancellation" of a scheduled first-time meeting in New York between the Bangladesh leader and Musharraf. The Hasina government had also expelled a Pakistani diplomat, Irfan Raza, for making "derogatory remarks" about Bangladesh's liberation war.

On his arrival in Dhaka on July 29, Musharraf first visited the national memorial at Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka, to pay homage to the country's liberation war heroes. He wrote in the visitors' book at the memorial: "I bring sincere greetings and good wishes from the Islamic Republic of Pakistan for their Bangladeshi brethren and sisters. We wish this land and its people peace, progress and prosperity." The Pakistani leader continued: "Your brothers and sisters in Pakistan share the pain of the events of 1971. The excesses during that unfortunate period are regrettable. Let us bury the past in a spirit of magnanimity. Let not the light of the future be dimmed. Let us move forward together. I am confident that with our joint resolve Pakistan-Bangladesh friendship will flourish in the years to come."

As the comments got wide publicity with a section of the media projecting it as something as close as possible to a "formal apology" and finding "no reason now" to remain antagonistic, Musharraf availed himself of another chance to repeat his words. In his banquet address the next day, he said: "My brothers and sisters in Pakistan share with their fellow brothers and sisters in Bangladesh profound grief over the parameters of the events of 1971. As a result of this tragedy a family having common religious and cultural heritage and united by a joint struggle for independence and a shared vision of the future, was torn apart. We feel sorry for this tragedy, and the pain it caused to both our peoples."

In her reply, Prime Minister Khaleda Zia responded: "Thank you, Mr. President, for your candid expression on the events of 1971. This will, no doubt, help mitigate the old wounds."

BUT will this apology really do? Has the Pakistani leader honoured history through his statement? Did he really pay respects to those who fell prey to the excesses of the Pakistani forces? Several Bangladeshi dailies ran editorials praising Musharraf for expressing his 'regrets' and 'sorrow', and characterised his words either as a "good gesture" or a "good beginning". But some other dailies in their editorial comments and articles termed Musharraf's apology a "cosmetic" one and "a cunning effort to sidetrack the historic crime against humanity". This section felt that Musharraf's words indicated no change in the old Pakistani mindset although it sounded deceptively so in the changed environment.

Normalisation of relations between Bangladesh and Pakistan is vital to begin a new chapter. Healing wounds and burying the unpleasant legacies of history is always welcome. In fact, the Tripartite Agreement was a good example of the maturity of the political leaderships concerned. Paragraph 14 of the agreement says: "The Prime Minister of Pakistan declared that he would visit Bangladesh in response to the invitation of the Prime Minister of Bangladesh and appealed to the people of Bangladesh to forgive and forget the mistakes of the past in order to promote reconciliation. Similarly, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh had declared with regard to the atrocities and destruction committed in Bangladesh in 1971 that he wanted the people to forget the past and to make a fresh start, stating that the people of Bangladesh knew how to forgive."

December 1971: Some of the officers of the West Pakistan occupation forces who surrendered to the Indian forces in Dhaka.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Therefore, the political mood was for reconciliation, although the general mood was one of trial of the "war criminals" (who were finally given safe passage from Bangladesh to Pakistan via India, thanks to the Tripartite Agreement). There is a strong feeling in Bangladesh that Pakistan should realise the enormity of the human tragedy that its forces had caused.

But while his predecessors tried to shift the blame for the barbaric acts on the "military" or upon a few "generals", Musharraf has gone a step forward by expressing regret for the events. However, he failed to pay due honour to the history that separated the two wings of Pakistan, overshadowing the pervasive influence of the "two-nation theory" of 1947.

Musharraf chose to use the phrase "events of 1971" instead of the "war of liberation". While the "events of 1971" will be interpreted in Bangladesh as "war of liberation", people in Pakistan will prefer to term it as the "secession of Pakistan". In using the word "excesses" to describe the actions of Pakistani forces, Musharraf carefully avoided references to who committed the "excesses" and on whom the "excesses" were committed, and also whether they were mere excesses or constituted a planned genocide executed by a military machine upon an unarmed people.

For the people of the former East Pakistan, independence was the only option after the Pakistani junta disowned outright the people's mandate in the 1970 general elections, refused the claim of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the charismatic leader of the majority to lead the country constitutionally, and finally executed a brutal plan to crush the Bengalis' quest for freedom by means of an army crackdown on March 25, 1971. The 'tragedy' that Musharraf referred to was ambiguous - was it a tragedy for the Bengalis of East Pakistan or for the people of the former West Pakistan?

During the last several decades, Bangladesh politics has had two streams. The first is the "pro-liberation" group which believes in a secular Bengali nationhood and considers the "spirit of 1971" as the guiding force shaping the nation's destiny. The other group has religious extremists who believe in the Islamic nationhood, or the "spirit of 1947" as many of them call it. Hence Musharraf's statement that "a family having common religious and cultural heritage and united by a joint struggle for independence and shared vision of the future was torn apart" would obviously please the latter group. No wonder it welcomed the Pakistan President's "gesture" when the former group understandably refused to buy it. Musharraf's prescription for "healing the wounds" on the basis of a theory of religious affinity is hard to take either, considering that the people of the two countries fought each other despite the fact that they belonged to the same religion. Some analysts believe that by making this statement, the Pakistan President virtually tried to shift the blame of genocide from the shoulders of his country's armed forces. It is true that he went beyond the thinking of his predecessors by expressing "regrets", but nonetheless Musharraf missed a fair chance to heal the wounds of history.

By accepting, not avoiding, the truth of history in good grace, Musharraf has made a rapprochement possible. However, since mass memory is always more powerful than written history, an unconditional public apology from Pakistan is needed to heal the wounds. Incidentally, a few days after Musharraf left Bangladesh, a joint statement by leaders of 51 civil rights organisations of Pakistan made a public apology to the people of Bangladesh. They said: "We feel sad and burdened by what we know was a violation of the people's human rights... The apology should have come a long time ago, and citizen groups did make attempts to do so... We deeply feel that a message from us is necessary to acknowledge the historic wrongs, to express sincere apology and build a bond based on honest sentiments".