With their mango diplomacy, the government of ex-Prime Minister Mr Shehbaz Sharif has once again tried to enhance its bilateral relations between Pakistan and Bangladesh which unfortunately has largely remained under the eclipse of suspect and betrayal since the last five decades. One of the major cause of resentment amongst the Bangladesh people is the Pakistani government’s reluctance to issue an unconditional apology for the horrific crimes by its leadership and Army during the Bangla liberation. Leaders in the ruling government says that the violence of 1971, which killed thousands of Bangladeshis, has left an indelible mark on its collective consciousness and the decades since the genocide leading to liberation of Bangladesh will not efface the painful memory of those grave atrocities that the Bangladeshi people endured during that period.
The major precursor for the conflict in Bangladesh (erstwhile East Pakistan) became the outcome of Pakistan’s first direct general election of December 1970. Sheikh Mujibur Rehman-led Awami League won an overwhelming majority of 167 seats (including seven women-reserved seats) out of 169 allocated to East Pakistan in the 300-member strong Pakistan National Assembly. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) won the second-largest mandate with 81 seats, all in West Pakistan province (present Pakistan). Interestingly, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the person remembered as a staunch democrat by Pakistanis, influenced the decisions of military dictator President Gen. Yahya Khan against the transfer of power to the elected National Assembly that would have seen Sheikh Mujibur Rehman become the first democratically elected prime minister of Pakistan.
For most Bengalis, this intransigence by the West Pakistan elite was consistent with the demeaning manner it was treated ever since creation of Pakistan’s from India in August 1947. In this context, Rehman’s reaffirmation of seeking to grant self-governance (six-point declaration) to East Pakistan via Pakistan’s constitution through his public posturing, like the 03 January 1971 public oath in Dhaka, and aligning of the bureaucracy behind him, assumes importance. The Pakistani elite saw it as an affront to its domination, which wanted to continue to treat the province as its colony to be exploited for the resources.
What followed for Bengalis in East Pakistan was extreme brutality as it launched “Operation Searchlight” following the arrest of Sheikh Mujib ur Rehman and his transfer to a jail in West Pakistan from 25 March 1971 onwards. Before his arrest, however, Sheikh Mujib ur Rehman had wired the ‘declaration of Bangladeshi independence from Pakistan to Chittagong for transmission the next day. Going by various historical publications and government records, the 25 March military operation saw the Pakistani Army unleash brutal violence across different parts of Dhaka, most prominently the University of Dhaka, thereby killing hundreds of students, teachers and others in the name of security. In the nine months that followed till its surrender in Dhaka on 16 December 1971, the Pakistani Army, aided by militias of Islamist parties like Jamat-e-Islami, engaged in an orgy of violence against ethnic Bengalis that left millions of Bengalis dead. Estimates put the number of Bangladeshis killed anywhere between 300,000 to 3 million. Further, through its systematic campaign of brutal sexual violence against Bangladeshi women, the Pakistani Army is accused of raping 200,00 to 400,000 women during that period. The Pakistan government commission’s report, the Hamood-ur-Rehman Commission (HRC), which investigated the causes of Pakistan’s capitulation in Dhaka, has recorded several incidents detailing the gory violence unleashed by its Army in Bangladesh. However, the report put the number of Bangladeshis killed at a mere 26,000.
However, history of Bangladesh liberation venerates the valiant resistance put forth by myriad individuals who opposed the Pakistan military within the hinterlands of Bangladesh, even though several strategic and operational victories achieved by the Bangladeshi fighters remain undocumented. The Pakistani Army, led by the Chief Martial Law Administrator and Commander of Pakistan Army forces in East Pakistan, Lt. Gen Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi, surrendered, in what was the largest military surrender since WW II, with his 93,000 troops on 16 December 1971 in Dhaka by signing the Instrument of Surrender.
Ever since this genocidal violence was unleashed in Bangladesh in 1971, the government of Pakistan has never issued any remorse for those horrific events, not to talk about a formal apology. Unfortunately, many Pakistanis justify the violent crimes against Bengalis by its forces as it continues to practice similar modus operandi against the ethnic Balochis and Pahtuns. Instead, its Army has fed them the narrative of Bengali insubordination as a casus belli for Pakistan’s violent military campaign of 1971.
A top Bangladesh government official mentioned during the interaction that Bangladesh and its people who suffered the consequences of the Pakistani crimes are well within their rights to demand a formal apology from Pakistan to the least, even as it would call for appropriations. Acknowledging these past wrongs through an apology can be a step toward historical reconciliation and acknowledgement of the suffering endured by the people of Bangladesh rather than few crates of mangoes, which Bangladesh has in abundance. It may also provide a sense of closure and healing to the victims and their families. The most important is that it would reflect a willingness to take responsibility for past actions, demonstrate remorse, and show respect for the dignity and rights of those who suffered. Furthermore, a formal apology by Pakistan could help improve bilateral relations between Pakistan and Bangladesh by increasing trust, which unfortunately has been missing in their bilateral relationship. This could also pave the way for further cooperation and signal a commitment to peaceful and constructive engagement between the two nations, that Pakistan has been desperately seeking since last few years.