A forgotten history: Bangladesh

Illustration by Georgia Scott

“1971? Is that when the India-Pakistan war happened?” asks Hamza, 17, an ‘O’ levels student in Lahore, Pakistan.

While the twisted narrative that is presented in a plurality of Pakistani history textbooks attempts to obscure Bangladesh’s struggle for independence as a conflict involving Indian interference leads some people to almost forget that Bangladesh was once East Pakistan, even those who do know about the separation are quite unaware of the magnitude of the traumas that were seen between 1970 and 1971. The true history of the war that saw rape, genocide, the mass murder of students, and the targeted killing of Bangla activists has been in many cases erased from memory, leading to misinformed citizens and severe discrimination towards the approximately million persons of Bengali ethnicity that reside in Pakistan today. 

The creation of Pakistan and Bangladesh, following the independence of the subcontinent from British rule in 1947, was a complicated affair. Physically, culturally and linguistically separated, the connection between the two blocs of Pakistan was tenuous. Problems broke out very early with demands by 1948 that Bangla, the language of the 55 percent majority that resided in East Pakistan, be included as an official language of the new country along with Urdu. Instead, Urdu was declared the sole national language in 1948, angering the people of East Pakistan and leading to a sequence of protests. Over the years to come, Bengalis were looked down upon by West Pakistanis, receiving a less than a fair share of resources and not being recruited for government positions.

In 1970, Pakistan held its first general elections based on universal suffrage under the then ruler of the nation, military dictator General Yahya Khan. The election produced a result in which the West-based Pakistan People’s Party won 81 seats and the Awami League won 160 seats all in East Pakistan. The National Assembly was initially not inaugurated as Yahya Khan and the PPP chairman Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto did not want a party from East Pakistan heading the government. Instead, Yahya appointed the veteran Bengali politician Nurul Amin as prime minister, asking him to reach a compromise between the PPP and Awami League. 

However, this move failed as the delay in inauguration had already caused significant unrest in East Pakistan. The situation escalated and on 25th March 1970, General Yahya Khan after a secret meeting with his military leadership launched an attack on East Pakistan. This was followed by huge brutality and genocide leading to the death of somewhere between 300,000 and three million people according to various sources, the rape of 200,000 to 400,000 as a deliberate attempt to purify the Bengali race, and the displacement of tens of thousands of people in Bengal.

Muhammad Katif, 21, who completed the state-mandated Pakistan Studies course at his high school some years ago, says that while his textbook was not entirely inaccurate, perhaps because it was written by a Western author rather than a Pakistani or Indian one, it still made startling omissions. “The book neglected to mention that Operation Searchlight killed over 300,000 Bangladeshis which is more than both the atomic bombings combined,” said Katif. “No one really talks or knows about this”.

This rewriting of history began notably during the reign of dictator Zia-ul-Haq who imposed a series of measures to ‘Islamize’ the nation which include the introduction of jingoistic and anti-Hindu rhetoric to textbooks. For instance, in 1993, the Punjab Textbook Board cited the “large number of Hindus in East Pakistan” as one key cause of separation. According to the textbook “They had never truly accepted Pakistan. A large number of them were teachers in schools and colleges.” With the government mandating that all private and public schools teach a state-selected Pakistan Studies curriculum, institutions have no choice but to rely on texts with inaccuracies such as this one.

This complete denial of the genocidal violence the Pakistani Army committed against Bangladesh means that the millions of Pakistanis of Bengali heritage who reside in Pakistan, having either stayed on post-1971 or having emigrated following this split, endure racist attitudes and are demonized as not ‘Muslim’ or ‘Pakistani’ enough. The vast majority live in overcrowded slums in Karachi, notably the Macchar (Mosquito) Colony near the area of Lyari, in a state of poverty. Because many have never received identity documents to grant them Pakistani citizenship, upward mobility is difficult and exploitation easy. They are essentially invisible, with Pakistan’s census documents neglecting to mention Bangla as an option amongst a list of mother tongues to choose from. Their plight goes largely ignored by activists and politicians in the region. As they do not have the right to vote, they cannot participate in local politics to attempt to voice their needs. 

If Pakistan is to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past and build a society that is founded along lines of tolerance, acceptance, and celebration of difference rather than one that is polarized and hateful, it is imperative that it not attempt to conceal the mistakes of the past. Being exposed to only one narrative has grave ramifications on the ability of young people to think without prejudice and consider the validity of opinions other than their own. 

“It was shocking to see so many highly educated Pakistanis celebrating the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. We can be so reluctant to accept different perspectives and see our faults, not because we are dumb but because education is just bad,” said Sana, 19. 

In recent decades, Germany has made more of an effort to ensure students at schools learn about the atrocities of the Holocaust and concentration camps, because of their understanding that a nation can neither rewrite history nor escape the reality that people are shaped by their social and cultural background. 

The youth of Pakistan has enormous potential to create positive social change; they must be encouraged to develop skills such as critical thinking, empathy, and social awareness in order to ensure they are able to reach this potential.