Remembering the war of 1971 in East Pakistan

Bangladesh, India and Pakistan each have created a very distinct memory of what happened 48 years ago.

East Pakistan war
Uniformed East Pakistan rebel forces with armed civilians patrol a street in Jessore, East Pakistan on April 2, 1971 after West Pakistan forces withdrew [AP]

Forty-eight years after the 1971 war, which led to the independence of Bangladesh, each country involved in the conflict has institutionalised a distinct memory of the events of that year. In Bangladesh, the war is remembered as the Bengali people’s struggle against an oppressive Pakistan army.

In India and Pakistan, the war is often remembered as the third Indo-Pakistan war. This representation is resented by many Bangladeshis, who feel it erases their role in what they see as a liberation war.

However, disagreement on who played the central role in the war is not the only point of contention between the three countries. Today, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India have their own closely held war stories, with 1971 taking on unique meanings across the subcontinent.

Bangladesh: The liberation war


The struggle for Bengali rights started shortly after Pakistan gained independence as a country with two incontiguous territories known as West Pakistan (today’s Pakistan) and East Pakistan (today’s Bangladesh). The refusal to accept Bengali as a state language of Pakistan in the early years after Partition, economic disparity between the two parts, the hegemony of the West Pakistani ruling elite over Pakistan, martial laws, and a demeaning attitude towards Bengali culture and the Bengali population soured relations between the two parts.

Tensions rose in December 1970 when the Awami League party, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (also known as Mujib) and based in East Pakistan, won the national elections but West Pakistan parties, namely the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), refused to hand over power. Tensions between Bengalis and Biharis – the Urdu-speaking communities that had moved to East Pakistan from different parts of India after Partition and who were seen as pro-West Pakistan – rose, which led to attacks on some Bihari communities.

In March 1971, using the violence as an excuse, the Pakistan Army intervened to stem the growth of nationalist sentiments in the east. It recruited local pro-Pakistan Bengalis and non-Bengalis, including members of the Islamic organisation Jamaat-e-Islami for its operations against Bengali factions. As the violence escalated throughout the summer, a large number of refugees streamed into Indian territory, which New Delhi used as an excuse to intervene militarily in early December 1971.

The nine-month conflict ended with the surrender of the Pakistani army on December 16; the death toll is estimated to have been between 300,000 and 3 million people, with hundreds of thousands of women raped.

Since the end of the war, various forces have tried to control the narrative in Bangladesh, most notably the Awami League – which came to be perceived as “pro-Indian” – and the Bangladesh military and Bangladesh National Party (BNP) – which has been deemed “pro-Pakistan” and “pro-Islamist”. This has hurt the process of transitional justice and frustrated many victims and their families for decades.

Having played an important role during the war, Mujib took power after independence. He banned Jamaat-e-Islami and introduced special laws that allowed for the arrest and prosecution of those accused of “collaborating” with the Pakistan military. 

After Mujib’s assassination in 1975, General Ziaur Rahman seized power and started to change the public narrative on the liberation war. He made efforts to showcase the role various military actors played in the conflict and pushed to the background the role of the civilians. He also released the suspected war criminals and lifted the ban on Jamaat-e-Islami. In the following years, his party, the BNP, put some of its members accused of war crimes in influential positions, leaving victims increasingly troubled.

In the early 1990s, a group of civil society actors created the Committee for Eradicating the Killers and Collaborators of 1971, which held mock trials against suspected war criminals. Even though it had no legal legitimacy, the committee put pressure on the BNP government, which filed sedition charges against the organisers.

Sheikh Hasina, Mujib’s daughter who took over the leadership of the Awami League in the 1980s, used the momentum the committee created in her struggle for power against the BNP. She sought to recast what happened in 1971 as a struggle led solely by the Awami League.

During her 2008 election campaign, Sheikh Hasina also sought to appropriate the transitional justice process, promising to bring war criminals to justice by setting up a tribunal. The war crimes trials launched, however, have been marred by controversy. Some critics have alleged that Sheikh Hasina is using them to punish opponents and keep them out of power. There is concern that the politicised nature of the trials may render justice, which many survivors ache for, increasingly elusive.

Today, Sheikh Hasina has managed to solidify her narrative of the 1971 war to such an extent that, if one criticises her party, they are seen as criticising liberation itself, and therefore perceived as anti-state.

Meanwhile, the Bihari community who became stateless after the war until a 2008 Supreme Court judgement extended citizenship rights to them are concerned that those accused of attacking, killing and raping members of their community will never be brought to justice. This is because in official memory, as institutionalised by the Bangladeshi state, only crimes against Bengalis are remembered.

Today, thousands of Biharis continue to reside in camps. They live in marginalised conditions, labelled as “stranded Pakistanis” and pro-Pakistan collaborators for their alleged role in the war.

India: The finest victory


In India and Pakistan, 1971 may not be as actively remembered but it remains central to how both nations view themselves and each other. In India, the war is fondly recalled as the nation’s finest win, a testament to its military prowess and superiority, and as revenge for Pakistan having “broken” India in 1947.

Having lost the Indo-Sino war in 1962 and having only achieved a ceasefire in the first two wars with Pakistan, the victory in 1971 became symbolic for India, signalling that it was on its way to becoming a regional superpower. Today, politicians, as well as the armed forces, continue to make references to the war, to indicate India’s strength vis-a-vis Pakistan.

As one Indian journalist told me during in an interview for my book, 1971: A People’s History from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, “1971 has become part of day-to-day life in India. Be it for motivating the soldiers or demeaning Pakistan. 1971 changed the way we look at ourselves as Indians. Till the war, we didn’t see ourselves as being competent militarily. But post-1971, we have had quite a tough posturing in international diplomacy. 1971 has become almost folklore in India.”

The Indian narrative of the war is a story of gallantry and bravado, championing India as a saviour of the oppressed Bengalis. It is often brought up during any escalation of tensions between the two countries. In 2016, during one such escalation, an Indian soldier posted a video in which he taunted the Pakistani army, reminding it of its “defeats of 1965, 1971 and 1999”.

However, 1971 also holds other meanings for contemporary India. The large number of refugees which poured into Indian territories – approximately 10 million by the estimate of the Indian government – later became a major internal issue.

Tensions between refugees and host populations ensued, with fears that the refugees from opar Bangla (the other side of Bengal) may permanently settle, putting a burden on already stretched resources and changing the demographics of the host states. This unwelcoming feeling towards the refugees did not dissipate with the war.

In the Indian state of Assam, where many Bengalis have settled over the years, their presence has remained contentious. Recently, the final list of the National Register for Citizens was issued, with March 24, 1971, set as the cut-off date for inclusion in the register. It is the day before Pakistan launched its military operation in East Pakistan, which pushed many Bengalis across the border.

Close to 2 million people, those who could not prove that they or family members resided in the state prior to March 1971, have been excluded from the register, which can render them stateless. Critics have argued that the register is being used to target Muslims in an increasingly Hindu majoritarian country. The war of 1971 thus remains central in India, tied both to the saviour narrative as well as the question of who truly belongs.

Pakistan: The forgotten conflict


In Pakistan, the state has resorted to selective forgetting of what happened in 1971. Perceived as a humiliating defeat, the war is brushed over in textbooks and there is little acknowledgement of the military oppression and the resulting atrocities in East Pakistan.

What is hailed as liberation in Bangladesh is awkwardly recalled by Pakistanis as the Fall of Dhaka or dismemberment of Pakistan every December 16. When 1971 is addressed it is often to stress upon the killings of non-Bengalis before the war, presented as a justification for military action.

However, just because 1971 does not factor into mainstream discourse significantly does not mean it has not left lasting imprints on Pakistan’s psyche. In fact, 1971 remains one of the most defining events in the nation’s history, shaping its self-identity and regional policies.

The loss of East Pakistan created a “never again” mentality in the country. Resolving to never let a similar situation arise again, Pakistan increased its defence spending and launched a nuclear programme aimed at developing a nuclear weapon as early as January 1972.

The lesson learned from 1971 was the military has to be stronger to prevent another defeat. Moreover, in the post-war years, Pakistani textbooks were revised with an overt anti-India and anti-Hindu slant. The loss was blamed on its “arch-nemesis”, with little reflection on Pakistan’s own policies that resulted in a mass movement for independence among Bengalis. To this day, the Pakistani narrative makes some exaggerated claims, such as Indian-influenced Hindu teachers manipulating students and breeding secessionist sentiments in East Pakistan.

Furthermore, as new independence struggles erupted in the region, in the form of the Khalistan movement for a separate Sikh state and in the movement in Kashmir, scholars have argued that Pakistan resorted to using similar strategies to those India had in East Pakistan to support these movements.

Local grievances were closely studied and support was offered to groups fighting against the Indian state just as India had provided support to Bengalis fighting the Pakistani state.

Today, just as India accuses Pakistan of fuelling terrorism in Kashmir and dismisses genuine Kashmiri grievances as Pakistan-sponsored, in the Army Museum in Lahore, Pakistan has put up a plaque which labels the Bengali movement for independence as Indian-sponsored terrorism. In both cases, people’s struggles are appropriated and hijacked, narratives carefully crafted to turn popular sentiment against movements for self-determination.

Close to 50 years after the war, 1971 remains poignant both at the people’s level and the state level in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. It continues to shape the lives of those who suffered and witnessed the war while also remaining central to each state’s national project. 1971 reinforces distinct narratives, emphasising liberation in Bangladesh, victory in India, and loss in Pakistan. All three countries hold on tightly to their war story and frame their images of themselves and the other through the lens of that fateful year. 1971 has left a lasting legacy across all three children of Partition.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.