1971: Why saying ‘sorry’ is not enough


There are enough people in Pakistan who continue to deny the Bangladesh genocide. It is an inconvenient truth for many, who would rather have the whole thing forgotten, or just kick it under their dirty carpet. And there are people in high places who claim Pakistan has already regretted its action in 1971, thus there is no need for further apology.

It is true Pakistan has made a few half-hearted attempts to show compunction for the events in 1971, without ever acknowledging any moral responsibility for one of the worst genocides of the 20th century. Their approach has always been, OK, this happened many years ago, and was the work of a few rogue military and political leaders. We are sorry, but let’s move on.

But sorry is not enough.

Pakistan’s own attempt to examine the events of 1971 resulted in the so-called Hamoodur Rehman Commission Report. Nearly 50 years later, the full contents of the report remain shrouded in mystery. When the Commission completed its initial task in 1972 and handed over a copy of the report to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, then Pakistan’s President, he ordered all copies to be burned – except the lone copy in his hand. Later a supplementary section was added but that too remained a closely guarded secret until a section of newspapers in India leaked the text. Consequently, Pakistan had no choice but to release it. Yet, significant portions were excised and remain classified to date. In 2016, Bangladesh asked for a copy of the complete text but was turned down on the pretext that it remains classified.

Even with its sensitive portions still under wraps, the truncated report offers a glimpse of Pakistani mindset and the strategy of the political establishment: deny, obfuscate and deflect. For example, the report claimed that only about 26,000 people were killed in 1971, it dismissed reports of rape of over 200,000 Bengali women by Pakistani soldiers as highly exaggerated and dismissed the number of refugees that had taken shelter in India as highly inflated.

Pakistani leaders have done everything to hide the ugly truths. For example, Zulfi Bhutto in an interview with the Italian journalist Ariana Fallaci claimed only some 30,000 Bengalis – maybe 50,000 at most – were killed in 1971. As for women raped during those fateful nine months, Bhutto said the number as given by General Tikka Khan was four. “Shall we multiply by ten and make it forty? We are still far from the senseless figures spread around by Mujb and la Gandhi?” he sarcastically said. He even said the action by the military was justified “in the name of unity”.

The comments were so morally repugnant that Fallaci herself protested. “No Mr President. Go ahead and multiply by a thousand and even by ten thousand, and you will come closer. If Mujib is talking at random when he says three million dead, Tikka Khan is joking when he says four cases (of rape). Mass atrocities took place and how! I am one who saw the corpses in Dhaka.”

She could not hold back her anger at Bhutto’s claim of ‘moral justification’.  “And by the way, you just used an awful expression, Mr President. You said “morally justifiable’. Or rather ‘justified’. Did I understand you? Did you mean to say this massacre was morally justified?”

The position of the Hamoodur Rehman Commission was no less repugnant. In addition to downplaying the number of people killed in the nine months, it defended the military action by describing in great detail the supposed atrocities committed by members of Awami League and Mukti Bahini against Biharis. Citing an outside source, it claimed anywhere between 100,000 to 500,000 Biharis ‘were slaughtered’ by Awami militants.

This falsification of history, which began at the top of Pakistan’s political and military establishment, has permeated down the ladder and spread throughout the society. In Pakistani text books students continue to be taught myths and fabrications concocted by the Pakistani army and their intellectual cohorts. They defend the military atrocities as ‘justifiable act’ against a ‘cessation campaign’ led by India from across the border. A few years ago Karachi’s Daily Dawn published an elaborate study of history lessons taught in Pakistani schools. The books show, It found, the separation of East Pakistan was caused by Hindu teachers who taught ‘negative thinking about West Pakistan’ and by India which wanted to separate East Pakistan to “protect the interest of ten million Hindus living” there.

It quoted the Director of Pakistan’s Teachers Development Centre who admitted they are teaching lies to their children. “We give our children hocus pocus,” he said.

From the very outset, Pakistan flouted all calls for a formal apology.  The first time it happened was in 1974 when Bangladesh, India and Pakistan signed a tripartite agreement. In the joint declaration issued on 9 April, Bangladesh’s then Foreign Minister Kamal Hossain demanded that those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity be subjected to the due process of law. In response, Pakistan’s State Minister for Foreign Affairs Aziz Ahmed said his government “condemned and deeply regretted any crimes that may have been committed”. (Italics by this author).

Since then Pakistan’s refrain has been ‘We regret’.  When Zulfi Bhutto visited Dhaka in 1974, he mumbled those same words. So did General Parvez Musharraf in 2002 who during a State visit to Dhaka urged his ‘brothers and sisters’ to move forward. In 2012, when Bangladesh demanded an unconditional apology for the 1971 killings, the visiting Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani fell back on Pakistan’s default line of argument: we have already regretted the events.

But regret is no apology.  Saying sorry is no acknowledgment of crimes committed, nor does it reflect any responsibility for past action. An apology, on the other hand, is a cleansing act – some kind of atonement – that allows a society to begin a healing process.

Many nations have taken steps to formally apologize for past wrongs even long after the actual events. In 2010, after centuries of denial, President Barack Obama signed a proclamation offering an apology to Native Americans for past crimes. It was preceded by formal apologies adopted by both chambers of US Congress.  So did Australia and Canada, in 2008 and 2017 respectively, both of whom formally apologized for many years of abuse of their local indigenous people. A similar apology was offered by President Bill Clinton to the Mayan Indians for years of US support of right-wing governments in Guatemala.

The indigenous people of these countries did not need any apology - the wrongs committed to them won’t be righted by a mere declaration or any number of parliamentary resolutions. Neither do Bangladeshis. Not a single person killed in 1971 will ever find peace, neither will their children get any solace even from the most heart-felt apology.

It is Pakistan and its people who need the apology for themselves. Horrendous crimes were committed by its leaders, many of whom continue to enjoy social honour and respect. If they want to cleanse themselves of their past crimes, they must recognize the truth and come to terms with their past.

That is the only way to move forward,

Hasan Ferdous is an author and journalist based in New York.  His latest Bangla book, Juddher arale juddho, on Bangladesh’s struggle for freedom was published in February 2019 in Dhaka by Ittadi Publication.

  • 1971: Why saying ‘sorry’ is not enough
  • Issue 36
  • Hasan Ferdous
  • Vol 35
  • DhakaCourier

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