Learning lessons from 1971!

(From Viewpoint Online)

While we still debate what went wrong in 1971, we might assess the current geopolitical changes to make sense of the things that surround us now and develop our own vision in the context of what we can learn from the 1971 war.

Thirty nine years after East Pakistan went through a blood bath and emerged as an independent nation of Bangladesh, we now live in a different kind of world. Since the two archrivals India and Pakistan fought in what was then East Pakistan, new geopolitical dynamics have drastically changed the South Asian and international scene.

Terrorism has become the paramount fixation of today’s world after the cold-war era evaporated. America has come closer to our borders in Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11. With the disappearance of the Soviet empire, we now live in a unipolar world where America is the top, unchallenged game player. The legendary Indo-Soviet friendship is going into oblivion while India and the United States have just entered into a new era of friendship and collaboration. And surprisingly, Asia is preparing to lead the world with China and India strategizing their game plans on how to become superpowers of the future.

With this backdrop, while we still debate what went wrong in 1971, we might assess the current geopolitical changes to make sense of the things that surround us now and develop our own vision in the context of what we can learn from the 1971 war.

The unfortunate scenario of 1971 looks like a classic story of internal colonialism. From the beginning we treated East Pakistan as our colony economically, politically and culturally. Although Bengalis were in majority the idea to share power with them always haunted us. While Quid-e Azam was announcing in Dhaka that Urdu will be our national language, Mujib was protesting the decision right outside the auditorium as a firebrand student leader. The mainstream thinking at the time that a single language can unite a nation, ignoring the fact that East Pakistanis had their own, centuries old language, literature and culture, was deeply rooted in colonializing the Eastern part of the country. The idea did not strike us that language and religion alone cannot unite a nation and it is actually economic, cultural and political parity and equal distribution of power that can develop a sense of unity between the two parts of the country, about one thousand miles a apart from each other.

The events of 1971 were only an outburst of increasing frustrations and grievances of the Bengali population from 1947 to 1971 which were further exacerbated by the army action and the atrocities committed by the armed forces of West Pakistan. The Hamood Ur Rehman Commission Report analyzing the war widely held the West Pakistan army responsible for the events. The report concluded that the responsible army officers “have asserted before us that because of corruption resulting from such involvement, the lust for wine and women and greed for lands and houses, a large number of senior army officers, particularly those occupying the highest positions, had lost not only their will to fight but also their professional competence.”

The report, consequently, demanded to try the responsible army officers including General Yahiya Khan but none was tried. The three key players who were involved in the 1971 war met with a tragic ending. Yahiya Khan resigned in disgrace, Mujibur Rehman who became prime minister of Bangladesh was assassinated in a bloody coup in 1975 and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who became prime minister of Pakistan was overthrown by General Ziaul Haq and finally he was hanged in 1979.

Here are eight lessons we might learn from this important chapter of our history:

1.1    All wars are political

Although wars are fought by the armed forces they are initiated, operated and come to an end through political means all over the world. Military alone cannot win a war itself. It takes a combination of political insights and defense strategies both to win a war. The issues between East and West Pakistanis in 1971 were inherently political that involved three dimensions of power, control and economy. Instead of resolving these issues we tried to get rid of them through the military force which ultimately backfired. 

1.2    All wars are internal, regional and international

Although internal issues of how we treated Bengalis gave birth to the events of 1971, the final war became part of international and regional affairs involving India, the United States, Soviet Union and China. The United States tilted toward Pakistan for its own vested interest as Pakistan was playing an intermediary role to connect U.S. with China incidentally during the same time. Soviet Union in retaliation sided with India. With that the internal conflict was transformed into a regional and international war at the same time. 

1.3   National conflicts are internal with a capacity to become international

National conflicts are deeply rooted in internal complexities of burning issues and if we do not resolve those issues internally they can easily transform into larger, regional and even international conflicts. The 1971 war is a classic example of this where we failed to address grievances of the Eastern wing which ultimately led to a regional war. 

1.4  Beware of the goliath near you

This was true in 1971 as it is true today. It was India in 1971 that took advantage of the vulnerabilities of the West Pakistan Army fighting in an area far away from their home and isolated from the native Bengali population. Today we are not only surrounded by the two aspiring superpowers, India and China, we also have a superpower right on our doorsteps in Afghanistan. Additionally, there are three nuclear powers in the vicinity: China, India and Russia. 

1.5  War is not solution, dialogue is

Wining people’s heart is more important than invading their land. Issues should be resolved with negotiations and dialogues, not violence. 

1.6  Religion alone is not enough for unity

If religion alone would be enough for unity the Middle Eastern Muslim nations would have been one nation under a single flag. There are other realities that unite people including the economic interest, common history, cultural links and geopolitical realities. We cannot ignore these factors to forge an artificial unity of people. 

1.7 Never underestimate people’s power

People are the real source of power, which should not be underestimated. We ignored this in 1971 spreading the unfounded myths that Bengalis are racially and culturally inferior to West Pakistanis. 

1.8 Democracy demands fairness

Democracy is the game of fairness and it demands an equal treatment of all partners involved. Treachary, dishonesty and injustice do not go hand in hand with the norms of democracy. The election on December 7, 1970 was based on the principle of one-person-one-vote with the knowledge that Bengalis were in majority but its outcomes were never accepted which started the conflict. 

Some say the way the British rulers structured Pakistan at the time of independence, with two separate wings, the nation was destined to break up at some point. Even if we believe 1971 was that point, it does not justify the sins our political leaders and the army committed in 1971. If we do not learn from history, it always comes back to haunt us!