March: A Month to Remember

East Pakistan war in 1971

In recent time, we notice a significant change in mindset of Pakistani media, netizens and a group of selective politicians. After half a century, their constant revisit of the killings of 1971 brings up an obvious question, ‘why now?’ This article is intended to look at the possible answer/s without having any prior judgement. The new commentators on East Pakistan are now acknowledging the mass killings that took place in then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Keeping 1971 in focus, they are clearly blaming the massacre on the Pakistan army, mostly on the high-ranking officers. Among the politicians, cricketer turned politician Imran Khan is more vocal on revisiting the massacre of 1971. He is fearless in comparing the present political situation of Pakistan with that of 1971. In one of Khan’saddressed to the nation of Pakistan, he narrated what happened half a century ago in Bangladesh. Khan said:

Today, I want to remind you of East Pakistan. It happened in my life time. In March 1971, I went there to play match against East Pakistan under 19. Our plane was the last plane that brought us back. I still remember how much hatred/dislike (naafrat in Urdu) grew into them against Pakistan. Here, we did not know about that. They controlled media like the way they are controlling media today. The difference is — now we have social media. They have [now] closed the social media. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube [now X] – they have closed all. They wanted to give their own version. This is just because they had to arrest Janab Imran Khan. And they did not want to show the public reaction as a consequence. This is exactly what happened in EastPakistan. We did not know about that. Pakistan Time, PTV [Pakistan Television] were in existence at that time, but they were controlled. I went to England to pursue my study. There, I came to know about what happened in East Pakistan. Today we have to understand how much oppression/cruelty was inflicted upon the people of East Pakistan. Their party won the election and the party chief was supposed to be the prime minister. But the military action took place against him. Country was destroyed. Ninety thousand soldiers became prisoners (loosely translated from Urdu).    

Another view can be observed in Daily Dawn’s Prism section. Columnist Hafsa Khawaja writes:

Recent events in Pakistan have evoked a spate of strong sentiments across the country, which are being expressed in charged commentaries online. One of the strands being repeatedly found in these commentaries is the comparison between current developments and the events that culminated in the break-up of Pakistan in 1971. What ostensibly animates the comparison is a sharp recognition and condemnation of military intervention in politics, state brutality, and its disastrous consequences.

In this month, the political events, the killings that took place in the Eastern wing of Pakistandemand a revisit. The common people of Pakistan did not have access to the history of the liberation war of Bangladesh for a long time. They simply did not know what actually happened in Bangladesh. Let us revisit.According to a New York Times article published on March 28, 1971, 10,000 people were killed in the month of March in Bangladesh. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on March 29 that 10,000 to 100,000 were killed. The New York Times reported on April 1 that 35,000 were killed in Dhaka,now capital of Bangladesh. The world media reported the killings almost every day, frequently using the term “genocide.”  The following graphic shows the body count as reported around the world:

Who reportedWhen reportedNumber in millions
The Baltimore Sun5/14/710.5
The Momento, Caracas6/13/710.5 – 1.0
Washington Daily News6/30/710.2
World Bank Report6/710.2
Die Zeit, Bonn7/9/710.5
New York Times7/14/710.20 – 0.25
Wall Street Journal7/23/710.2 – 1.0
The Christian Sci. Mon.7/31/710.25 – 1.00
Time9/2/710.2 – 1.0
National Geographic9/723.0

Following the crackdown by the Pakistani army on 25 March 1971, about ten million people took refuge in the bordering states of India. This massive border escape included people of all spheres of life, including politicians and cultural activists. The exiled politicians of the Awami League formed a government in India. Teachers, students, sports personalities, and cultural activists formed several groups to express their support for the exile government and the liberation struggle. One group of cultural activists formed a mobile troupe to perform in the border areas. The beginning of the exile performances, both political and cultural, was not preplanned, but happened as a response to the mass killings that began on the night of 25 March. A quick look back at the happenings of 1971 may help us understand the importance of the revisit. Here are a few cues and an obvious question – why the target was university professors in the beginning and in the end?

On the morning of 26March, the Pakistani army turned their attention to the residential buildings of the Dhaka University. They began their this phase of operation (after the killing of Iqbal Hall of the Dhaka University) in the apartments of building 23 where they murdered Professor Fazlur Rahman of the Geology Department and two of his relatives. They also entered the apartments of Professors Anwar Pasha and Rashidul Hassan where the families were hiding under the beds. The Pakistani soldiers shined their flashlights throughout the apartments but failed to see anyone in either apartment and left. Even though Professors Anwar Pasha and Rashidul Hassan miraculously survived the March carnage, they did not survive the war. On 14 December, on the eve of the Bengalis’ victory, Pakistani army officers decided to kill the prominent intellectuals. They engaged the members of IslamiChhatro Shango, a student organization, and theAl-Badar, a volunteer regiment of the Pakistani army, to do the job. The members of these organizations took many prominent personalities from their homes on 14 December and killed them near Mirpur cemetery in Dhaka. The date is now observed as the shahidbuddhijeebidibosh, martyred intellectuals day in Bangladesh. 

March performs the liberation on the level of remembrance, unfolds the history time and again. Every year, the month of March takes us back to the March of 1971 for a pellucid perspective. The genocide that began on March 25 needs a revisit to understand the magnitude of the sufferings of the people. This revisit may help younger generation of present Pakistan to see 1971 through the lenses of the people who remember the liberation struggle and the price paid for it on individual level. And the lesson of this month is: for the oppressed to remember and for the oppressor to learn not to repeat.

Dr. Saleque Khan is a New York-based writer.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Lahore Times.

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