1971 still torments Bangladesh… and some in Pakistan. Is there hope of healing?
Powerful insights from Sadaf Saaz.
I was excited and yet apprehensive to be invited to Lahore literature festival (LLF) in early 2014, in a country which had such loaded connotations in my mind – fond tales from my father of going to boarding school in Murree, family connections through my father’s two maternal uncles who had opted for West Pakistan in 1947 (in contrast to his mother Rahat Ara Begum, , a well known Urdu writer, who moved to Chittagong, Bangladesh), all of it balanced by a shared history that has not been reconciled, which has not acknowledged the truth of what had been done in 1971. .
I was in Lahore in February, a month that marks the anniversary of the start of the language movement of 1952, in honour of those who died protesting the declaration of Urdu as the state language in what was then East Pakistan, the predominantly Bangla-speaking part of Pakistan.. With trepidation, I read out my poem Birangona, or ‘Brave woman’ in the session Angrezi Mushaira. The poem was about the rape atrocities of the 1971 war, where an estimated 200,000 women were raped by a brutal policy of rape as a strategy by the Pakistan military, and also their terrible treatment for the next forty years under an independent Bangladesh. It was only fairly recently that I had met the women of whom I spoke. They vividly described their experiences. Many years later, the few we found, were living hand to mouth in poverty, outcasts from society. Some of them died and were not even given the dignity of a proper burial. Others – whoever found it possible – had lived in unacknowledged silence for years, accepted in society where no one knew of their past. Our Birangona women finally had the courage to speak out. I owed it to them to make sure their voices and experiences were heard and acknowledged, in order for me to be in Pakistan with any conscience.
I felt the tradition and love of poetry in both countries could be a way to find a common ground, poetry being a powerful way to connect. Two years earlier in Hay Festival Dhaka in 2012, the Pakistani- British novelist Kamila Shamsie had spoken movingly about speaking in Dhaka; ‘ I can’t think of any event…during my 14 years as a published writer where I’ve felt greater generosity from the audience than the session on writing about 1971. It was a reminder also of what can be so valuable about literary festivals – the opportunities to have conversations across borders which everyone recognises as both difficult and necessary.’ At Hay Festival Dhaka in November 2013, Razi Ahmed, the founder of Lahore Literary Festival, mentioned the constructive and sensitive way the panels on 1971 were presented.
In Lahore, some of the young audience members questioned the emotive topic of a war fought years ago as a first point of communication. Some told me it was very bold to have read out such a poem, having feared a small but vocal outcry, which didn’t happen; the packed hall listening in attentive silence. Many, visibly moved, hadn’t realised how deep and raw the scars and wounds remain to this day in Bangladesh, nor the perhaps, the extent of the atrocities. Many Pakistanis whom I met in the next few days, seemed to feel the weight of history and responsibility on their shoulders, and the need to apologise for the past came across in many interactions. There was an openness in the younger people to become aware and learn about the past.This educated, liberal, albeit unrepresentative, section of Pakistanis (a fact of which I kept being reminded by both Bangladeshis and Pakistanis alike), showed warmth and friendship, without the intolerable snobbery, or the overt racism that I had experienced the UK many years before, and come to expect as a matter of course from many Pakistanis; who denied what had happened, or who had refused to acknowledge the extent of the atrocities. Consequently being on the ‘right side of the ’71 issue’ had generally become an unspoken ‘litmus test’ for any meaningful engagement with a Pakistani. Hence the experience of coming across many Pakistani’s feeling a personal need to set things straight, as well as the positive reaction of the young people, was striking. Even the humble guide who showed me the spectacular Badshahi Masjid, told me Bangladesh was a brother country, as he put his hand on his heart, and then extended it to shake my hand, saying,’ We are sorry, very very sorry’. On the other hand, my trip came shortly after Pakistan had officially criticized our war crime trials in Bangladesh, where the general feeling was that Pakistan had no right to officially comment on our trials, when they had not even officially gone on record to condemn their role in 1971.
Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad were not the ‘real’ Pakistan, I was warned, and it did seem that there were two Pakistans. “Be careful of the fundamentalists in your country,” I was told by well-meaning Pakistani friends. I felt there was no danger of the same type of threat in Bangladesh. “That’s what we thought,” they said wryly. Now they were in this intolerable position in their own country, hostage to violence, archaic laws and rabble-rousing public opinion being used against them. I felt a deep empathy at their very real fear at the escalating situation, which threatened their freedom of thinking and speech, as well as their every day safety and quality of life, now seemingly more imminent because of the stopping of the ceasefire with the Pakistan Taliban, and the of USA pulling out of Afghanistan. These different Pakistans were a reality that I became acutely aware of during my recent trips to Lahore and Islamabad; a forward thinking, liberal, articulate, educated section, and another Pakistan, a larger section of society, who were generally non-English-speaking, conservative, feudal and prone to support the Taliban or fundamentalist philosophy. This divide of the population seemed to be far more stark and less integrated than in Bangladesh, where the rich -poor gap is actually decreasing. Bangladesh is doing is doing surprisingly well in a range of social indicators, defying all the pundits. Our general population seems able to better withstand, I believe, the petro-dollar imported brand of ‘political’ Islam, which was never part of the fabric of our socio-cultural landscape.
When seeing the richness of the literary culture of both our countries and the bonds of centuries of shared history woven together with stories of family ties and friendships, there is so much to build on. After all, don’t we have far more in common than our former colonial rulers, who we are ironically much closer to? It has been said that the post amnesia of a nation where a shattering event has taken place is 50 years. We will be reaching that in a few years. Maybe that is why some of us have started thinking it is time to start a dialogue. There is a very real and justified resentment in Bangladesh that Pakistan has not truly acknowledged the extent of the genocide, which stands in the way of real dialogue. There is also a need for us in Bangladesh to come to terms with our own past – a bewilderment at why we let the Pakistani army off go scot-free, a national need to feel that some kind of justice has taken place vis a vis those who committed crimes in 1971, as well as the proper writing of our history, countering the repeated changing of historical narratives since 1971 to suit party and political interests and personal ambitions.
Why should the burden of an erstwhile Pakistani Military government’s actions be carried on the shoulders of the current generation of Pakistanis? Why should the Bangladeshi people be constantly hostage to nationalistic narratives (perceived and real) of the Indian and Pakistani states? Isn’t it time for us to recognise a new reality? Many do not understand why we should attempt a dialogue before we receive an official apology from Pakistan. Others, who themselves have been through the war and lost loved ones, are welcoming the call for reconciliation. A citizen’s apology from Pakistan, at least, would go a long way to mending bridges and provide a platform for moving forward. In fact, the need for dialogue and solidarity between thinking, educated citizens across South Asia is more important than ever before, to fight religious extremism, which is a real threat to the very fabric of who we are.