When the sun sinks in the west
Die a million people of the Bangladesh
--Joan Baez, Song of Bangladesh, 1972
The … totalitarian [Pakistani military] government was incensed and gave vent to its fury on the black night of 25th March . …Jagannath Hall [a predominantly Hindu students’ hostel in Dhaka University] too faced the fury of the Pakistani Army. Incessant [shelling] and blood-letting continued [there] throughout the night of the 25th and the day of the 26th. After the shelling, the soldiers went from room to room and brought out all the students and bearers to the field in front of the hall. There they were forced to dig their own graves. Subsequently they were all shot and buried in the graves they had dug themselves.
-- Excerpt from eyewitness account of Professor Rafiqul Islam, Dhaka University, appearing at www.virtualbangladesh.com)
Thirty years after the actual event, I think of the Bangladesh holocaust as a drama that plays on in the twilight regions of the collective psyche of the subcontinent. The horror of the genocide itself lurks in the shadows, never quite acknowledged by the main actors Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, let alone the world at large. Lurking, it has continued to be a karmic millstone around the collective neck of the people of the subcontinent, stretching all the way from Afghanistan to the Chittagong Hill Tracts, from Kashmir to Sri Lanka.
Those same twilight shadows also serve to offset the brighter regions, dimly visible but distinctly present in the light of the sun poised just beyond the horizon. India, as an idea that embodies all that is true and free and good and just, has survived in our minds and hearts, transcending--though barely at times-the murk of indifference, intolerance, cynicism, venality, stupidity and disparagement. For a generation that came of age during the searing months following the break of the Spring of 1971, the tale of rampant evil, horror, compassion, resistance, unmitigated heroism and brilliant victory of good over evil continues to be the cornerstone of an undying faith that the world can be made right.
Are we forever doomed to languish in the twilight where we remain generally protective of India but continue to acquiesce in flagrant insults to the ideals and values that India stands for? Or could those ideals and values be brought forth into the light of day to take root, flourish and flourishing, liberate us? I believe that attempting to understand 1971 and the fate of its martyrs will help us tackle this question.
Midnight to Mid-day, or Good Triumphs over Rampant Evil
The events of 1971, from the start of the holocaust on the midnight of March 25-26, to victory on December 17, unfold like a grand Manichean conflict between consummate heroes and villains. If an overwrought imagination were to have conjured up a villain for this drama, it could scarcely have matched the real-life monstrosity of the Pakistani military and their surrogates the razaakaars, stormtroopers of religious fascism. Together, they trampled on the people’s democratic verdict for freedom and justice, with atrocities that beggared the imagination, carried out on a scale that boggled the mind. They were driven by a heinous agenda that was quite open-senior Pakistani military officers boasted to western media about their project to render the populace of Bangladesh hindurein, rid its Islam of its liberal element, and to re-seed, through mass rape of its women, the "inferior" Bengali stock with the "superior" Punjabi and Baluchi genes of Pakistani military personnel.
The dystopic reich that the Pakistani military sought to impose was resisted with ferocity by the people of Bangladesh, who emerged as larger-than-life heroes. Not just the leaders like Sheikh Mujib, Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin, Majors Zia and Jaleel, but just ordinary folks, Hindu and Muslim, fighting it out with the villains under the banner of the Mukti Bahini when they could, and when they couldn’t, making the perilous trek, with families, to India’s safe refuge.
It was then the turn of the Indian people to find the hero within their collective self. Proving that theirs is not a poverty of spirit, Indians took in over 10 million Hindu and Muslim Bangladeshis fleeing the holocaust with the meagrest of possessions. Everyone chipped in, the poorest disproportionately so, through the uniform 5 paise refugee surcharge levied on all postage. Everyone, it seemed, understood; no one complained. Compassion and sympathy for the travails of the refugees were everywhere evident.
The political front, amoral by definition, witnessed a rare alignment of righteousness and pragmatic goals. It was a political goal for India to repatriate the 10 million-plus refugees under safe and honorable conditions. The Pakistani military had stubbornly lodged itself in the Devil’s camp as it were, and its sponsors-Mao’s China and the Nixon-Kissinger United States--were indifferent or hostile to India’s goal; this meant that India had to go to war on the side of the angels. (Be it noted here that the notion, often bandied about, that India merely fished in troubled waters to bisect its old enemy Pakistan, is entirely without merit or substance: United Pakistan ended on March 25-26, 1971 when the Pakistani military launched its genocide of Bengalis; Indian participation in delivering the coup de grace was a mere implementation detail.)
Thus was added to the ranks of heroes in this tale the Indian political leadership and the armed forces. In a brilliant joint military campaign with the Mukti Bahini, the Indians moved with efficiency and dispatch, and made the bad guys surrender, 93,000 officers and troops, soft in actual battle though doubtless weary from nine months of murdering civilians by the million. This, despite Chinese threats on land borders and US threats by sea, on the side of the villains. The gods, it seemed, sided with the good guys for once.
The Indian military helped liberate Bangladesh, saw to the repatriation of the refugees, and, returned to India, all in record time, making the cynics look foolish. Looking back after 30 years, it was as grand a moment to be Indian as any in living memory. Good triumphed over Evil, and India was Good, undeniably so. Out of such brightly shining memories is formed a lifetime of optimism about the rightness and possibility of India.
The Twilight, or What Might Have Been But Wasn’t
Would that this tale had ended here. If it had, I fancy that the subcontinent today would have been a place of sunlight, not the place of shadowy twilight it is now. In this fond alternate reality, the drama spanning March 25-26 through December 17 would have been a living metaphor for the ineffable will of the people of the subcontinent, set firmly against tyranny and evil of the kind represented by the Pakistani military. The people’s armed might, arrayed decisively on the side of liberty, justice, pluralism and democracy, would have freed up the culture’s genius to reassert itself.
That did not happen. Bigotry, misogyny, and totalitarianism are alive and operating with impunity in the subcontinent today. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, they can boast of owning militaries (with nations tagging along in their wakes, it sometimes seems), but elsewhere in the subcontinent, and certainly including India, these villainous tendencies that starred in the 1971 drama possess powerful and flourishing constituencies. It matters not what religious label they usurp-Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Animist-they are all the same villain in different garbs.
What has happened instead is a non-event: the twin facts that millions died, and the forces of good achieved a remarkable military victory over their murderers, have been kept from being invested with a deep and lasting significance. This failure was the direct outcome of a deliberate decision by Indira Gandhi’s government to not pursue the trials of the Pakistani military prisoners on charges of crimes against humanity, a decision to which Bangladesh acquiesced, and the politicians and people of India barely paid attention.
In hindsight, this was an incredible and tragic omission. Consider that, conservatively speaking, the Pakistani military murdered a million people in a span of 9 months. If we go by the reputed number of 6 million murdered in the Nazi holocaust over a period of at least 6 years, it follows that the Pakistani military’s "kill rate" exceeded that of the Nazis by at least 33%. Yet there was no outraged protest from the world when Indira Gandhi effectively told the Pakistani military that they could commit genocide with impunity.
Surprisingly, even India’s own political factions failed to appreciate the partisan political gains to be had from protesting this impunity. Despite the Pakistani military’s deliberate targeting of Hindus, the Hindu Right showed no particular interest in making the criminals answer to their crimes. Nor was the self-styled Progressive element (from the Communist parties to the Naxalites) moved to denounce to the failure to punish the fascist murderers of innocent Bengali peasants. Incredibly, there was no voice of consequence anywhere demanding from the Pakistani military even so much as an acknowledgement of, and apology for, their atrocities. Needless to say, the question of forcing Pakistan to make reparation to Bangladesh was not seriously considered either.
It seemed that practically everyone in India was content with the atavistic pleasure of defeating an enemy in war, and no one thought to seize the history of the moment, and put it through the judicial system and other apparatus of civilized society. Had they done so, I believe that it would have been much less thinkable in the subcontinent for anyone to flaunt retrograde values of the kind embodied by the Pakistani military.
In the highly publicized Nuremberg trials following the Allied triumph in World War II, Nazi officials and members of the Wehrmacht, the regular German military were tried on charges deriving from the holocaust of the Jews, Gypsies and other minorities in Nazi-occupied areas. Many of the accused officials were executed, and several imprisoned. (Many escaped to South America, only to be hunted down by celebrated Nazi hunters like Simon Wiesenthal, and many were brought to trial, convicted and punished. )
One consequence of the Nuremberg trials and the Allied occupation of Germany was that the public value system of the former West Germany was systematically purged of Nazi sentiment. The proverbial "good Germans" were made to take responsibility for the atrocities that took place with their acquiescence and participation. This process was less in evidence in the case of Communist East Germany, where the Commissars deemed that it was extirpation enough for the State to embrace Socialism. Tellingly, today in unified Germany, there is a neo-Nazism that appears to have far less social acceptance in the former West Germany.
Imagine that, thirty years ago, the people of the subcontinent had an opportunity to witness, in a public courtroom, an accounting of the horrors perpetrated by the Pakistani military, along with the sheer depravity of the value system underlying their deliberate choice to commit these crimes against humanity. Imagine further that the trials culminated in at least a few of Pakistan’s military officers hanging by their necks from the gibbets of Tihar prison.
I believe that such a consummation would have sent a powerful and profoundly transformative message to the collective psyche of the subcontinent. Firstly, the people of Pakistan would have been spared three decades of shameful moral degradation resulting from their country’s military-dominated establishment denying outright, or inventing silly alibis (such as "Hindu conspiracy") for, the loathsome social values they had espoused, and the monstrous crimes they perpetrated in defense of those values-all in the name of the Pakistani people and Islam. The moral clarity that would have resulted from having been forced to confront and exorcise the evil represented by their military guardians, might have better equipped those hapless people to stand up to the pernicious brand of militant Islam that General Zia-ul-Haq inflicted on them.
In India itself, a trial would have meant that organizations like the Shiv Sena and leaders like Bal Thackeray would not have been allowed to perpetrate, let alone get away with, anti-Muslim pogroms of the kind they carried out in 1993.
Given that Thackeray and his followers espouse a value system that is more or less the mirror image of the Pakistani military’s value system, it is hard to imagine his kind flourishing in a public space that is imbued with an abhorrence of such values, and is possessed of a well-founded confidence in the effectiveness of the law in interdicting the criminal pursuit of those values.
A Nuremberg-like trial might have spared Bangladesh too, of the pain and suffering of seeing its founding father brutally murdered and their society’s subsequent descent into a protracted period of dictatorship and growing bigotry. A people who witness the law promptly and effectively upholding the values of decency and humanity would be unlikely to resort to, or even acquiesce in, any kind of tyranny. In particular, they might have avoided the repression unleashed on the Chakma people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, a repression ironically reminiscent of their own repression at the hands of the Pakistani military.
The social climate engendered by placing the Pakistani military in the dock might also have shamed Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority out of their openly racist attitude towards their Tamil compatriots. In turn, it might also have curbed the drift of the Tamil resistance into reactionary fascism.
An open airing of the crimes of the Pakistani military would also have engendered in the Indian public a greater sensitivity to the evil consequences of failing to respect the electoral verdict of a people, thus making it politically harder for Rajiv Gandhi’s government and Farooq Abdullah’s National Conference to get away with stealing the Jammu & Kashmir elections in 1987, an act widely acknowledged to be the root cause of the present insurgency in that state.
Reality today is that every one of these undesirable, but avoidable, outcomes has come to pass. Instead of a chastened and enlightened Pakistani populace, we have a society in the thrall of a triumphant military that has effectively annexed Afghanistan and bids fair to do the same with Kashmir. Never having repudiated the disgusting social value system for which they slaughtered the Bengalis in 1971, the Pakistani military and their surrogates have only grown more sophisticated and self-assured in employing the propagation of such a value system as both the instrument and goal of their expansionist project
In India, Bal Thackeray and his Shiv Sena have been rewarded with legitimacy and electoral success for their achievement of replicating the Pakistani military’s values and crimes. In Bangladesh, razaakaar leaders like Golam Azam have attained respectability and influence, and the minority Hindus have been relegated to the terrorized margins. Sri Lanka has been unable to break out of its bloody ethnic stalemate, with neither the Sinhalese nor the Tamils being compelled by humanistic social values to break out of their respective sectarian cocoons.
Perhaps the most tragic outcome of failing to remember and understand 1971 is in Kashmir. Having squandered the opportunity to affirm the values on which it was founded, the Indian State and society have failed miserably to articulate a moral dimension to their stand against the secessionists of Kashmir. Instead, they have relied solely on an unimaginative, on again, off again repressive campaign against the people of the Valley, a campaign that has been hurtful and destructive to the Kashmiri people, though it bears no qualitative resemblance to the Pakistani military’s Bangladesh campaign. No matter, the failure of Indians everywhere to take an affirmative moral stand on Kashmir has meant in effect, that India had ceded the moral high ground to, astonishingly, the Pakistani military. By nurturing in this manner the Pakistani military’s illusion of legitimacy, India has helped sustain the morale of the retrograde social forces of Pakistan that thirst to annex Kashmir. In turn, this has sustained the conflict and spread the shadows of nuclear destruction over the whole subcontinent.
All this is Indians’ own fault for failing to force prosecution of the Pakistani military’s crimes against humanity in 1971, and in effect, sweeping the crimes under the carpet with their own hands. We have let the evil monster live and flourish, and simultaneously let our civilization’s values rot away from sheer indifference at the very moment that they shone the brightest after having triumphed militarily over the monster. Is it any wonder that today we are hard put to find any but the most outrageously trivialized travesties of these values in our public sphere, and forces inimical to those values threaten our nation’s very future?
Conclusion: From Twilight to Daylight, or Can we Redeem Our Values?
We Indians have brought India and the subcontinent to this wretched pass by our bizarre decision three decades ago to let the Pakistani military criminals go free; furthermore, during these past thirty years we have remained callously indifferent to our obligation to invest the memory of the martyrs of 1971 with lasting meaning. Can we make up for our past indifference now, and honor the memory of the dead by endeavoring to bring Indian values of freedom, democracy, pluralism and justice out of the twilight of indifference into the daylight of credibility?
I believe we can do this. Although the challenge seems daunting, even rather unrealistic, on the surface, we can make a start by noting that often, when a huge monstrous crime goes unacknowledged and unpunished, a million smaller crimes flourish in the cynical shadow of its impunity. Conversely, by calling to account a visible, egregious mega-criminal, society vests its value system with the needed weight of authority to confront and deter smaller criminals.
Based on this principle, the obvious course of action is for Indians to proclaim, loudly and often, and in all the right places, the grotesque offences against decent human values that the Pakistani military continues to get away with thirty years after March 25-26, 1971, and demand incessantly that, as an institution, the Pakistani military be made to pay for its crimes. This may seem a quixotic enterprise, likely to generate only a lot of words that would be apt to be ignored by the Pakistani military and the rest of the world. But not so--words have great power, especially when they are righteous, and enough people from our billion-plus population speak them with one voice as it were. And they discomfit the guilty; I recall with pleasure the full-page advertisement exposing the villainy of the Pakistani military that was taken out in Western papers by an Indian group during the Kargil conflict and the resultant foot-stamping outrage of the supporters of that noisome institution.
On the domestic front, we must begin to question the rightness of all commerce with the Pakistani military. That would mean asking the Indian government what it means to be talking of making peace in Kashmir with the unreconstructed sword-arm of all that is abhorrent to Indian values, and demanding to know from the Hurriyet Conference why they believe it is moral to fight India with the backing of the anti-human Pakistani military.
Starting this project by starting in on the Pakistani military has several key benefits: (1) it is a non-controversial choice as that institution is obviously guilty, even going by their own wishy-washy Hamoodur Rahman Commission report; (2) it would undermine the Pakistani military’s sense of legitimacy and righteousness, thus weakening their campaign to occupy Kashmir; (3) best of all, it may, at long last, help strengthen the long-suffering decent folk of Pakistan in their resolve to rid themselves of the yoke of their military and the inhuman value system that it represents
Naturally, given the reality of Indian sectarian politics and the fact that the Pakistani military can boast a goodly number of Indian acolytes of all religious stripes, bashers of the Pakistani military can expect to find themselves facing charges of hypocrisy in rather short order. This is to the good of course, since it would impel a broad-based national conversation on the extent to which Pakistani military values have been allowed to infect Indian society because we failed to learn the lessons of 1971. After all, our project is to bring credibility to Indian values, which are really human values, of course.
After World War II, many Nazis escaped after having defied those human values and participated in the slaughter of over 6 million humans. People like Simon Wiesenthal pursued those fugitive monsters, with the intent of bringing quietus to the souls of the dead and affirming the values the Nazis had violated so egregiously. The souls of the victims of the Pakistani military are no less deserving of the peace of knowing that they have not died meaningless deaths. By speaking out on their behalf, and refusing to let their murderers get away, I hope Indians will help bring those souls home, out of the chill twilight of indifference that has lasted thirty long years.
It was rather hard for me to write this piece; one might say it took 30 years. I humbly dedicate this effort to the memory of the martyrs of 1971.
For information on the depredations of the Pakistani military in Bangladesh in 1971, see www.virtualbangladesh.com.
K.V. Bapa Rao
26 March, 2001