Get the Latest News Updates

Forgive yourself

Najm us Saqib

Depending on which history book one is skimming through, there would always be at least two ways to interpret any past event, or the titulature used for various historical figures. Europeans called him Alexander the Great. For Persians, he was an invader from Greece who ran away from the battlefield. One history book remembers the assassination of Julius Caesar as the most senseless crime in the history of mankind. The Roman elite considered him worth killing perhaps because of his growing popularity. Muslims of the sub-continent remember 1857 as the war of independence whereas for the English rulers, it was a rebellion. The Mogul history is different if seen from Dara Shikoh’s point of view. British, Russians and American saviors are considered invaders by the people of Afghanistan. Pakistan’s struggle for independence is seen by some as the logical corollary of the Second World War and the commencement of decolonisation.

The emergence of Bangladesh as an independent state in 1971 is no exception to the general rule of interpreting history.

For the past five decades one hears a variety of interpretations. History might have been different if steps were taken in early 1960s to create some kind of balance between two unequal polities instead of creating One Unit; Mujib’s six points were heeded to in the true sense of the word; the GDP growth of West Pakistan was not almost double than that of East Pakistan; the causes of the ‘Two Economies Theory’ were timely figured out; disparity in standard of living of both the Units was kept manageable; the feeling of alienation and deprivation in the Eastern Wing was given due consideration; the political and military leadership of that time reflected on the reasons of the emergence of Bengali Nationalism and calls for ‘emancipation’ in 1970; the journalists were not shunted out from Dhaka to Calcutta to report on the 1971 debacle in the way they eventually did; and, the Party that had won majority of seats in the 1970 election was allowed to form the Government.

The arguments continue. History might also have been different if, instead of conducting ‘Operation Searchlight’, some ‘Soul Searching’ was carried out in Islamabad to realise why the people of East Pakistan thought they were not being treated equally before facing the socio-political ground realities; Gen Niazi could differentiate among ‘surrender’, ‘ceasefire’ and ‘shahadat’; Mukti Bahini’s growing popularity and strength was not underestimated; political issues were tackled in dispassionate manner; after 1965 war, the neighbours had put in efforts to pave the way for co-existing peacefully, following the principle of non-interference in each other’s affairs; women of East Pakistan were treated respectfully by all and sundry and human rights were not violated discriminately; and, the opportunist India had stayed away from poking its iron nose in the internal affairs of its western neighbour.

All these and a host of other questions resurface every year on December 16. People in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan have been celebrating or lamenting this day for the past fifty years in the same manner, fervor and confusion. Arguments, justifications, criticism, anguish, every nuance is the same. None of the arguments are acceptable to anyone and no one is ready to listen to the ‘other interpretation’yet everyone is ‘absolutely clear’ about the entire array of why’s and how’s of the making of Bangladesh. Looking at the pattern, one could visualise this exercise being repeated for another hundred years if we did not learn how to live with the vagaries of the past and move on.

Perhaps reality is too bitter to face or perhaps around a billion and a half people of this region have yet to develop the much needed sense of maturity to come to terms with it. The fact is that India exists and so does Pakistan and Bangladesh. It is not understandable why the intellectuals, writers, intelligentsia, academicians and other stakeholders don’t want today’s youth to understand the facts and progress towards the future. Why do we want to keep reality under layers and layers instead of facing it head-on? Why is there so much emphasis on ‘myths’ and ‘interpretations’ of the past rather than on improving upon the present and the future? The question therefore is, whose interests would it serve if respective narratives are kept floating and hanging in the air for an indefinite time?

By boasting about a convoluted and debatable interpretation, would India be able to increase its GDP growth rate or control the various ongoing separatist movements in the country or realise its dream of Akhand Bharat or become a permanent member of the UN Security Council? Does even Bangladesh buy the Indian argument? Doesn’t Dhaka consider the emergence of Bangladesh a result of its own Movement for Emancipation or Liberation? The important question is: is India letting Bangladesh live as an independent state and what should the latter do to get out of the clutches of the former? On the other hand, by offering arguments rebutting any negative statement emanating from either India or Bangladesh, would Pakistan be able to convince its 220 million people on the sequence of events which took place ever since Urdu was made the national language for both East and West Pakistan until the fall of Dhaka?

No matter how innovative you are in building narratives, you cannot change the past. Even conducting a national debate on the events of 1971 would not help in addressing all related questions, queries and grievances. Let sanity prevail. There is no harm in remaining in the realm of respective truths. Instead of dwelling on who created whom, India may accept that Pakistan is a sovereign independent state. Similarly, Pakistan may accept that Bangladesh is a reality. Secondly, learning lessons from history is not enough. Efforts to rectify past mistakes must be kept in mind while commencing the process of putting one’s own house in order. Keep trying to change the past unsuccessfully or focus on improving the present and the future. The choice is yours.

The writer is a former Ambassador of Pakistan and author of seven books in three languages. He can be reached at

Why do we want to keep reality under layers and layers instead of facing it head-on?