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Pakistan's Insistence on Denial

Aparna Pande

Pakistan has denied any wrong doing and committing any war crimes during the civil war of 1971 that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh from erstwhile East Pakistan. This doubling down on denial of an almost universally acknowledged fact came amidst a war of words between Islamabad and Dhaka that began with Pakistan’s Foreign Office expressing “deep concern” and anguish” over the “unfortunate executions“ of two Bangladeshi politicians accused of torture, rape and genocide during the civil war of 1971. Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid of the Jamaat e Islami and Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) had been convicted by War Crimes Courts set up by the Bangladesh government.

The legitimacy of the process that resulted in conviction and execution of Pakistani collaborators has been subject of some dispute and controversy but the fact of Pakistani forces terrorizing Bengali civilians is almost undisputed. Pakistan insists on denying war crimes against the people of Bangladesh and has reacted adversely and openly to executions in Bangladesh tied to the 1971 genocide.

In December 2013 when Bangladesh executed Abdul Qader Molla, a man accused of targeting Bangladeshi intellectuals on the eve of Pakistan’s surrender to Indian and Bangladeshi forces, Pakistan’s foreign office issued a condemnatory statement. Pakistan’s National Assembly and the provincial assembly of the largest province, Punjab, both adopted resolutions condemning Molla’s execution. This was followed by protests in Sindh organized by Pakistan’s Jamaat e Islami and Jamaat ud Dawa (designated a terrorist groups internationally).

This time, too, the Jamaat e Islami has held protest rallies in Lahore against the Bangladeshi decision.

The 1971 civil war resulted not only in the loss of Pakistan’s eastern wing, it was also a blow to the country’s prestige. Bangladesh was from 1947 to 1971 the more populous but impoverished half of Pakistan. Islamabad has never honestly or seriously examined why the majority of its population chose to secede from the country with the help of India, which is often described by Pakistan’s leaders as their country’s arch-enemy.

Most independent analysts agree that around 1.5-2 million people were killed during the civil war and Pakistani-sponsored genocide of 1971. While Pakistan formally recognized Bangladesh in 1974 it never issued an official apology for its actions during the war. The 1972 Hamoodur Rehman commission report, constituted by the Pakistani government, accused the Pakistan army of senseless and wanton arson, killings and rape but the report was buried and found light of day decades later, only after being leaked to an Indian newspaper.

The closest any Pakistan leader came to issuing an apology to Bangladesh was former Pakistani military ruler General Pervez Musharraf. On an official visit to Dhaka in July 2002 Musharraf visited a war memorial at Savar, near the capital, Dhaka, and wrote in the visitors’ book: “Your brothers and sisters in Pakistan share the pain of the events in 1971. The excesses committed during the unfortunate period are regretted. Let us bury the past in the spirit of magnanimity. Let not the light of the future be dimmed.”

The recent statement by Pakistan’s foreign office, however, demonstrates that instead of an acknowledgement of what happened in 1971 there is still an insistence upon refusal to accept historic facts. Pakistan’s military, dominated by ethnic Punjabis, supports a national narrative based on denial and false pride. In that narrative Pakistan is always a victim of conspiracies of anti-Islamic forces, never the perpetrator of any wrongdoing. But without acknowledging the blunders of the past, it is difficult that Pakistan will ever be able to move forward.

An inability to reconcile errors and genocide of the past is a sure recipe to making similar blunders in the future. Right now the picture inside Pakistan is not pretty. Every province is facing insurgency or conflict of one kind or another. For Pakistan’s Punjabi-led military, putting down ethnic rights movements takes priority over fighting Islamist terrorists it has nurtured for regional influence.

In Pakistan’s financial capital and largest city, Karachi, the military is targeting the secular political party MQM (Muttahida Qaumi Mahaz), whom it accuses of engaging in criminal activities. The pursuit of the MQM detracts the army from locating elements of the Taliban, both Afghan and Pakistani, who seek a safe haven in that city. The core attitude of Pakistan’s military, it seems, has changed little since Punjabi soldier went on rampage against Bengalis after the latter voted in 1970 for a political party whose worldview was unacceptable to West Pakistan’s ruling elite.

Punjab, now Pakistan’s most populous province with 53 percent of the country’s population, provides 72 percent of Pakistan’s army. It also is the home to the majority of foot soldiers for Jihadi groups wreaking havoc on Pakistan and its neighbors. That includes sectarian terrorists, Afghan Taliban and anti-India militants including groups like the one that was responsible for the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.

The Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan and its allied jihadi groups have ensured that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the FATA region (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) are not secure or stable from Pakistan’s perspective. Pakistan also faces an insurgency in Balochistan since the 1970s that has worsened in recent years with the ‘kill and dump’ policy adopted by Pakistan’s military-intelligence establishment.

Not only is Pakistan being torn apart by these insurgencies, but its citizens are participating in insurgencies in other parts of the world. Pakistanis have been members of Al Qaeda and prominent leaders of that movement Khalid Shaikh Mohammad and Ramzi Yusuf considered Pakistan their home. That Osama bin Laden was found in a Pakistani garrisons city speaks volumes of the influence of global terrorists in that country.

These days, Pakistanis have been killed fighting on both sides of the war in Syria. Pakistani Sunnis have volunteered to fight for both the Al Qaeda affiliate Al Nusra Front as well as the ISIS in Syria while Pakistani Shias seem to be fighting as part of the Pakistani Shi’a militia Zainabiyoun Brigade.

Under such circumstances, Pakistan should be focusing on its internal challenges. Instead it is increasingly adopting a hyper nationalist stance against India and now Bangladesh. Afghanistan has been unhappy for years with Pakistan’s support for the Taliban. Pakistan is becoming increasingly isolated in South Asia because it is insisting on denying facts that its neighbors know to be reality.

According to scholar and former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, the roots of this lie in Pakistan’s desire for parity with India. Pakistani leaders are obsessed with matching, or surpassing, India’s stature, prestige and military capability. But Pakistan’s denial of harsh realities and insistence on its ‘we do no wrong’ rhetoric has worsened its ties not only with India but its other neighbors as well.

Pakistan’s ties with Afghanistan have deteriorated over Pakistan’s security establishment insistence on following its age-old policy of supporting jihadi groups in Afghanistan. Kabul insists that Islamabad-Rawalpindi is responsible for the lack of stability and security within Afghanistan whereas Pakistan continues to deny that it is involved. As a result Pakistan’s economy and its people are suffering because unless Pakistan allows transit to India, Kabul is refusing to allow Islamabad trade with Central Asia.

Even Iran, which was historically close to Pakistan, has turned hostile. Every few months, there are incidents reported of firing by Iranian border guards to “target terrorists” trying to enter Iran from Pakistan. Iran asserts- but Pakistan denies – that Pakistan is allowing Balochistan to be used as safe havens by Sunni jihadi groups like Jundullah that operate inside Iran.

The policy of encouraging Pakistani citizens to join jihadi militias after being trained by the army dates back to the 1971 civil war. The ‘war criminals’ currently on trial in Bangladesh were religious fanatics trained to augment Pakistan’s military capability against its disaffected Bengali population. Now, Jihadis are expected to help the Pakistan army maintain control on Karachi and Balochistan while helping Pakistan extend its influence in Afghanistan and the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.

The insistence on denying that Pakistan committed atrocities during the Bangladesh war of 1971 reflects the refusal of the Pakistani elite to accept the folly of using jihad as an element of state policy. Denials notwithstanding, Pakistan’s army attempted genocide in Bangladesh and still failed to hold on to its eastern wing. Instead of benefitting Pakistan, its current Jihadi policy will only radicalize its society further and increase stress along its various faultlines.

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