The Need for Collective Apology to Bangladesh

December 16 arouses radically different sentiments in two different and yet related countries of the world. In one, it is cherished and celebrated and in the other it is just and of course deliberately.

But then the significance of this day differs so much for each of the aforementioned countries of the world. For one it is the day of victory (though their official Independence Day is March 26, December 16 is celebrated as the Victory Day) and for other, it is the day of a humiliating defeat which they will like to forget. It is the day when the cherished army made up of so called martial race belonging to the latter was overwhelmed within one month.

It is a day which ideally should never be forgotten by latter country Pakistan but given its tendency to conveniently ignore the inconvenient truth, it is perhaps expected. While our history text books scream about 1965 war with India, they hardly say a word about 1971's humiliating defeat and more importantly as to what had actually led to the fateful year.

All our history, the one which is taught, is silent about what was happening in East Pakistan during 1950s and 1960s. Our history just talks about West Pakistan and in doing so merely reflects what exactly was happening to East Pakistan: It was being ignored completely. And when we finally turned attention, it was not to redress their grievances but to undertake an army operation which can be easily called a massacre as well. And of course the official history does not talk about it and even if you go through the popular unofficial version you will find that most of the blame would be placed on Mukti Bahni and Indian conspiracies to break Pakistan.

It is only if you start reading some books by the foreign authors or some of the more objective Pakistani writers that a different narrative starts to emerge. And needless to say that even if you read credible writers and objective accounts that narrative is radically different from the official Pakistani version.

Pakistanis had mistreated Bengalis and that mistreatment progressively became worse as the time went by. It started with the denial of freedom to Bengalis to choose a national language and then started to seep into economic domain. Bengalis particularly felt left out in the matters of governance and decision making. And it was this feeling of deprivation which ultimately manifested into secession based movement.

It should have been remembered that humans generally do not have a single identity but rather multiple identities. Which identity actually would actually be at the forefront at a particular time would depend on a host of complicated factors and perception of discrimination, whether real or nor, is one of the most potent ones. Ethnicity, defined on the lines of language and cultural homogeneity within a group has always been a very strong identity. If an ethnicity feels that it is being discriminated due to its ethnicity, then that becomes the foremost identity and also the rallying point.

And then there is the concept of ethnic nationalism. Nationalism is not merely preservation of identity; it is very much intertwined with the concept of state. If state is perceived as unjust then nationalists will try to create their own state and thus would try to secede. Ernest Gellener actually defines nationalism in the context of injustice. The deprived and excluded if belonging to some common ethnicity will revolt and will form nationalist expression built around that ethnicity and may end up striving for a state of its own.

Let's not forget that Bengalis were at the forefront of the Pakistan movement. To declare that they did not want Pakistan would be completely incorrect. However, while opting for Pakistan, their cultural as well ethnic identity though for the time being relegated did not simply vanish. And it came out of dormancy when the state began its exclusion based on that identity.

And we had more than two decades to redress the grievances by giving them a share in the governance and to ensure their greater participation in the national decisions which invariably affected them, but bent on centralization, we did not. We created one unit system, which according to many independent observers, was a twin pronged strategy to negate their population advantage and also to negate the ethnic diversity with in Western Pakistan.

And then when Awami League won the elections, we refused to give them their share of power and later on went on to conduct a military operation which resulted in wide scale loss of human lives.

It is our fear of plurality, particularly the perception that autonomy on ethnic lines would break up Pakistan that made us do all that back then and which continues to make us do similar things to provinces like Baluchistan.

So we have not learnt the critical lesson. We continue to believe that autonomy will break up Pakistan completely overlooking the key historical evidence: lack of autonomy will actually break Pakistan. And even if inhabitants of Baluchistan are not able to actually secede due to lack of military means, in their hearts they will hate Pakistan with increasing intensity.

As pointed out quite eloquently by Mr. Stephen Cohen in his book The Idea of Pakistan that Pakistani leaders have not fully grasped that in an ethnically diverse state most politics is of identity and closely linked to issues of pride, status, jobs and social equality. They seem convinced that ethno-linguistic demands are an economic problem, not a political, problem, and if other means fail, a military problem

Civil wars evoke a lot of emotions and subsequently the historical accounts reflect those emotional biases. Exactly how many died during the war of 1971 will always be a matter of dispute and both sides will claim radically different numbers. It is hardly surprising that estimates range from less than ten thousand to over a million.

How many were killed will remain a matter of dispute but even if no one was killed, the point is that we did an injustice by not giving Bengalis their due share and denied them their rights.

Nations move on only by embracing their past blunders and acknowledging their grave mistakes. Only through acknowledgement do we set our future direction right. A very important step towards this acknowledgement is to apologize to those who have faced the brunt of those mistakes. Yes, sorry is difficult but nevertheless an important step towards making peace with a very bitter part of our history. Sorry requires a lowering of ego but our misplaced ego has always been our worst enemy.

Yes sorry wont compensate whatever has been done and there is a possibility that many Bengalis won't even accept it for not being enough. But then to say sorry is our duty and to forgive is their choice. And when it is a matter of duty, it has to be done irrespective of whether the counter party exercises its choice or not.

The real sorry has to come from Pakistan's government, but I will nevertheless say it..

We are Sorry Bangladesh