Pakistan, India and 1971

November 4, 2009

The 1971 war between Pakistan and India crops up so often in comments on this blog that I’d been thinking of creating a South Asian equivalent of Godwin’s law - that any discussion that goes on for long enough will eventually get back to what happened then. At the very least, it seemed like a good idea to set up a post into which all comments about 1971 could be channelled.

Khurram Hussain, a Pakistani writing in India’s Outlook magazine, has started the discussion by arguing that the way to understand Pakistan is not through the lens of partition in 1947, but through the war in 1971 which led to the division of the country and the creation of Bangladesh, then East Pakistan. Here are some excerpts, but do please read the full article:

“The Partition has a mesmerising quality that blinds the mind, a kind of notional heft that far outweighs its real significance to modern South Asian politics. The concerns of the state of Pakistan, the anxieties of its society, and the analytic frames of its intellectual and media elites have as their primary reference not 1947 but the traumatic vivisection of the country in 1971. Indians have naturally focused on their own vivisection, their own dismemberment; but for Pakistan, they have focused on the wrong date. This mix-up has important consequences,” he writes.

“First, Indians tend not to remember 1971 as a Pakistani civil war, but rather as India’s ‘good’ war. It is remembered as an intervention by India to prevent the genocide of Bengalis by Pakistanis. The fact that the Bengalis themselves were also Pakistanis has been effaced from the collective memory of Indian elites. This makes 1971 merely another Kargil, or Kashmir, Afghanistan or Mumbai—an instance of Pakistan meddling in other people’s affairs, and of the Pakistani military’s adventurism in the region.”

“Pakistani intellectual elites share with their Indian counterparts the normative horror of what the West Pakistani military did in the East. How can anyone in their right mind not deem such behaviour beyond the pale? But horror does not preclude abiding distaste for the Indian state’s wilful opportunism in breaking Pakistan apart. It is for this reason that while the intellectual classes in Pakistan, especially the English language press and prominent university scholars, have almost always condemned their state’s involvement in terrorist activity inside India proper, they have remained largely quiet concerning Kashmir. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Kashmir does not seem so different to them than East Pakistan.”

Whether you agree or not with his analysis, what he has done is try to explain why the historical narrative about the last four decades is very different in both countries.  As is evident from the many comments on earlier posts, there is a huge gap in perceptions about 1971 and its very different impact on India and Pakistan. So how do you narrow that gap?

(Photos: General Jagjit Singh Aurora looks at a photo of the signing of the surrender in a museum in Dhaka; war memorial in Drass to Indian soldiers who died in the Kargil war)


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