Illustration courtesy of BBC
In March 1971, the Pakistani military junta in East Pakistan responded to a secessionist movement by turning its guns on the local Bengali population. When the guns fell silent and what used to be East Pakistan became the newly independent Bangladesh after India’s intervention, historian Rudolph Rummel calculated the final death toll from the genocide to be between “300,000 to 3,000,000, or a prudent 1,500,000.” Furthermore, 200,000 people were estimated to have been raped and 40 million made homeless.
Nearly 5 decades later, the Pakistani government continues to deny that any atrocities of such magnitude took place.
Textbooks produced by the state are scrubbed of any mention of the genocide and public broadcasters only provide a cursory narrative whenever the secession of East Pakistan is mentioned. When a controversy erupted between Bangladesh and Pakistan over the persecution of Bengalis who had sided with Pakistan during the conflict, the Pakistani government officially rejected any insinuations of “complicity in committing crimes or war atrocities,” completely disregarding the historical record.
Despite having lost half of the nation’s territory as a result of the secession, the Pakistani military still holds incredible political power and control. In a manner similar to that of 1971, they continue to target all manifestations of opposition to their iron grip over the state, engaging in the brutal repression of marginalized ethnic groups demanding social and economic justice. Dissidents keep getting abducted and bodies bearing torture marks keep turning up. Another spate of ethnic cleansing, this time in the province of Balochistan, seems to be in the works.
Oddly enough, the military carries out these brutalities while enjoying a broad amount of popular public support. The lack of honesty and accountability regarding the atrocities of 1971 has allowed for a similar kind of barbarity, despotism and disregard for the rule of law to continue. What happened in the former East Pakistan is instead used as another example to back up the nationalist narrative of a nation constantly being threatened by neighboring India. The broad appeal of such a narrative allows the Pakistani army to maintain its public support as a selfstyled defender from all threats to Pakistan’s survival.
Had the historical record within Pakistan been set right, awareness of its historical crimes been created and the anti-India narrative been debunked, the military’s control over the state could have waned in the face of popular opposition and disgust at the atrocities of 1971. Instead, their rewriting of the historical narrative has enabled the military to continue carrying out their crimes unrestrained.
Countries who have achieved a degree of awareness regarding their past and debunked nationalist narratives serve as examples to elucidate my point. Germany, in the aftermath of National Socialism, faced the attrocities committed during the World War II and created a military that is both highly regulated by the parliament and regarded with a sense of indifference by the German population.
Similarly, following its defeat in World War II and the coming to light of atrocities such as what is known as the Rape of Nanking, Japan inserted a clause in its constitution that outlawed war as a means of settling international disputes. Public perception of this clause remains positive nearly 70 years on.
A survey by the Pew Research Center found that both Japanese and German attitudes regarding the expansion of their military and the use of force were negative and that this stemmed from the never again narrative created after World War II.
Pakistan is just one of many countries where the historical record needs to be set right in order to end present-day atrocities. Turkey has worked hard to maintain its denial of the Armenian genocide. Turkish textbooks describe the Armenians as traitors, call the genocide a lie and argue that Ottoman actions were necessary, despite the overwhelming evidence and a scholarly consensus around the fact that 1.5 million people were murdered in a brutal ethnic extermination.
Genocide researcher Gregory Stanton, whose work has focused on Armenia, says that the single best predictor for a future genocide is the denial of the previous one. When analyzing the Armenian genocide in a modern context, he warned that “we should be on guard for Turkish attempts to suppress Kurds, which continue to this day.”
Since Stanton has issued his warning, Turkish atrocities against the Kurdish ethnic minority have grown worse. Not only has Turkey stepped up its crackdown on the Kurds within its borders, it has also sent troops into nearby Syria to crush the Kurdish state there. Parallels have been drawn to the calamity of the Armenians, with a warning that a genocide may be on its way.
If one considers Stanton’s hypothesis of increased likelihood of a future genocide wherever genocide denial exists, the signs are worrisome. A country where only nine percent of the population believe the Armenians were subject to a genocide and those who speak out against the denial are murdered, could be likely to revisit the same atrocities on another group. A reevaluation of the Armenian genocide by the Turkish public appears necessary.
Nations that do not contend with their past actions and the consequences of these actions are doomed to repeat them. As the examples of Turkey and Pakistan demonstrate, banishing painful historical realities from public discourse hands over control of the national narrative to forces that seek to exploit jingoistic sentiment to suppress all forms of dissent. To avoid further harm, a reevaluation of the historical record and acceptance of the past is necessary, especially in countries that by Stanton’s logic are on the verge of committing another grand atrocity.
Sobha Gadi is Deputy Features Editor. Email him at [email protected]