Appropriate Word | Bangladesh Genocide Day: Is Pakistan Reliving History?

Appropriate Word | Bangladesh Genocide Day: Is Pakistan Reliving History?

More than 50 years ago, when Pakistan was divided into its West and East wing (now Bangladesh), the country conducted its first general election after independence in 1970. Despite the common unifying factor of religion, the ethnic complexities between West and East Pakistan paved the way for political marginalisation and economic disparity of the latter at the hands of the former. The military establishment that ruled the country was dominated by Punjabis and was responsible for the discrimination and exploitation of ethnic Bengalis who constituted the majority. The discriminatory practices laid the ground for the rise of Bengali nationalism in the East.

Nationalistic fervour reached an all-time high when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman-led Awami League, the main political party of the East, contested the 1970 general election and won it convincingly. Of the 300 constituencies (162 in East Pakistan and 138 in West Pakistan), the decisive win of the Awami League was sealed as it won 160 seats (all from East). Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto-led Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) won 86 seats (all from West). This incident historically changed the political landscape of the country.

Awami League leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman contested the election with an aim to implement his Six-Point charter for larger autonomy to the East. This charter was presented earlier by Rahman in Lahore in 1966. Mujibur Rahman’s election plank was to transform East Pakistan into a “Golden Bengal” through establishing a democratic constitution. His election campaign received an overwhelming response across all strata of Bengalis, especially the youth. The emphasis on election mandate as the only way out to free Bengal from all crises and suffering further resonated in Bengalis.

The election results, however, were not accepted by military dictator Yahya Khan and PPP’s Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. They refused to let Bengalis of the East head the country’s federal government and to frame the new constitution based on the Six-Point charter. The inauguration of the National Assembly was deliberately delayed by General Yahya Khan, while the Pakistan Army was heavily deployed in the East to suppress the Bengali aspirations. Mujibur Rahman demanded a peaceful transfer of power to the Awami League, which was vehemently denied.

The Pakistani Army launched ‘Operation Searchlight’ on March 25, 1971, in East Pakistan, targeting all Bengali activists, intellectuals and civilians to suppress the Bengali nationalist movement. A ‘Liberation War’ erupted in the region as a consequence of the delay in the assembly’s inauguration. Shortly before Mujibur Rahman’s arrest, he called for resistance and sought independence for East Pakistan. What followed was a large-scale massacre and systemic ethnic cleansing of about one million Bengalis by the Pakistan Army.

In December 1971, when the Liberation War was coming towards its end, the anti-liberation forces such as Razakars, al-Badr, al-Shams, factions of the Jamaat-e-Islami that collaborated with the Pakistan Army, launched another series of massacres, sensing the imminent defeat of the Pakistan Army. Pakistan Major General Rao Forman Ali, the mastermind behind this massacre, aimed to eradicate all Bengali intellectuals from the region so that after gaining independence, Bangladesh would remain devoid of its talent pool which would make the country crippled in future.

The political scenario in present-day Pakistan reflects a similar picture. Popular leader Imran Khan, who founded the Tehreek-e-Insaf Party (PTI), appealed to the masses, especially the youth, with his slogan “Naya Pakistan” i.e. a new Pakistan which would be devoid of corruption and militancy that had crippled the country’s economy for decades. A leader with no prior experience in politics, unlike the political dynasts from PPP and PML-N, Imran Khan emerged as the new hope for Pakistan. However, he has been put behind bars and denied a legitimate victory in the 2024 general elections.

Even though the military regime in Pakistan officially ended 15 years ago, the country is still struggling to function as a democratic nation. The Pakistan military continues to have de facto control over the country’s decision-making. The power enterprise that the Pakistan military is can be deciphered from the no-confidence motion passed against Imran Khan in 2022. This was the result of his fallout with the military over the appointment of head of military intelligence in 2021 and the disagreements with the military over foreign policy.

Khan’s ousting led to massive protests and rallies joined by thousands across the nation. The massive rallies were hailed as the start of a “freedom struggle in protecting the country’s sovereignty and democracy.” The arrest of Imran Khan in May 2023 on multiple charges from corruption to sedition and sentencing to three years in jail on charges of illegal sale of state gifts, also barred Khan from contesting the 2024 general election, a consequence of his fallout with the military. The news of the arrest further shocked the country and enraged his supporters. Khan’s arrest and subsequent call for a peaceful protest against the court’s decision was swiftly responded to, as the unrest spread across the region whereby crowds, mostly youth, were witnessed breaking into military properties and setting them ablaze. This added fire to the fuel and the military accused Khan and his supporters of systemic attack and raising anti-army slogans, and warned of retaliation.

Just weeks before the general election this February, the Election Commission of Pakistan banned PTI as a political party. Khan received fresh convictions over three trials, barring him from holding public office for 10 years. Despite the pre-poll rigging and election irregularities favouring PML-N, as observed by rights watch organisations, the independent candidates loyal to PTI won 93 out of the 265 seats. Thus, they secured more seats than any party, reflecting popular sentiment against the series of systemic attacks by the military on Imran Khan. The election result triggered a fresh round of protests by loyalists of Imran Khan.

The military establishment had displayed its dominance in the decision-making process during the 1970 general election. The same template continues even today in Pakistan. The establishment’s attack on popular leader Mujibur Rahman in 1971 and Imran Khan presently—who challenged the military’s control—is a reflection of the military’s continued dominance in Pakistan’s politics. The continued onslaught of the Pakistan Army on popular leaders who challenge the establishment’s iron grip indicates that the proverb “history repeats itself” is true as far as Pakistan is concerned.

Considering the ongoing developments that Pakistan is witnessing, the nation seems to be heading towards another 1971-like situation.

Nadia Abdel

Nadia Abdel

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