I was recently in a conversation with Soraya Khan, the author of the Pakistani novel “Noor” which among other things describes Pakistani atrocities in 1971 in graphic details based on real life conversations with soldiers involved.

It makes no excuses for the perpetrators but doesn’t demonise them and makes the conflict between a human being and his war crimes the focus of the work. The main character in the novel is a soldier who commits atrocities along with all others but has to live with his guilt. It is a very mature work and the author too is a deeply compassionate person. She mentioned that she was looking for a reconciling space. In a way, this novel is a step towards that. To understand what happened without denying it, to move on.


But is the time right for us to try reconciliation?

The reconciliation process of the perpetrator and the victim is not the same. For the victimiser, it is much easier because he has to say sorry for what has been done by him. He has to accept his inhumanity which is difficult but possible. He has to apologise and perhaps seek forgiveness and understanding.


But for the victim, reconciliation is a completely different matter. It is a process which involves ‘moving on’ which ultimately is about forgetting. It compounds the loss of the victim, first by taking away something deep and then losing the memory of it. Without a variety of compensations both social and emotional, reconciliation itself may threaten more potential of pain for the victim.

Both death and rape are extreme traumatic events. While in case of normal death people can ultimately reconcile in private life, violent death at the hand of another is a very different matter. Rape is a much more disturbing issue because the trauma and shock lives on. I have rarely seen such a process work either between the victimiser and the victimised for example, relating to sexually abused children.

In almost all cases relief was found only through suppression of memory. It’s always about forgetting, so this is probably the wrong road to take for dealing with 1971 events for the moment. It is probably not possible to forget in several generations. Jewish people have never reconciled with the holocaust and they are not asked to.

Reconciliation has to be at several levels. At the personal level, I think it happens already. Many of my Pakistani friends have expressed their personal apologies to us and to the people for 1971 events. Several Bangladeshis and I attended a conference on the history of 1971 in Islamabad a few years back where Pakistani scholars and activists spoke openly on such issues. A recent meeting was again held at Dhaka where many of the same group attended. An Indian scholar specialising on 1971 has also spoken on reconciliation at this meeting, we are told.


However, the acts committed in 1971 were done by the state of Pakistan so unless apologies are offered by the primary victimiser, the state, the actual process won’t begin. Pakistan has not shown any interest of doing so, as a result the issue of reconciliation has become a lot of talk without reality. Sometimes it seems, the onus of the burden is being pushed on Bangladeshis to do something first. As if Bangladesh has to step forward and only then will Pakistan respond.

Unless the state acts, citizens won’t.

Whenever the question of atrocities emerges, some Pakistani apologists like Sharmila Bose and other Pakistanis mention the atrocities against the Biharis. I believe it is time for us to accept that we have been in denial for long on this. Bengalis did commit atrocities including rape of Bihari women and unless we accept that we shall never have the moral force to stand up to ourselves.

I have personally apologised to the Bihari people in my column and I feel that I owed it to them and also to us. I have also explained in the same article the role of the Pakistan army in facilitating this and it was important for Biharis to understand that. Did the Pakistanis expect to attack Bengalis in Dhaka and expect the Biharis living unprotected and unsafe living all over Bangladesh to be untouched?

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I believe Pakistan army didn’t care about them and practically signed their death warrant. This is further proven by the abandoning of the Biharis after their defeat in December and escape under Indian army protection leaving the Biharis behind, the staunchest of Pakistanis, to face the music of vengeance.

That doesn’t hide the fact that at the social level Bengalis are guilty of being victimisers of Biharis even if that was a reaction to what they had experienced as victims.

Biharis need to accept that they were no less victimiser of Bengalis during various phases in 1971 and should apologise as well.

In my opinion, given the existing situation and the multiplicity of apologies required, the opportunity for reconciliation isn’t there. Pakistan has to accept its responsibility at the state level and apologise. It also has a responsibility to offer the same to the Biharis, their own people, who suffered not just as a result of their actions and inactions but also their abandonment leading to their suffering after the war in Bangladesh in camps as abandoned people without a state.

Bangladeshis were victims who also acted as victimisers, not an uncommon situation in war and genocidal situations. The state of Bangladesh didn’t commit atrocities in 1971 but they are guilty of criminal neglect of Biharis after 1971, treating them as victimisers and representative of the Pakistan state. This behaviour is reprehensible in every way. For that an apology is due and the people should apologise to the Biharis for what they experienced in 1971.


Apologies will not come from anyone and reconciliation has no basis to happen for the moment. Pushing this cause is easier in Pakistan but not in Bangladesh who wants recognition of their suffering by Pakistan. For the moment, that is on hold.

Instead of reconciliation, the objective better pursued can be better understanding, both of the victim and the victimiser. To recognise the forces at work who cause sufferings is needed before any steps to reconciliation can be taken. I believe, once the politics of the situation is understood, it will be possible to accept that the genocidal rapist is not the Pakistani but Pakistani politics. Unless this is understood and accepted at a general level in both countries, reconciliatory attempts will face resistance.

But just as Soraya belongs to a particular segment of Pakistanis who seek understanding and reconciliation, there are many amongst us who also seek 1971 history and its narratives that are more rational and compassionate than the one dimensional ones we have now.

The anger is against the state of Pakistan in 1971 and its ‘unrepentant’ self not against a Pakistani or Pakistan.

MARCH 28th, 2013
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.


About Ehsan Abdullah

An aware citizen..

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