The cancellation of the LUMS conference in Pakistan, which was supposed to bring to the fore the war of 1971, is a case of Pakistan’s elite betraying the people of Bangladesh. The conference sought to mark 50 years of Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan before it was cancelled, presumably, under the direction of Pakistan’s powerful military. Meanwhile, at least 17 Bangladeshis died at the hands of government security forces while protesting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Bangladesh, held under the pretext of celebrating the golden jubilee of Bangladesh’s independence. The government termed these protesters the defeated Pakistani forces of 1971. The BNP, the main opposition party in Bangladesh, which has run the country multiple times and whose founder Ziaur Rahman was one of the key figures in Bangladesh’s independence war, is routinely characterised as pro-Pakistani. Pakistani mentality is so entrenched, the secularists claim, that if the principle of universal suffrage is followed, the “spirit of liberation war” would simply be hollowed out. Therefore, the suspension of democracy to protect the spirit of liberation war, i.e. secularism, is what Bangladesh needs.
However, the LUMS conference did not even take into account the diversity and polarization in Bangladeshi society and politics. The panel did not include any Bangladeshi Islamist intellectuals or the so-called Pakistani elements in Bangladesh that are very clearly the majority. Instead, the cancelled LUMS conference, if taken place, would have reasserted the false impression of Bangladesh and its struggle for independence by upholding Bangladeshi elite’s perspective at the expense of that of the people of Bangladesh. One must wonder why Pakistani intelligentsia are reaching out to the minority elites in Bangladesh who are outspoken about their anti-Pakistanism when they could have easily reached out to the historically Pakistan-friendly masses of Bangladesh.
In March 1971, when the Pakistani military cracked down on Bangalees (Bengalis), instigating the nine-months-long bloody independence war of Bangladesh, West Pakistani population was told that the Bangalee, being the Hinduised ethnic group that it is, had teamed up with Pakistan’s arch-enemy India to break-up Islamic Pakistan. It is true that the struggle for Bangladesh’s independence eventually relied on Indian aid: India provided crucial military, logistic, diplomatic, and other supports for Bangladesh’s war effort. It is also true that many within Bangalee intelligentsia and politicians were secretly in bed with the Indian intelligence apparatus and political establishment even before the war had formally started. Equally it is also true that a group of urban middle class Bangalee elites possessed the idea of secular Bangalee nationalism that was framed in opposition to Islam and, therefore, Pakistan, given the fact that Pakistan was premised upon Islam. But the actual question is whether the Bangalee, as a nation, ever favoured India over Pakistan or considered itself as closer to India than Pakistan. More importantly, did Bangalees view themselves as Hinduised Muslims or lesser Muslims? Did they consider them secular? The answer to these questions is a plain and simple no.
Bangalees’ problems with Pakistan were primarily economic in nature. Despite Bangalee secular elites’ relentless claims about Bangalees being “secular,” there was next to zero mention of secularism in Bangladeshi public discourse up until 1972. The India question surely featured prominently, but not in the way that West Pakistani leaders would have the world believe. The Six-Point Demand, first promulgated in 1966 and later dubbed as the bedrock of Bangladesh’s independence, was very much aware of the threat that India posed to Bangladesh, which is why the sixth point was about having an effective military establishment in erstwhile East Pakistan, a necessity that Bangalees felt after being virtually left at India’s mercy during the 1965 India-Pakistan war. All the more, a large number of Bangalees saw themselves as Pakistanis and/or Muslim first, and Bangalees second. In fact, many Bangalees rejected their ethnic identity altogether because they felt that it was at odds with their ummahtic sense of belonging. Events, rituals, protests, declarations, propaganda, and addresses leading to and during the 1971 war were filled with Islamic colours. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s historic 7th March address contained the hope of freeing the people of Bangla if Allah wills (insha Allah). The war of independence was presented as Islamic jihad by Independent Bangla Radio Center (Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra). The secular nation-building project, which has now been come to be viewed as Islamophobia in Muslim-majority countries, was not introduced to Bangladesh before 1972. Even then, Abul Mansur Ahmed, one of the founding members of the Awami League party, suggests that it all happened without Sheikh Mujib’s authorization and Sheikh Mujib did his best to thwart this de-Islamization/secularization process. As a matter of fact, leading Bangladeshi secularists like Ali Riaz and Sultana Kamal accuse key figures in Bangladesh’s struggle for independence, such as Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Ziaur Rahman, of being Islamist. In fact, a number of Bangladeshi freedom fighters have opposed the imposition of secularism from the very get go. The Awami League party, which was denied the opportunity to govern Pakistan, despite it winning the 1970 national election fair and square, leading to the war of independence, promised time and again that its programs were in no way anti-Islamic and it would never pass legislations that were contrary to the Quran and Sunnah. Yet, the war was imposed on Bangalees. It would be interesting to explore whether Bangalees would have joined the war of independence if they knew that after getting independence the entrenched privileged secular elites would hijack what was basically a fight against the unjust Pakistani rule to actualize their vision of creating a secular polity, and if Pakistani elites could distinguish between a tiny minority of secular Bangalee elites and Bangalee commoners who have only the utmost reverence for Islam, not just as a personal faith but also as the key shaper of their political subjectivity – a fact that in recent times Bangladeshi secularist intellectuals and activists have come to terms with (see the works of secularist intellectual-cum-activist Ali Riaz and Mubashar Hasan).
While it is commendable that in recent years, Pakistani academics, intellectuals, commentators, politicians, and commoners have showed an interest in talking about the tragic events of 1971, they are nevertheless for the most part regurgitating the same prejudicial views about Bangalees that led to the 1971 war of independence. The argument that the failure of Pakistan, as evidenced by the 1971 war, is a to secularize rests on the idea that Bangalees were lesser Muslims to deal with – unlike pure Muslims that are West Pakistanis – thus need a neutral ground that is secularism. The importance that Pakistani elites place on secularism, or the lack thereof, in explaining why the war in 1971 broke out is the central theme because when they talk about other causes, such as military dominance, centralization of power, bureaucratization, and so on, they, more often than not do so with reference to Islam: it is the essential feature of Islam that is responsible for Pakistan’s military dominance, authoritarianism, and all the other evils that can be said about the country. Therefore, while I believe it is important to explore other factors that Pakistani secularists mention as having contributed to the break-up of united Pakistan, secularism should be talked about at length to better understand the psyche of Pakistani Kemalists.
The recent zeal among Pakistanis to revisit their history is built on the very faulty premise responsible for the outbreak of Bangladesh’s war of independence: coming to terms with how Islamic Pakistan dealt with Hinduised Bangalees. This is not simply a case of misrepresentation of the people of Bangladesh and their aspirations, but also an insult to them given the fact that they consider Islam a non-negotiable constituent of their identity. Secularists in Bangladesh, on the one hand, cry that Islam has taken over Bangladesh, while, on the other, they assert Bangladesh is secular. The apparent contradiction is needed to justify the de-Islamization process, or, to put it nicely, secularization by force if need be in a polity in which Islam is the democratic choice. Secular Bangalee nationalism is a nationalism that runs counter to the aspirations of the people on whose behalf it claims to speak: it is a nationalism against the nation. As studies show that Bangladeshis favour Shariah, and that secularists have a less favourable opinion of democracy than Islamists, it is no wonder that Bangladesh for the past decade has witnessed a sharp authoritarian turn: Islamist leaders have been executed, madrassahs and mosques attacked, and expressions of Muslimness stigmatised and criminalised. This attack against democracy has been facilitated by invoking known Islamophobic tropes and war on terror rhetoric: secularism, counter-terrorism, progress, modernity, feminism, and so on. The newly found goodwill among Pakistanis for Bangladesh, in this context, is contributing to Bangladeshis’ oppression.
One reason why Pakistani intelligentsia are interested in befriending Bangladesh’s oppressive Kemalist elites instead of the Bangladeshi masses is that both Pakistani and Bangladeshi elites have a common ground and purpose: secularism. While in the academic discipline of International Relations, transnational religious movements and phenomena such as political Islam have been studied at length, transnational secular politics has never been questioned, reflecting the dominant normative assumption in policy and academic circles that posits secularism and secular politics as the default mode of operation. Indeed, the recently found love among Pakistani elites for Bangladesh is an extension of what we can call transnational secularism or transnational Kemalism, which has nothing to offer to the peoples of either Bangladesh or Pakistan. “Kemalism,” as Sayyid explains, “understood modernity as de-orientalising (i.e. making Western) Islamicate societies, where Islam was a signifier of the Orient par excellence. In its various iterations and vernacularizations, Kemalism was a set of overlapping positions regarding the belief that only a national identity could be the vehicle of a hegemonic political subjectivity throughout the Islamosphere.”
Bangladesh’s minority secularist elites love to portray Bangladesh not as an Islamicate polity but as a secular nation-state despite the country being overwhelmingly Muslim-majority with heightened support for Sharia. The narrative of secular Bengali nationalism upon which Bangladeshi secularists claim that Bangladesh’s struggle for independence is based and which is being instrumentalised to oppress Bangladesh’s people today is equally appealing to Pakistani secularists as the idea of secular Bangladesh allows them to pin the blame for failures of secularists like Ayub, Bhutto and Yahya on Islam, Islamism, and Islamists, on the one hand, and voice the need to secularize Pakistan by invoking the example of Bangladesh, be it with reference to 1971 or economic success. When Bangladeshis, including many secularists, are trying to demystify the bogus development over democracy narrative that the secular Bangladeshi regime is propelling, Kemalist Pakistani luminaries like Parvez Hoodbhoy are selling Bangladesh’s development myth to Pakistanis to advance their own Kemalist agenda, which, in turn, is being channelled back to Bangladesh to help Bangladeshi secularists claim that “even Islamic Pakistan now wants to emulate the success of secular Bangladesh.” The collaboration between anti-democratic forces in Bangladesh and Pakistan are not surprising. Their stance vis-à-vis Baluchistan and Kashmir makes it extremely beneficial for Pakistani secularists to invoke the myth of secular Bangladesh time and again. Note the significance of the “Bangalees are lesser Muslims” narrative in this case: Bangladesh is “progressing” because Bangalees are lesser Muslims/Hinduised Muslims/secular.
When current Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan won the cricket world cup for his country, it was on the eve of the 26th of March, Bangladesh’s Independence Day, and Dhaka streets were jubilant as never before. It is these people whom Pakistan has wronged in 1971 and is on the path of wronging again. The sheer unwillingness and/or incapacity to understand the psyche of Bangladeshis is hurting both Pakistan and Bangladesh. The voice of Bangladesh is not the privileged elites found on plush western university campuses or those with access to media. The voice of Bangladesh is the overwhelming majority of Bangladeshis who are denied democracy because they are considered Pakistani leftovers and not Bangladeshi enough. If Pakistani people and intelligentsia really care about Bangladesh and were serious about amending the historic wrong of 1971, then they must start by distancing themselves from Bangladesh’s Kemalist elites who are the supreme beneficiaries and key facilitators of the oppression Bangladeshis are facing.
People to people relations are what Bangladesh and Pakistan need and that is exactly what the recent surge in collaborations between elites of both countries are obstructing. By engaging with and lending support to Bangladesh’s oppressive Kemalist elites, Pakistan is betraying Bangladeshis a second time.