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A Passage to Pakistan

by K. Anis Ahmed
Arif Ali—AFP

Arif Ali—AFP

A wary Bangladeshi’s visit to a familiarly foreign land yields pleasant surprises.

[dropcap]I[/dropcap] was supposed to go to Lahore in January 1971, but I didn’t make it there until just this year.

In 1971, my father—a Bengali—was still an officer in the Pakistan Army and he had been posted to the western side of the country. My mother, only 25 at the time, faced the prospect of traveling alone with both my brother, barely a year and a half, and me—practically a newborn—2,000 kilometers from her home in Dhaka. So she did the smart thing; she left me with my grandparents to go set up home first. My grandmother would follow in a few weeks and deposit me with my parents. Before that trip could take place though, war broke out.

The story of my family is not atypical of what many Bangladeshi families went through in 1971. My father’s youngest brother, a 17-year-old in Jessore, left home one morning with the hope of crossing the border to join the Mukti Bahini; he was never found again. Another uncle spent most of the nine months of war on the run, a hunted man. My mother’s brother walked all the way past the border to join the famous camp of Khaled Mosharraf. He came back to Dhaka with two grenades in his pockets, but was arrested by the Pakistani Army before he could carry out his operation. Fortunately, he suffered no worse than imprisonment. Another uncle was also captured, and tortured.

Everyone lived in terror and penury common to war times, and in dreadful uncertainty about the future. Despite the loss and the torment, my family was lucky. There are families who lost most of their loved ones; we lost ultimately only my father’s youngest brother.

Among those who made it back home, though, my parents and brother were the last to return. They had become interned in West Pakistan along with scores of other Bengali officers and their families during the war. For families on either side of the separated nations, the hardest part was not knowing when, or whether, they might be united again.

Through it all, of course, my brother and I were as carefree as children are. My brother grew up thinking of a prison camp as ‘home.’ I grew up thinking of my grandparents as ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad.’ What’s more, being a potential orphan, I was spoilt with love and care by a retinue of doting aunts and uncles.

Meeting my parents at last on a November day in 1973 in the old Dhaka airport, is among my earliest memories. What I remember best, however, are not the strangers who greeted me as their own, only to be rejected thoroughly by me in the coming days; the most vivid part of that scene for me is a series of bright red Cessnas parked on the tarmac.

[dropcap]L[/dropcap]ike many Bangladeshis of my generation, I was reared on stories of the Liberation War. Stories of the atrocities by the Pakistan Army and their local collaborators, as well as the heroic resistance mounted by our Mukti Bahini, filled my boyish imagination by turns with outrage and loathing, pride and awe.

I didn’t grow up thinking of Pakistan as an enemy nation; the war was over and we had won. Yet, I was nowhere close to feeling any easy friendship toward my Pakistani peers, even during my university years in the United States. Professions of a putative fraternity as Muslims were not good enough. I had to know where each one stood on the matter of ’71.

Over the years I found that Pakistani denial took mainly three forms: refusal to accept the scale and vicious nature of the violence that had been committed; pleading that ‘terrible’ things happen during wars; and, finally, that the Bengalis, too, did ‘terrible’ things. There is sufficient third-party documentation by now (most recently, say, The Blood Telegram by Gary J. Bass) for the denial of violence to be no longer tenable. It also doesn’t take much to see that there is great difference between unintended collateral damage and deliberate acts of mass violence against unarmed civilians.

The third issue—allegations of retribution or summary killings by members of the Mukti Bahini—is trickier. All such incidents need their own historic reckoning. Bangladeshis would do well to acknowledge any mistakes on their part as they seek redress from others. But, one must also note that the crimes of the Pakistan Army, in their scale and brutality, far outstripped anything committed by units of the Mukti Bahini in the brief period between the war’s final days and the new Bangladeshi government’s assertion of its authority. Also, the responsibility of a state and its forces committing genocide can’t be excused by citations of acts of an effectively militia-style force.

I invoke these issues not so much with the expectation that Pakistanis who are still in denial will be persuaded, but simply to hold up for them a view that I believe is common for many Bangladeshis. I have heard Pakistanis ask, ‘Why do you keep dwelling on the past? Why can’t you move on and look to the future?’ The answer is quite simple: some events are so great that you simply cannot move forward without an acceptable resolution.

[dropcap]I[/dropcap] passed the first four decades of my life unable to bring myself to visit Pakistan. Even as other members of my family made the trip, I was held back by historic qualms and personal wariness. What kind of conversations would I have if I went there?

Is this tiny but deep strain of liberalism any match for the more ferocious ideologies that seek to crush it?

The prospect of visiting Pakistan came up again for me, decades after my first aborted trip, in the form of an invitation to the Lahore Literary Festival 2014. This time I was able to make the trip, thanks foremost to the friendship I had formed with a number of Pakistani authors in recent years, and their informed stance on ’71. For me, Lahore also held great fascination. This is the city where my father had studied engineering and spent nearly 12 years of his life. Prewar Lahore sounded entirely charming: a city of colleges and gardens, music and laughter.

My father’s tales faltered though whenever we reached ’71. He could not explain how a society that appeared so elegant and friendly in his personal accounts could also be the cradle of policies that led to one of history’s most horrific episodes. There was nothing to say besides that the well-meaning were too few, too powerless; and that the masses were whipped into hysteria with false information at a time when information was indeed far easier to control.

Bangladeshi intellectuals have long known and appreciated the opposition mounted by Pakistani liberals during ’71. What was interesting for me to discover on this trip is the abiding hold of that liberalism across generations. As a narrative of extremism has come to dominate global perceptions of Pakistan, the fact that there is a durable, indigenous tradition of liberalism has fallen by the wayside. In my university days, I regularly came across Pakistanis who, liberal on most counts, simply could not square the globally mainstream narrative about ’71 with their sense of identity. Education in the world’s best colleges, or living in the most cosmopolitan capitals, was not enough to open up the space that was required to question received narratives. But in Lahore I came across many young people from local colleges who did precisely that with ease.

Is this tiny but deep strain of liberalism any match for the more ferocious ideologies that seek to crush it? I know too little about Pakistan to make any pronouncements let alone predictions. I can only say that an encounter with this country that I had long resisted proved to be more full of surprises, and pleasanter ones, than I had expected.

Lahore as a city—Mall Road, Gymkhana, and much else—proved indeed to be as beautiful as my father always said it was. But a city is defined, ultimately, by its people. The Lahoris, certainly the ones who attended to us during LLF or entertained us afterhours, lived fully up to their reputation for charm and hospitality. What struck me most, however, was the crowd that came to the Alhamra: informed, open, and questioning.

I had invited my mother on this trip, so that she could show me the old places that my parents frequented: the old Gymkhana and Rahat Bakery; Coffee House and a spot in Anarkali where my father had taken her on a date, only to discover that he had forgotten to bring any money. We met old friends of theirs with whom they had reestablished contact. I was older today than they were when the war took place. Yet, I could see that in their eyes I was the child who had been left behind, the one they had never met. To know that one can hold such a place of affection in the hearts of strangers was something I didn’t know as a child, and it took me by surprise again, even now.

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s a Bengali, I can never stop insisting that Pakistan as a state needs to apologize for the genocide of ’71. But I also don’t want my sense of peace to be in the hands of another person, let alone a deeply troubled state. It is each person’s choice if they wish to find a measure of reconciliation at a personal level, and how they do it.

In this respect, the kind of interaction I have enjoyed with my Pakistani peers has come as a deeply welcome opportunity. Our friendship, like all friendships, is based on an attraction of personalities and shared interests, or laughs; but given our history, there is a layer of special resonance that I suspect neither side can ignore. The fact that the tenor of my encounter with them was echoed by literary Lahore helps deepen the sense of personal rapprochement.

I was surprised by the rapidity with which I began to feel at ease in Lahore. One day, taking a break from the literary sessions, my mother and I went to the cantonment looking for their old house. It was believed to be on a small street off Safdar Road. As we stood on that quiet little road, on a cool and cloudy day, it was odd to think that I might have played on that mossy driveway. A green field stretched before us. The low height of the buildings evoked an era, especially for someone from Dhaka, long gone but not forgotten, and not to be forgotten.

Would I be quite the same person, I could not help wonder, if I had never been separated from my parents? To some questions there can be no answers.

Ahmed is the author, most recently, of The World In My Hands. He lives in Dhaka. From our March 22, 2014, issue.

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excalibur March 17, 2014 - 12:35 pm

It would help you if you objectively read ‘ Dead Reckoning’ by Sarmila Bose and understand the facts from indian /Mukti propaganda.

Ali March 17, 2014 - 12:52 pm

Being a (west) Pakistani, I totally agree and loved the post. We (East and West) Pakistani and Bangladeshi are brothers. Brothers may fight or even kill each other but no one can change their blood relation. Same is the case with us. We are Muslim brothers and nothing can change our Muslim identity/relation. Now at this stage of history and under the present circumstances, I feel that Pakistan should officially apologize – Bangladesh should except that with a big heart and we should move forward together as two independent brother states with maximum help, cooperation and love for each other. Its easy to continue fighting, which our combined enemies would love and who helped bring us to this state. However it needs big heart and wisdom to embrace each other. Long Live Bangladesh – Long Live Pakistan

Tashfeen March 17, 2014 - 1:40 pm

Bengalis betrayed Pakistan at the behest of India. Your people were traitors. You got, if true, I still doubt, what was deserved. Be happy now, no fuckin apologies.

Syed Javed Akbar March 17, 2014 - 7:42 pm

Agreed. These Bengalis demand apologies from us and do not recognise what they did with Pakistan acting as Indian stooges. It is them who should apologise as a nation from us. The author does seem to be missing a united Pakistan, but does not admit it. Bengali is after all a Bengali.

uaa March 17, 2014 - 3:20 pm

@tafsheen, you do realize that they are today better off than what would have been if they were still part of Pakistan,

further you must realize the role that people of East Pakistan played for the formation of the country in the first place, i

so stop being an idiot and get your facts straight

@the author,

thank you for coming to Pakistan, i hope your sense of belonging and ease with Lahore and pakistan increases with passing time and not the other way around,

i would personaly like to apologize for any misgivings and wrong doings on part of the people of West Pakistan( Now Pakistan) towards people of East Pakistan( now Bangladesh

Shayan March 17, 2014 - 7:15 pm

What a heart-rendering piece. Such a beautiful personal narrative, infused with the political. As a Pakistani, I do hope relations between Bangladesh and Pakistan become better, and Southasia as whole becomes an integrated economy, even if the tide of history is against my hopes!

Muhammad Usman March 18, 2014 - 12:02 pm

Dear Anis, Asalam-o-Alikum,

The way you admired the literary and cultural importance of Lahore i cannot resist to write you back that one of the prominent scholars of world Allama Muhammad Iqbal was born in Sialkot and wished to be buried at Lahore, I believe war of 1971 was just a lack of communication and understanding between the distant lands and India took the advantage to elevate this gap and they did it with the help of rebel groups. It was few corporations who wanted the war it were never the people of Bangladesh, India or Pakistan. Being a Lahori by birth i take the pride to say that Lahore always welcome everyone apart from any race, color or sect. I wish you could write more about the importance and love which is flowing in vessels of Lahore.
Stay Blessed

R S Chakravarti March 19, 2014 - 6:21 pm

Just a lack of communication? No discrimination for decades? No genocide?

dr.naan March 19, 2014 - 11:21 pm

don’t forget East Pakistan won the elections
and weren’t allowed to form a government.
couldn’t ever speak their own language.

‘Why do you keep dwelling on the past? Why can’t you move on and look to the future?’
Any Pakistani say the above should be punished for bring up Jinnah
and what he wanted.

MuhsenAli March 23, 2014 - 12:58 am

Usman – I agreed with you that Lahore always welcome everyone. I am from (Pakistan-administered) Jammu Kashmir and I am living in Lahore since 2003, I never feel that I am alone here. People always give love and care to me despite the fact that I always demand for the independence of my homeland -Jammu Kashmir. Anyhow, I will always remember hospitality, love and care of Lahoris. May Allah bless Pakistan with happiness and prosperity. MuhsenAli

Ijlal March 20, 2014 - 1:21 am

Cannot blame any Bengalis for being offended by Pakistani comments. They range from outright idiocy to trying to brush Pakistan’s role in the war under the rug.
I’m not even going to go into the specifics. Just a plain apology for what Pakistan and Pakistanis did. And a prayer that we Pakistanis develop the courage to stand up for what is right, and to look at our past, present and future with clarity. Unecumbered by emotion, ethnic prejudice, and religous discrimination.

Ahmed May 19, 2014 - 1:04 am

Please do not apologies without knowing the fact 100%. In reality majority of Bengali were never against Pakistan. There was intense propaganda against Pakistan before and after 1971. Immature Pakistani politicians failed to handle the situation and as a result Pakistan broken leaving inverse false history, which will keep these 2 nations unfriendly for ever.

Understand the meaning of the following stanzas. The new generation will never know the reality.

কথাঃ গোবিন্দ হালদার

এক সাগর রক্তের বিনিময়ে,
বাংলার স্বাধীনতা আনলে যারা
আমরা তোমাদের ভুলবনা।
দু:সহ বেদনার কন্টক পথ বেয়ে
শোষণের নাগপাশ ছিঁড়লে যারা
আমরা তোমাদের ভূলব না।।
যুগের এ নিষ্ঠুর বন্ধন হতে
মুক্তির এ বারতা আনলে যারা
আমরা তোমাদের ভুলব না।।

By Gobinda Haldar
Contributing a sea of blood,
Who brought the independence of Bangladesh
We will never forget you.

Bearing Intolerable pain who defeated the
Exploitation. We will never forget you
Who made the freedom from the cruelty of the time?
We will never forget you

Infect the following people were killed brutally along with children.
1) Bengali who supported Pakistan
2) Muslims who migrated from India. Still there are camps in Bangladesh, which gives the evidence of cruelty.
3) Hindus who could not flee and cross the boarder.
4) Pakistani Army who contributed their lives for keeping the integrity of two wings.
5) West Pakistanis who were in East Pakistan during the war. In fact very few West Pakistanis were living in East Pakistan.
6) Common innocent Bengali who came under cross firing when Mukti Bahini backed by India opened fire on patrolling solders from their hidings

Mukti Bahani and opponents of Pakistan were killed when they were caught doing anti state activities.

Check the figures of killing from each village of Bangladesh, you will find the records of a few number of people who were killed during the war.

(To be continue)

raj kanojia May 29, 2014 - 11:51 am

Yes, now that bangladesh has been achieved after loss of indian soldiers & bearing the cost of housing n feeding miillions of refugees —-a large no of whom never went back—-the author has the audacity to look at pakistan with rose tinted glasses…..sp when pakistan has never made any attempt to apologise. Sometimes I feel india in 1971 shud have closed its borders & let e pakistan continue to fester.


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