Bangladesh's long, unfulfilled journey in search of a Pakistani apology

After the birth of Bangladesh in December 1971, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh signed the historic Tripartite Agreement in 1974 which was aimed at reconciliation between the three nations, once a single country. The then Pakistani Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, visited Bangladesh the same year, but reconciliation remained a far cry. Following the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975 successive military and pseudo-democratic governments kept themselves busy in developing the nation and fighting off internal conflict. It was a period of coup and counter-coup. The apology due from Pakistan for the atrocities of its armed forces - genocide, rape, arson and destruction - on unarmed civilians was, therefore, forgotten for two long decades, although many civil rights groups and freedom fighters' organisations raised the issue from time to time.

After Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan's president General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq visited Bangladesh twice in 1985 - first in May after severe cyclone hit Chittagong, Cox's Bazar, Noakhali and coastal Islands (Sandwip, Hatiya, and Urirchar), and secondly in December during the inauguration of SAARC which took place in Bangladesh. He visited the Jatiyo Smriti Shoudho (National Memorial) at Savar and told Bangladesh's media "Your heroes are our heroes".

Four years later, on 10 October 1989, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the eldest daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, visited Bangladesh. But like her father, Benazir Bhutto restrained herself from apologising officially and did not touch the issue.

The issue of Pakistan's "unconditional apology" and "sharing of pre-Independence assets" gained ground only when Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Sheikh Mujib, was in power from 1996 to 2001. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was the first Pakistani leader who talked about the brutalities committed by the Pakistani forces in Bangladesh during 1971. While on a visit to Bangladesh in March 1997, he assured that an apology from Pakistan would be forthcoming. But this apology never came.

Instead, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shahibzada Yaqub Khan - Governor of East Pakistan in 1971 who famously resigned weeks before the massacre - while talking to the Bangladesh Foreign Secretary in January 1997, expressed concern at the 'anti-Pak propaganda' in Bangladesh electronic and print media in the wake of 25th anniversary of the Victory Day on 16th December. Similar concern was reiterated by former President Farooq Leghari. Three years later, in May 2000, Pakistan Foreign Minister Abdus Sattar expressed his concern at the activities of the War Crimes Fact Finding Committee (WCFFC), and stated that 'old wounds should not be reopened'. However, when parts of the Hamoodur Rahman Commission Report was leaked few months later, former Pakistan Defence Minister, Aftab Shaban Mirani, called upon the army generals implicated in the Hamoodur Commission report to apologise and repent publicly for their crimes against humanity. He even demanded their handing over to Bangladesh to face trial.

The expulsion of Pakistani diplomat Irfanur Rahman Raja in November 2000 for making "derogatory remarks" about Bangladesh's liberation war also heightened the tension between the two countries.

It is not understood why the new generation of armed forces is not ready to apologise.

They must note that new generation of leaders of Germany apologised to the Jews for the holocaust while that of Japan did to China and South Korea for war crimes. In 2008, Australian Prime Minister apologised to the Australian Aboriginal community for the wrongs committed in the past. The Vatican has apologised for the actions of Catholics who persecuted non-Catholics, and expressed sorrow over the attack on Constantinople during the Crusades, thousands of years ago.

It is the government of Pakistan which is ultimately responsible for the apology and unless Pakistan has a strong democratic government, it seems apology has to wait until that time.

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But it was the visit of Prime Minister General Musharraf which generated much public debate. General Musharraf was the fifth Pakistani head of government to visit Bangladesh after 1971. It overshadowed the previous ones as he had chosen to speak on certain sensitive issues at opportune moments, and which his predecessors had missed.

Pakistan President Musharraf expresses "regret" over 1971

On 29 July 2002, the then President of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf visited Bangladesh after accepting an invitation extended by the then Bangladesh Prime Minister Khaleda Zia. On his arrival in Dhaka he was given a red carpet welcome and a 21-gun salute, and received by Khaleda Zia and acting President Jamiruddin Sircar. A number of Bangladeshi political parties, particularly the leftist groups, had opposed General Musharraf's visit and the student front of main opposition Awami League called a country-wide strike protesting the Pakistani military ruler's tour. Two years ago, General Musharraf had called off a scheduled meeting with Sheikh Hasina, the then prime minister, on the sidelines of the Golden Jubilee celebrations of the United Nations in New York after she had made a veiled attack on him in a speech at the world body for overthrowing an elected government.

On his arrival General Musharraf first visited the Jatiyo Smriti Soudho (National Memorial) at Savar, about 50 km north-west of Dhaka, which is dedicated to those who laid down their lives for Bangladesh's liberation. After laying wreath and paying homage, General Musharraf left a handwritten note in the visitor's booth.

I bring sincere greetings and good wishes from the Islamic Republic of Pakistan for their Bangladeshi brethren and sisters. We wish this land and its people peace, progress and prosperity. Your brothers and sisters in Pakistan share the pain of the events of 1971. The excesses [committed] during that unfortunate period are regrettable. Let us bury the past in a spirit of magnanimity. Let not the light of the future be dimmed. Let us move forward together. I am confident that with our joint resolve Pakistan-Bangladesh friendship will flourish in the years to come.

President General Pervez Musharraf

General Musharraf signed a series of agreements with Khaleda Zia aimed at forging closer ties between the two former enemies. But the talks failed to make progress on some issues, including Bangladeshi demands for compensation for millions of dollars of assets lost during the conflict.

The next day, at an official banquet held in his honour in Dhaka, he repeated his regrets and spoke of the sincere greetings and good wishes he carried from the people of Pakistan for 'their Bangladeshi brothers and sisters', adding that 'courage to compromise is greater than to confront'.

My brothers and sisters in Pakistan share with their fellow brothers and sisters in Bangladesh profound grief over the parameters of the events of 1971. As a result of this tragedy a family having common religious and cultural heritage and united by a joint struggle for independence and a shared vision of the future, was torn apart. We feel sorry for this tragedy, and the pain it caused to both our peoples.

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We wish this land and its people peace, progress and prosperity...[with] our joint resolve, the friendship between Pakistan and Bangladesh will flourish.

General Musharraf,

General Musharraf's comments went far further than many in Bangladesh would have expected. The Bangladesh Government was swift to welcome the move and Prime Minister Khaleda Zia responded warmly to General Musharraf's 'regret'.

Thank you, Mr. President, for your candid expression on the events of 1971. This will, no doubt, help mitigate the old wounds.

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Many subsequent Pakistani politicians have cited General Musharraf's bold step as tendering an apology as it was accepted by the Bangladeshi government in Dhaka. His implicit apology was seen as sufficient 'to declare the chapter closed' and there was no justification from Bangladesh to continue with their long-standing demand for an apology. It was a view that General Musharraf himself also shared.

Later, Musharraf conveyed Pakistan’s uneasiness on this subject to the visiting Foreign Adviser in May 2008. He reiterated that he had already expressed ‘regret for excesses committed in 1971’ adding that ‘digging the past would not lead to anything positive other than creating dissatisfaction in Pakistan’. While responding to a query by a media man in New York in September 2008 the Pak Foreign Minister remarked that the episode was 'now a history'.

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General Musharaf's cleverly drafted expression of regret, the first by a Pakistani military ruler since the independence of Bangladesh three decades ago, received mixed response. His comments got wide publicity with a section of the media projecting it as something as close as possible to a "formal apology" and finding "no reason now" to remain antagonistic. It was welcomed by prime minister Khalida Zia but the country's opposition, particularly the Awami League party, denounced the gesture as inadequate. The opposition, along with many leading Bengalis, said that Musharraf expressed his regrets in vague terms and that Pakistan should specifically ask for an unconditional apology.

We welcome what President Musharraf wrote in Savar and (said) at the banquet last night...We don't want to embarrass a guest by discussing issues like an apology for the 1971 war situation. It is the spirit of the people of the two countries that will decide that.

Bangladesh Foreign Minister Morshed Khan

His comments were an attempt to fool Bangladeshis.

Abdul Jalil, a senior Awami League MP

Why should the Pakistanis be pained, as they were the aggressors who killed Bengalis in one of history's worst genocides?

Communist Party leader Monzurul Ahsan Khan said the general's comments were "valueless"

This falls short of unconditional apology. We do not accept this.

Shamsur Rahman, renowned poet who wrote 'Swadhinata Tumi' poem

This religion-based approach which was sought by General Musharraf to foster a closer Bangladesh-Pakistan relations was intrinsically anti-India and envisaged a common approach on all regional issues.

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In using the word "excesses" to describe the actions of Pakistani forces, General Musharraf carefully avoided references to who committed the "excesses" and on whom the "excesses" were committed, and also whether they were mere excesses or constituted planned crimes against humanity executed by a military machine upon an unarmed people. His regret was not certainly considered an apology.

Apology means first the acknowledgment of crimes committed and second feeling and expressing remorse for crimes and third doing something to restore that was manifestly wrong and hurtful.

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But will this apology really do? Has the Pakistani leader honoured history through his statement? Did he really pay respects to those who fell prey to the excesses of the Pakistani forces? Several Bangladeshi dailies ran editorials praising Musharraf for expressing his 'regrets' and 'sorrow', and characterised his words either as a "good gesture" or a "good beginning". But some other dailies in their editorial comments and articles termed Musharraf's apology a "cosmetic" one and "a cunning effort to sidetrack the historic crime against humanity". This section felt that Musharraf's words indicated no change in the old Pakistani mindset although it sounded deceptively so in the changed environment.

Normalisation of relations between Bangladesh and Pakistan is vital to begin a new chapter. Healing wounds and burying the unpleasant legacies of history is always welcome. In fact, the Tripartite Agreement was a good example of the maturity of the political leaderships concerned. Paragraph 14 of the agreement says: "The Prime Minister of Pakistan declared that he would visit Bangladesh in response to the invitation of the Prime Minister of Bangladesh and appealed to the people of Bangladesh to forgive and forget the mistakes of the past in order to promote reconciliation. Similarly, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh had declared with regard to the atrocities and destruction committed in Bangladesh in 1971 that he wanted the people to forget the past and to make a fresh start, stating that the people of Bangladesh knew how to forgive".

Therefore, the political mood was for reconciliation, although the general mood was one of trial of the "war criminals" (who were finally given safe passage from Bangladesh to Pakistan via India, thanks to the Tripartite Agreement). There is a strong feeling in Bangladesh that Pakistan should realise the enormity of the human tragedy that its forces had caused.

But while his predecessors tried to shift the blame for the barbaric acts on the "military" or upon a few "generals", Musharraf has gone a step forward by expressing regret for the events. However, he failed to pay due honour to the history that separated the two wings of Pakistan, overshadowing the pervasive influence of the "two-nation theory" of 1947.

Musharraf chose to use the phrase "events of 1971" instead of the "war of liberation". While the "events of 1971" will be interpreted in Bangladesh as "war of liberation", people in Pakistan will prefer to term it as the "secession of Pakistan". In using the word "excesses" to describe the actions of Pakistani forces, Musharraf carefully avoided references to who committed the "excesses" and on whom the "excesses" were committed, and also whether they were mere excesses or constituted a planned genocide executed by a military machine upon an unarmed people.

For the people of the former East Pakistan, independence was the only option after the Pakistani junta disowned outright the people's mandate in the 1970 general elections, refused the claim of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the charismatic leader of the majority to lead the country constitutionally, and finally executed a brutal plan to crush the Bengalis' quest for freedom by means of an army crackdown on March 25, 1971. The 'tragedy' that Musharraf referred to was ambiguous - was it a tragedy for the Bengalis of East Pakistan or for the people of the former West Pakistan?

During the last several decades, Bangladesh politics has had two streams. The first is the "pro-liberation" group which believes in a secular Bengali nationhood and considers the "spirit of 1971" as the guiding force shaping the nation's destiny. The other group has religious extremists who believe in the Islamic nationhood, or the "spirit of 1947" as many of them call it. Hence Musharraf's statement that "a family having common religious and cultural heritage and united by a joint struggle for independence and shared vision of the future was torn apart" would obviously please the latter group. No wonder it welcomed the Pakistan President's "gesture" when the former group understandably refused to buy it. Musharraf's prescription for "healing the wounds" on the basis of a theory of religious affinity is hard to take either, considering that the people of the two countries fought each other despite the fact that they belonged to the same religion. Some analysts believe that by making this statement, the Pakistan President virtually tried to shift the blame of genocide from the shoulders of his country's armed forces. It is true that he went beyond the thinking of his predecessors by expressing "regrets", but nonetheless Musharraf missed a fair chance to heal the wounds of history.

By accepting, not avoiding, the truth of history in good grace, Musharraf has made a rapprochement possible. However, since mass memory is always more powerful than written history, an unconditional public apology from Pakistan is needed to heal the wounds.

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A few days after President Musharraf left Bangladesh, a joint statement by leaders of 51 civil rights organisations of Pakistan made a public apology to the people of Bangladesh.

We feel sad and burdened by what we know was a violation of the people's human rights... The apology should have come a long time ago, and citizen groups did make attempts to do so... We deeply feel that a message from us is necessary to acknowledge the historic wrongs, to express sincere apology and build a bond based on honest sentiments.

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