by Rakib Ehsan
Friday, 26
March 2021

Don’t whitewash Bangladesh’s 1971 Liberation War

Western progressives won't see the conflict for what it was
by Rakib Ehsan
Two boys observing a photo exhibition which remembers Bangladesh Independence day. Credit: Getty

Today is the 50-year anniversary of Bangladesh’s birth as an independent nation-state.

Following the bloody 1947 partition, West Pakistan (now modern-day Pakistan) and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) were created under a singular Islamic republic — separated by the width of India. This unworkable arrangement came to a head after the 1970 Pakistani general election. East Pakistan’s Awami League — currently the governing party of Bangladesh — won the general election by defeating West Pakistan’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Following West Pakistan’s refusal to respect the result, Awami League leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declared national independence.

What followed was a brutal and devastating liberation war that lasted until Bangladesh’s ‘Victory Day’ on 16 December 1971. During the War, West Pakistan launched two particularly horrific initiatives in East Pakistan — the systematic sexual torture of Bangladeshi women and an orchestrated campaign to eradicate the newly-independent country’s ‘backbone’ of medical professionals, mechanical engineers, and leading educationalists.

It is testament to the perseverance and ingenuity of the Bangladeshi people that they moved on from such horrors and overturned these disadvantages, with Pakistan now trailing Bangladesh in a number of socio-economic metrics — including literacy rate, life expectancy, GDP per capita, and female economic activity. Bangladesh also has a superior ranking to Pakistan for Freedom House’s Global Freedom Index and the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index.

What Bangladesh’s 1971 Liberation War teaches us is that national sovereignty — a country in charge of its political, cultural, and economic destiny — is something to be treasured and protected. Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, and secularists made the ultimate sacrifice in the face of a belligerent Islamist force which sought to keep together the world’s first Islamic republic.

In the west, we rarely hear about the 1971 War. Despite its geopolitical significance, it is curiously absent from discussion, particularly in the context of deepening UK-Bangladeshi ties. That is, in large part, because it does not fit in with the western progressive framing of conflicts and geopolitical disputes through the prism of the ‘Non-Muslim on Muslim’ oppression, but is more reluctant to engage with historical cases in which the belligerent perpetrator is overwhelmingly Muslim. To do so would undermine the structure of their ‘global oppression pyramid’ which considers being Muslim as an ‘oppressed characteristic’. Unfortunately, this not only masks the Islamist persecution of non-Muslim groups, but also overlooks conflicts where secular-minded Muslims have been systematically killed, maimed, and tortured by radical co-religionists.

Those who fought for Bangladesh’s liberation should never be forgotten. Their contribution does not deserve to be whitewashed by those who are selective in the cases of historical atrocities they wish to engage with and draw attention to. This includes a number of British-Muslim identitarian organisations who would like nothing more than the airbrushing of the 1971 Liberation War from the pages of history in the name of ‘Islamic solidarity’.

Bangladesh is a relatively young and rapidly-developing nation — the circumstances surrounding its liberation should be remembered, with its future potential being recognised by a post-Brexit UK which is looking to boost its ties with rising members of the Commonwealth.

Dr Rakib Ehsan is an independent analyst specialising in British ethnic-minority public attitudes.

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  • I was driving Sheikh Mujib Rahman around when he first came to visit the UK shortly after . He went barefoot, as did his retinue, but all stayed at Claridge’s. He was charming and had me drive him around areas such as Notting Hill Gate – especially at lunch times – where he would stop unannounced at the  homes of Bangladeshi immigrants who would delightedly welcome him in to share their lunches. The moment this invitation had been extended, he would turn and call me in to join them. I have never since enjoyed such delicious dahls, etc.. It was an interesting interlude. But in marked contrast to my next encounter with his new State’s diplomatic representative. Another story!

  • It should also be remembered that the US was on the side of Pakistan during this war. In fact, Nixon warned Indira Gandhi not to send Indian troops into East Pakistan. The US actually placed an aircraft carrier in the Bay of Bengal to threaten India. Is there any wonder that this war is being whitewashed? It is in the interest of the US, Pakistan and the most of the Islamic world that this horror be whitewashed. For God’s sake, even Bangladeshi political establishment is ungrateful to India for liberating them. Sunni muslims must pretend to be unified in the face of truth.

  • I would just like to add that there is a film that was made in 1971 by Geta Mehta called Dateline Bangladesh. It is available to see on YouTube. I assisted doing the music. The film is very accurate in its portrayal of what happened and the events that led up to that terrible war.
    I believe James Cameron who was a reporter was seriously injured covering it.

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