Pakistan's Army: Living in a State of Strategic Denial

A two-day international conference on genocide that concluded in Dhaka July 31 exhorted the UN to recognize the mass killings and rape that the Pakistan Army had unleashed in the torturous and tumultuous events that preceded the birth of Bangladesh in December 1971.

Legal experts from Germany, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Britain and Canada joined their Bangladeshi counterparts in issuing a declaration that noted: "The conference calls upon the media and the civil society at home and abroad to focus on the (1971) genocide in Bangladesh, and launch a campaign so that this is recognized in the UN as Genocide."

Furthermore, the conference urged the Bangladesh government to begin the process of trying the perpetrators as war criminals and to seek international support in this regard.

But the sad truth is that as in the past 37 years, this earnest plea is unlikely to elicit any meaningful response from the powers that be at the global table.

The US, with Richard Nixon in the White House and his ace assistant Henry Kissinger actually calling the shots in 1971, was culpable by turning a blind eye to the genocide and mass rape that enveloped then East Pakistan. To their credit, the US mission in Dhaka tried to report the carnage to the DC Beltway and the US media, including some mainstream papers reported the events as accurately as possible. But in vain. And in keeping with the dictum that major powers shape the historical narrative in a selective manner by engaging in astute exclusion, this enormity has since been successfully relegated to the distant back-burner of the global record.

Four decades later, except for the victims and their traumatized families, recall of the genocide in Bangladesh outside of that country is hazy. The Pakistan Army, which was the principal institution engaged in attacking and butchering its own citizens - albeit of Bengali ethnicity, has since sought to play down the scale of the bloodshed and rape.

The official Pakistani version refers to 26,000 killed over a year but this is at considerable variance with other estimates which range from 300,000 to a staggering three million killed and between 200,000 to 400,000 women raped.

Two other estimates are illustrative of the disparity that exists about these gory figures. "Statistics of Democide: Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1900" by R.J. Rummel places the deaths at 1.5 million and other literature on the subject avers that East Pakistan of 1971 ranks as having the highest concentration or density of genocide by way of the numbers killed, the time involved and the geographical area in question. Yet another book, "Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape" by Susan Brownmiller estimates that the total number of women raped by Pakistan Army personnel along with their local support base - the 'razakars' - varies from 200,000 to 400,000. The majority of them were Muslim girls and women ranging from age eight to 70 plus.

These are appalling statistics by any yardstick and in a normative context, even one death or rape of a civilian non-combatant by any uniformed person is cause for the gravest concern. Paradoxically, where death becomes macro, cerebral distortions occur easily. In keeping with the Einstein formulation that in a stellar domain mass can deform space, it may be averred that where a whole state machinery is committed to mass killing, normal morality and ethics are warped and elite responsibility evaded. Most objective genocide studies point to this pattern.

However, the purpose of this comment is not to cast aspersions on the veracity of one study or the other - more qualified voices will have to address that - but to relate the events of 1971 with the current turmoil in Pakistan.

Currently, the Pakistan Army - which in the Zia years became the defender of the Islamic faith - is caught in deep strategic denial about its murky and blood-splattered past. The empirical reality is that this institution since the first war for Kashmir in October 1947 to Kargil of May 1999 has been tasked in covert operations that have used terror stoked by religious radicalism and sectarian xenophobia against the 'adversary' - whether the much reviled Hindu Indian or the fellow Pakistani, be it the Bengali Pakistani of 1971 or the Baluchi of current times.

Like Oscar Wilde's "Picture of Dorian Grey", the institutional face of the Pakistan Army is best exemplified by the chutzpah of General Pervez Musharraf is a visage of supreme confidence - now further bolstered by the nuclear firewall. But the ugly reality is of a once proud army - its track record in World War II as part of the erstwhile British Indian Army is lustrous - that has lost its moral compass. The result has been the ignominy of killing fellow citizens on an unprecedented scale and where arch enemy India has been engaged - not being able to acknowledge the deaths of its regular troops in battle or even claim their bodies. A la Lady Macbeth, this is a stain that cannot be wiped away.

The inflexible mindset of the Pakistan Army has to be radically altered and there is no historical precedent that this will occur by consensus and deep introspection. The military acquires its legitimacy to use proportionate force for a larger national objective from adherence to the rule of law and a distilled code of professional conduct. But when the deviant becomes the norm, the correlation between principle and power is subverted.

The Pakistan Army is caught in an inflexible mode of strategic denial about its past, which is why it appears both unable and unwilling to deal with its present internal security challenges. This is the 'truth' that President Asif Ali Zardari has been trying to reveal - but with limited success. The reverberations of the Dhaka genocide conference must be picked up by Pakistan's accomplished intellectuals - both in the media and academia - and a false narrative corrected. The army must finally confront its mea culpa moment through the bloody cross of East Pakistan.

(C. Uday Bhaskar is a well-known strategic analyst. He can be reached at 


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