The 16th day of December, the fall of Dhaka, is the darkest in Pakistan’s history. The chaos that ensued, the lives lost, the migrations, economic loss, the surrender of the Pakistan army; all these factors impacted the nation’s psyche in a fundamental way. The issue of Dhaka’s fall was hushed for a variety of reasons. As a result, the grieving that followed the loss never became entirely visible. At the anniversary of the fall of Dhaka, the day passes without generating sentiment. And so it remains, that the breaking up of Pakistan has neither been openly discussed nor deeply researched. As a result, no lessons have been learnt from this tragic chapter in our history.

Issues between the two wings of the state of Pakistan started from 1947. By 1970, sentiments for national unity had weakened due to constant political, economic and social prejudice and neglect and the conflict between the two wings erupted into mass civil disobedience. Grievances were exaggerated by foreign elements to foster anti-Western Pakistani feelings that eventually created Bengali Nationalism and separatist tendencies. Bengali political leaders went around depicting the Central Government and West Pakistan as hostile exploiters. However, no concentrated efforts were made by the Government to check the anti-nationalist trends. The location of the capital in Karachi also created great economic imbalance, uneven distribution of national wealth and privileges, and better jobs for the people of West Pakistan. The vast sums of foreign exchange earned from the sale of jute from the East, were being spent on defense and other expenditures in the East. The population in the East was increasing, but it remained deprived of development and planning to build dams, control floods, eradicate poverty and supply food and shelter. The physical separation of a thousand miles between the two wings, and being surrounded by Indian territory and influence, led to embittering relations, which resulted in the fall of Dhaka.

Pakistan today is faced with similar issues. Economic disparity, ethnic and sectarian divides, institutional corruption, unstable economy, discrimination, prejudice and apathy amongst the rulers towards the plight of the nation, are problems similar to the ones faced by the people of Bengal. Our political leaders are now not acting any different from the past. There have been separatist movements that found expression from time to time through the leadership in Sindh, Baluchistan and KPK. The slogans used to instigate people contained messages such as, “Solve our problems or we will separate like East Pakistan.” What our shortsighted politicians do not understand is that wars and separations do not provide solutions. Those are created only when people come to the tables for talks with sincerity of intent. If what happened to East Pakistan was openly discussed and responsibility assumed for the mistakes made, those at the helm of affairs would have learnt to employ better means to resolve conflicts and rifts.

The issue of the fall of Dhaka is a secret that weighs heavily on the nation’s conscience. The Western Pakistani government had been exclusive and discriminatory but the East had not been patriotic either. However, this is human nature; when a segment of the population feels exploited, they resort to distancing themselves from the threat. That is the time when power hungry leaders, or others with vested interests, exploit their sentiments. As a result, the axe falls on those whose neck is on the line.

Bangladesh has asked Pakistan to apologize for the war crimes. If the claim is legitimate, then Pakistan should apologize. However, Bangladesh should also apologize for committing heinous crimes against West Pakistanis, particularly families from Punjab before the start of the war; they were families who had nothing to do with political game. Being weak on the propaganda and counter propaganda front, no narrative was built around these issues by the government, and as a result the nation is fundamentally confused and divided.

Every year, 16th December comes and passes silently. The apathy towards the nation’s loss has resulted in the learning of no lessons from the past. The political leadership continues, to this day, to instigate the nation on ethnic lines. There is talk of more provinces as a result of the power struggle. However, the sense of depravation will only be addressed when corruption from the minds of the leaders is cleansed.

 The writer is a mental health professional based in Islamabad.