A cancelled 1971 conference in Pakistan sends a message
An institution of higher learning in Pakistan had to cancel an academic conference about 1971. The virtual conference, scheduled for five days beginning on March 23, was organised jointly by the School of Humanities and Social Science of Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and the Institute of Pakistan Studies of Quaid-i-Azam University. The conference was expected to be attended by several academics from South Asia, particularly from Bangladesh and India. The conference, titled "Commemorating 50 years of the 1971 War: War, Violence and Memory", was supposed to feature presentations on the 1971 war, the genocide in Bangladesh and related issues. Although the conference was planned for quite some time, the organisers made the announcement on March 19 of holding the conference. But within 24 hours, the organisers faced such immense pressure that they could not take the risk of holding the event. Although there has not been any reference to any pressure by the LUMS, those who follow social media, such as Twitter, know the extent of belligerent attacks on the organisers. The vitriol was incessant.
This incident is another example of the magnitude of intolerance and insidiousness in South Asia. Unfortunately, there are too many examples of such pugnacious acts. Yet, it should not be considered as another incident in Pakistan that shows the lack of forbearance. Instead, two aspects of the incident warrant attention of those who follow Pakistan, whether from Bangladesh or elsewhere. They have implications and messages for the entire region. Firstly, questioning the official narrative has been considered unacceptable. Secondly, the act of silencing or censoring those individuals or organisations who are trying to offer a different narrative has been franchised; it has now been handed over to individuals loyal to the dominant or official narrative.
Who are the actors of the incidents in Pakistan? Whether there was any pressure from the government is yet to be known, but we can safely assume that the government will not be unhappy with the results. It is well known that the Pakistani establishment, particularly the Army, intends either to avoid the question of the 1971 war, especially the genocide in Bangladesh, or regurgitate their own version of history. The "conspiracy theory" for 1971 involving India, Russia, even the USA, is so deeply ingrained in the psyche of the establishment that it is reproduced in school texts. In 2010, I had the opportunity to scrutinise some of the texts of Grades 9 and 10. Although it was of no surprise that reference to genocide was missing, the unfounded narratives were a revelation to me. This was being done by the Pakistani state, deliberately, even after four decades of 1971.
Khurshid Kamal Aziz, in his superb study titled "The Murder of History" published in 1986, showed how "history" is being murdered every day in Pakistan. Yvette Claire Rosser's study of school texts in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh highlights how history is manipulated by nation states and politicians to forge a national identity. Her PhD dissertation at the University of Texas at Austin in 2003, titled "Curriculum as Destiny: Forging National Identity in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh" examines the social studies text and argues that "When history is seen as a tool to mold a nation's youth, interpretations of historical events are often manipulated in response to current events, as heroes become villains across the borders of neighbouring countries, and opposing political parties within nations vie to control the grand narrative of the nation state." In the case of Pakistan, it is not only the 1971 war, but the history of Kashmir and Baluchistan, that hold the same issue. That is why LUMS had to cancel a conference in 2015 on Baluchistan.
Notwithstanding the direct censorship imposed by the state, incumbents often encourage its supporters to get the job done for it. It happens in Pakistan as well as in India. Since the BJP came to power in 2014, the frequency has grown exponentially. Denying visas to invited speakers of conferences, and physically assaulting speakers at public events by BJP supporters have happened in the past. This January, an undersecretary of the Education Ministry issued an apparently innocuous memorandum about some guidelines regarding organising webinars by state-supported educational institutions. The memo states that these institutions must secure prior approval from the ministry of external affairs for organising any international online conferences/webinars. A list of topics is included for which the permission will be required; it reads: "security of State, Border, Northeast states, UT of J&K, Ladakh or any other issues which are clearly/purely related to India's internal matters".
These incidents in Pakistan and India are not only interventions on academic freedom; they have become a regular matter. These are efforts to make the official narrative of history the only history. Such an effort is also discernible in Bangladesh in various manners. Among the legal measures, the most obvious is the Digital Security Act 2018, particularly Article 21. However, the shrinking of space for dissent and freedom of expression is not a result of a single law, although a law can be highly injurious—the supporters of the incumbent can create a climate of fear through direct and indirect pressure. Intimidation, threat and potential violence can and does silence contrarian voices. Those who have been subjected to such harassment in Bangladesh would be able to understand the gravity of it, how frightful the experience can be. Others adopt silence, in fear.
In India, for quite some time, intellectuals, writers, researchers and academics have been fighting the battle against the saffronisation of history. It is not an easy task, neither was it meant to be, yet they have remained steadfast. In Pakistan, in recent years, progressive intellectuals have questioned the official narrative of 1971. The cancellation of the conference and the vicious attacks on the organisers only show the difficulty of the task ahead of them. Their efforts, like those in India and elsewhere in South Asia, have a message—concerned and conscientious persons cannot have the luxury of avoiding this struggle. It is obligatory for intellectuals to speak truth to power.
The conference at LUMS has been cancelled; however, the message it sent is loud and clear.
Ali Riaz is a Distinguished Professor of political science at the Illinois State University, a non-resident Senior Fellow of the Atlantic Council and the President of the American Institute of Bangladesh Studies (AIBS).