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Pakistanis do not learn from history


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“A PHENOMENON noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity.

“In this sphere, wisdom, which may be defined as the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense and available information, is less operative and more frustrated than it should be. Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?”

With these words, begins American historian Barbara Tuchman’s masterpiece book, The March of Folly, which traces how rulers throughout history persist with decisions that prove to be their undoing even when they are offered viable alternatives. Tuchman gives many examples and writes in elaborate detail how folly triumphed over reason in different times and different settings.

Troy’s rulers suspended all scepticism by allowing a suspicious-looking wooden horse inside their city walls that enabled the Greeks to trick and defeat them.

King George III chose to confront the American colonies instead of conciliating them, resulting in United States independence even though many Britons advised that autonomy and parliamentary representation in London could keep the colonies within the British Empire.

Charles XII, Napoleon and Hitler all chose to invade Russia in their desire to rule all of Europe, losing to the bitter winter despite their superior military force.

Similarly, China’s nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek did not heed advice for reform, resulting in the success of the communists led by Mao Zedong.

The United States stayed in Vietnam too long, losing sight of its original objectives and getting dragged into a local civil war the outcome of which was not fully in its control.

Successive US administrations failed to listen to those who suggested that the US simply declare victory and leave Vietnam.

Had the US done so it would still have got what it eventually ended up with in Indo China — a government led by the Communist Party eager to seek investment and trade from America — but without the expense in blood and treasure that also hurt American pride and prestige.

Pakistan’s unfortunate history is replete with examples of folly. But nothing comes close to the debacle of 1971 in erstwhile East Pakistan in terms of the extent and scope of pursuing policies and making decisions that served no reasonable national purpose.

After the December 1970 elections it should have been obvious to the martial law regime of Gen Yahya Khan that the Bengalis stood firmly behind the Awami League of Shaikh Mujibur Rehman. Instead of conceding the right of the majority to draft the constitution and to form the government, the West Pakistani elite, including civilian politicians, chose to try and militarily subjugate the people of East Bengal.

In West Pakistan, our civil and military elite whipped up anti-Indian sentiment and convinced one part of the nation that the only issue in the country’s eastern wing was a secessionist movement backed by India.

While West Pakistanis united behind the slogan of ‘Crush India’, the Bengalis charged the army with genocide, mobilised international support and, with the help of the Indian military, forced 90,000 soldiers and civilians to surrender.

The ignominy of military defeat resulted not only in the permanent loss of East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh; it has left scars on Pakistani national psyche that to this day manifest in the shape of jihadist ideology. Instead of learning lessons from the previous folly, our jihadists now want to commit the folly of confronting the United States, replacing ‘crush India’ with the slogan ‘crush America’.

In 1971, the governor of East Pakistan, my friend Vice-Admiral S.M. Ahsan joined Lt Gen Sahibzada Yaqub Khan, commander Eastern Command, in advising the rulers in Rawalpindi to choose the wise course and to avoid folly. Both Ahsan and Yaqub resigned after detailed exchanges with their superiors, in which their advice was rejected.

Like the noble man he was, Ahsan gave the correct assessment and withdrew from the scene when he realised that his reasonable views had lost out to the unwise choices of men more powerful than him.

Most nations try to learn from their past but we Pakistanis are determined not to do so. Few books have been published, analysing what went wrong and who did what in the greatest tragedy in the country’s history.

One of these rarities is The Separation of East Pakistan by Hasan Zaheer. The book quotes Ahsan, explaining why he resigned after explaining in detail to all concerned that military action will result in unnecessary bloodshed and would not help in keeping the country united. “Throughout the meeting the president never once looked into my eyes,” the honourable vice-admiral said. “I could no longer consider his intentions devoid of guile or devoid of guilt.”

Only time will tell if we still have men like Yaqub and Ahsan in our midst today, when folly rules supreme in all aspects of national policy as well as in opposition and media rhetoric. I do know that many senior military officers and diplomats are concerned about the dominance of jingoism, xenophobia and jihadism.

Let us heed the warnings of these thoughtful people instead of merely paying tribute to them years later when their advice would no longer be able to avert disaster or to change anything.

Why this failure to learn from history?

Both civil and military leaderships have been blind to the past, with an innate inability to accept or admit that wrong has been done. But then it takes ‘big’ men of substance and moral integrity to concede, even to themselves, that multiple past errors are largely responsible for a persistent downward slide.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (29) Closed

rk singh Nov 06, 2011 07:30am
Great article. Is anybody from Pakistan reading this?
Rahul Nov 06, 2011 09:53am
The standard of Pakistani Media is no better than Pakistan .Yes you have not learned from your past and even the writer of articles needs to learn from the past that its not Indians or Americans it’s the Pakistanis who need to learn ..yes.. learn to live in peace . you reap what you sow … Butt ,Asif ,Amir , new stars of Pakistan ..ha ha ha
sja Nov 06, 2011 10:22am
Why this failure to learn from history? History does not enrich anybody. Simple
M.S.S.Murthy Nov 06, 2011 10:54am
When history itself is taught in a distorted form in India and (more so) in Pakistan ,learning lessons from history is even more difficult .It is high time that the history curricula as taught in the schools and universities of India and Pakistan is thoroughly revised on scientific terms .Specially in the case of Pakistan it will take at least two decades for such an effort to bear fruit but there is no alternative.
Mian Amir Hakim Nov 06, 2011 10:56am
Mr. Cowasgee is exactly right. But those who are at the top of affairs don't need such advice. Perhaps we were never a nation. It was a crowd led by the 2% who plundered the rights and every thing of the poor 98%. Things are changing fast. During the recent years the Mitch of the Army and the sincerity of the politicians has been exposed.
Mahmood Nov 06, 2011 11:35am
...And those who do not learn a lesson from history, are condemned to repeat it.
Sanjay saksena Nov 06, 2011 12:06pm
I do not quite agree with the views of the author on separation of East Bengal from Pakistan. Folly or no folly, the fact is that given the logic of geography, it was only a matter of time before the East went its separate way. In my view, even if there was no Mujib, no Yahya, no Bhutto and no Indira Gandhi, the loss of East Bengal was inevitable. Also, we must bear in mind that the millions of muslims who made immense sacrifices for the creation of Pakistan, never in their wildest dreams imagined that they would be ruled by a Bengali. I am sure this thought never entered the minds of men like the Quaid, Liaquat Ali, etc. It was a relationship where the West was always perceived to be the elder brother. I think it is too much to expect that people of the Punjab will watch silently as Pakistan is converted into a Begalistan.
Tariq Nov 06, 2011 12:35pm
From Dawn
Naveed Shah Saeed Nov 06, 2011 01:35pm
Man has a history of repeating the same mistakes. This is nothing new. The sad part is that Pakistan should have been wise enough to tackle its population inspiration in a democratic manner. It takes leaders of wisdom and selflessness to deliver such common sense approach. Yet, Pakistan has been very unlucky to get wise and selfless leadership whose goal is to serve the masses and not pocket the loot. I hope, soon there will be change for the good where people will take their destiny in there own hands and start a new chapter in the history of Pakistan.
Thind Nov 06, 2011 01:55pm
The two countries are amongst the poorest in the world,they have fought wars and done irrepairable damage to each other over issues which could have been solved by talking.We have been exploited by others but we have not learnt any thing.This is particlarly true of Pakistan.See its reputation in world today. Jointlty we could have been a big force in world affairs but today we still need others to talk to each other.We should understand that if we try to burn neghbour's house,we shall also suffer.If after 64 years of fighting each other we have not learnt any lesson,we are condemned to die fighting. Coming generations will not forgive us.
Afzal Khan Nov 06, 2011 02:42pm
Pakistan is SLEEP walking to SELF destruction.
Ahtasham Nov 06, 2011 03:09pm
How Pakistani Political People learn from history when they rule on British and American Passport in the Country. This is our mistake that we like and vote such type of people even knows about them....
Raj Nov 06, 2011 04:39pm
@rahul. this debate is largely for Pakistanis to sort out. Your interruption will not help anyone even if you feel vindicated.
Saravanan, India Nov 06, 2011 04:44pm
I follow such columns with interest, and as with any thoughtful and intense writing, this writing adds up to the knowledge and understanding. Kudos to the writer! If you can read the gist of the majority of the Indians writing here, there is a huge interest level and wish that our two nations stop fighting and move towards peace, with History being a reminder of the fallacies of the past
Sadia Mahmood Nov 06, 2011 05:07pm
But when do Pakistanis read history?
Sher Mohammad Nov 06, 2011 06:57pm
Mr. Cowasjee agreed with ne in reply to my letter that the fault kies in our democracy. In fact democracies of both India and Pakistan are pseudo with ours turned into a musical chairs show. Solution lies with a petition to apex court to declare all past / present cabinets null and void. Start with a new robust democracy with rules and regulations for a better today / tomorrow.
abdulaziz Nov 06, 2011 09:44pm
Why is it that people like Zaid Hamid and Hamid Gul are very popular among educated young Pakistanis? Are we repeating the same mistakes we did in the past? We all supported Bhutto and Yahya Khan all the way.
SR Nov 06, 2011 10:01pm
Rahul, I believe that you need to be more responsible in your comments. When you are writing in Pakistani media, you have an added responsibility of being a dignified representative of your country.
Seedoo Nov 06, 2011 10:22pm
Mr. Rahul, The standard of media in Pakistan is a lot better than that of India. Please point to an Indian newspaper which can match the standard of Dawn. At least some Pakistani newspapers like Dawn engage in introspection and self criticism. This is the reason why some Indians like yourself who are thirsty for quality journalism visit these papers. However, unfortunately, instead of making intelligent comments, people like you seem to leave only vitriol and venom at our door step.
Jay Nov 06, 2011 10:26pm
@ Rahul - how about Azharuddin and Kapil Dev. Hope you haven't forget Kapil Dev appearing on TV and crying during the interview. Do remember, whilst you point a finger at someone, four of your own fingers point towards yourself.
Deep Nov 06, 2011 11:01pm
There are more viewers of Dawn from India than from Pakistan itself. Also Mr. Ardeshir Cowajee is a respected writer from Karachi. I am an Indian too. Don't you think you are inciting hatred? Don't you remember our own Mr. Azharuddin and Jadeja? One has become a MP and the other a national TV sports commentator !!! We spend too much time looking down upon Pakistan not realizing that we have similar problems. Mr. Cowasjee has analyzed well and is intact recommending that sanity prevail in administration. We need that too. Look at how the government is bent on targeting Anna Hazare and how they are dividing INdia into Muslims, Hindus and Christians? Isn't that obvious to you? Grow up.
Mohan Kapur Nov 07, 2011 12:48am
I know that Punjabi is a dominent culture, but India also has Punjab and Bengal and they are at harmony. So, besides geography, there is something more important at play in Pakistan. I think it has to do with lost Identity at partition. Demand for Pakistan by Muslim League did not consider the impact of loosing "Indian Identity" which formed from thousand years. Now Pakistanis are confused where they belong or what is their Pehchan.
Zia Ansari Nov 07, 2011 01:20am
Mr. Rahul, Have you read the ariticle and understood it before posting your comment? You are suggesting that Mr. Ardeshir Kowasjee "even the writer of articles(?!)needs to learn from the past that its not Indians or Americans it's(?)the Pakistanis who need to learn"...etc. May I ask you sir, where in this article Mr. Kowasjee mentioned that Indian needs to learn anything? The American did not learn anything from Vietnam; had they learned anything they would not have invaded Iraq leaving Osam bin Laden and his gang of in Af-Pak region to raise the hellish havoc. Please sir, you may have some inherant hate towards Pakistan, but don't express it in a way that does not portray you as a reasonable person. Ardeshir Kowasjee is a sanitly person; nobody expects a derogatory remark against him.
Pankaj Patel(USA) Nov 07, 2011 02:54am
I do not agree with the author,under any circumstance East Pakistan would have separated.It was only religious euphoria that made division of Bengal possible other wise they had fought against the British only few years beck to stop division of Bengal.They have rich culture and history to be proud of.They found them selves ruled by economically richer but culturally poor west Pakistanis who will never respect their culture.This unequal marriage was to end any time any way.Please do not blame any body for that.
mjr Nov 07, 2011 03:53am
Excellent Article....good job
Chintamani Nov 09, 2011 07:11am
Another incisive piece from a really readable analyst.Mr Cowasjee has reinforced that 'We learn from history, that we dont learn from History'
Shabbier Husain Nov 09, 2011 02:15pm
The "original sin" with regards to separation of east Pakistan was holding of elections 1970 because the conditions were not right. "Elections exacerbate group conflicts and ethnic tensions". Where the resentments already exist, and the country is underdeveloped economically and most people are illiterate, elections make things worse. The resentment felt by the Bengalis before the elections was significantly increased to hatred by the demagoguery of Bengali politicians during election campaign. How can that be a recipe of addressing the grievances of the east Pakistanis.
Tajammal Nov 10, 2011 12:50pm
Only Hindus fought against the division of Bengal, because they wanted to hold all the Bengal. Again in 1946 elections Muslim League had gained 100% Muslim seats in Bengal. Even after independence Bangladesh has not joined West Bengal(India) to prove the two nations theory in Sub-Continent.
Imtiaz Faruqui Nov 10, 2011 11:15pm
One thing is proved that Culture and language is stronger than any Religon.