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Dec 16, 1971: any lessons learned?

December 16, 2005

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IF we had drawn any lessons from the events of 1971, we would have forsworn military rule forever, indeed consigned the very memory of coups d’etat to a never-to-be-opened hall of national shame.

For it was military rule and the legacy of folly it accumulated which led, almost inexorably, to the tragedy of 1971: dismemberment of Pakistan and the humiliating surrender of our forces in the east.

We have done nothing of the sort. Far from forgetting military rule, we have almost embraced it as a national way of life. After ‘71 Pakistan’s brief experiment with elective democracy (although much mangled by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto) was snuffed out in 1977, leading to the long night of Zia’s dictatorship, whose consequences we have still not outlived. And if that wasn’t enough, there was another coup in 1999 from whose shadows the nation has yet to emerge.

Indeed, in one of those ironies in which history abounds, the loss of East Pakistan, far from weakening the spirit of militarism, as ideally it should have, went about strengthening it. Although the army, the bureaucracy and Punjab all conspired to give East Pakistan a rough deal — treating it little better than a colony — the people of East Pakistan brought noise and colour to Pakistani politics.

Punjab’s forte was, perhaps still is, bending the knee before the status quo. That is why Punjab has welcomed every conqueror and, in our own day, paid homage to every tinpot dictator. Bengal, west and east, always has had a streak of anarchy about it. Small wonder if oratory and a flair for agitation have been hallmarks of the Bengali political character. This was good for us while united Pakistan lasted because Punjab on the one hand and Urdu-language chauvinism on the other were leavened by East Pakistani turbulence. We were the richer for this balance and mix.

There were no surprises in West Pakistan largely acquiescing in Ayub’s dictatorship. Like we have a Q-League now, we had a Convention League then and like the Q-League, in keeping with Punjab’s famous temperament, draws most of its support from Punjab, the Convention League drew most of its support from West Pakistan. Conversely, what there was of an opposition drew most of its strength and fire from East Pakistan. It is sobering to remember that in the 1965 National Assembly there were only two opposition members from the whole of West Pakistan, Hasan A. Shaikh from Karachi and Mian Arif Iftikhar from Kasur-Lahore.

East Pakistan gone — we saw to it that it went — clamping military rule on the country and maintaining it has become so much easier. The present military order has been around for six years (and a bit more) and although its achievements are more impressive on paper than in reality, it sits comfortably in the saddle largely because there is not a spark of life in the opposition.

Oh, if this had been united Pakistan, what sounds of commotion and turbulence would have come from Dhaka. We can only indulge in nostalgia now because given the political class we are left with, there is nothing much to expect of it.

I have mentioned this before. I seek indulgence for repeating it (for the last time). On his way to Shimla for talks with Mrs Gandhi in 1972, Bhutto called a meeting of PPP assembly members (national and provincial) in Lahore to sound them out on their views. When the discussion got a bit long, my father, also an MNA, said: ‘...why are you asking these people? Mrs Gandhi can come at the head of her tanks and they will stand in line to receive her. So do what you have to and rest assured that they will clap when you return.’ (Words to that effect of course.) He wasn’t far wrong.

Seeing the performance of the eastern command, and indeed the performance of the army on the western front (where too we lost territory to India) we should have cut military flab, reduced the amount of heavy brass, and made the military into a more fit and professional fighting force. I don’t know about the professionalism but there is more flab and heavy brass in the army today than ever before, with the system of privileges — officer housing societies and jobs for senior ranks after retirement — more entrenched than ever. Officers need housing. So do soldiers and NCOs. Are there any colonies for soldiers? As for officer colonies, we all know the money being made from them.

I suppose there is a logic to all this. The armies of Myanmar, Indonesia and the Philippines-to quote only three examples, although the list can be much longer — are (perish the thought) not meant to fight any external enemies. Their purpose is to maintain internal control. We seem well advanced down the same road.

Today the size of the combined military, Allah be praised, is almost three times what it was in 1971. As for the weight of brass — the number of generals, admirals and air marshals — they must be four or five times the number then. Who says we’ve made no progress?

There is nothing unique or strange about defeat itself. The strongest are not immune to it, defeat coming the way of the greatest captains of war and happening to the mightiest empires. But nations with life in them, in whose veins real blood flows, learn from their defeats. Why put it so modestly? Defeat is a great teacher, in its crucible resolve and fortitude being tempered. What’s our record?

After 1971, we should have left juvenility behind and entered the realm of adulthood. As a mark of growing up we should finally have discarded the myths and shibboleths accumulated since 1947 in the name of that fuzzy concept, the ideology of Pakistan. Far from doing anything of the kind, we are more confused, our hatreds more virulent. Pakistan must be one of the few countries in the world still agonizing over the meaning of its creation and birth, no other subject triggering such a frenzy of self-serving mythology. As for hatred, for all its other shortcomings, and there were many, pre-1971 Pakistan was not the citadel of religious intolerance it was to become later.

I suppose intolerance in the name of religion was always present beneath the surface. But it was prevented from flowering because of a larger national canvas. Geography shrinking with the loss of East Pakistan, some of our vision, our capacity for thinking large thoughts, was also lost. Defeat should have opened our eyes. Instead, it served to close them a bit more.

Dec 71 should have made us wiser about the United States. The Yahya junta was of course foolish and there was nothing in the world that could have rescued it from its chosen path of folly. But the Nixon White House added to its confusion by promising help it was in no position to deliver — offering illusions which Yahya and coterie took for reality.

But we learned nothing. In the 1980s we became foot soldiers in an American crusade against the Soviet Union. American strategic objectives secured, America walked away from Afghanistan. We were left holding the dishes. In 2001 we allowed ourselves to be recruited in another American crusade avowedly against “terror” but in reality for the higher interests of the American empire. This crusade was meant to secure peace. It has fomented strife and turbulence.

The surrender ceremony at Race Course Ground, Dhaka, on this day should have left a lasting impression on our minds about the need to respect constitutional norms because not respecting them, or rather not having any norms to respect, is what led to Pakistan’s December tragedy in the first place. But if we look back at the last 34 years, our most spectacular flouting, our most flagrant disrespect, has been reserved for the Constitution framed in the aftermath of the ‘71 war. This doesn’t say much for our learning capability.