THE golden bird bearing happy tidings on its wings seems to have forsaken our skies. When was the last time we heard some good news? When was the last time we had reason to be happy and proud, the last time we did not curse our fate?

Surely there is something wrong here. We may have sinned. No, we have sinned. Of this there should be no doubt. The gallery of rogues, fools or charlatans who have been our rulers and presided over our wayward destiny, we have endured and suffered without resisting too much, in fact, on most occasions, not resisting at all.

We did not feel the pain we should have felt when the guardians of the state, driven by God knows what notions of political cleansing, settled accounts with the people of East Pakistan. We did not cry out against the inhumanity of it. When the deed was done and East Pakistan had gone its own way, we did not even grieve the way we should have. This was one death, the death of Jinnah’s Pakistan, over which no funeral prayers were offered.

But we have paid for our sins. Going around in circles, still without a sense of direction after all these years, is heavy enough punishment. Why then does the golden bird keep avoiding our skies?

One tragedy like that of East Pakistan should be enough for any country or nation, enough of a lesson in what should be done and what was best avoided. It should have taught us once for all the futility of relying on force alone — important as force is in human affairs — to build a nation. The Pakistan left diminished by the tragedy of 1971 should have taken to heart the lesson that nations, disparate though many of their elements may be, are forged from a sense of common purpose and common destiny.

In other words, if a nation is being forged out of a diversity of race, language, culture and different levels of economic development, such as is the case with Pakistan, it takes little wizardry to see that the overriding emphasis must be on consensus-building. So that all the elements of diversity, while retaining their uniqueness and hence their beauty, can coalesce into a higher unity. (Something like the United States of America, if that is not too far-fetched an analogy.)

Alas, our collective abilities were not up to the task. Where consensus was needed, almost a conscious effort was made to sow distrust and dissension. Instead of things being drawn together, they were pushed further apart. All the laws of reason were violated. From our early days that seemed obvious enough. But the sum total of our national genius also ended up abusing Islam, insisting that since Islam was the basis of our nationhood, no other material was required for nation-building.

If only this were so. When Pakistan’s eastern army laid down its arms in Dhaka’s Race Course Ground in December 1971 this notion — that Islam alone was a sufficient bond to keep Pakistan together — was also buried. (The two nation theory is a separate issue.) Islam did not prevent the people of East Pakistan from seeking liberation from what they perceived to be West Pakistani bondage.

So we should have realized that for a country such as Pakistan, military rule with its self-serving centralism is almost a prelude to disaster, a recipe for collective self-immolation. For almost by definition concentration of power at the centre, takes away something from the periphery, resulting in disaffection.

Two bouts of military rule, Ayub Khan’s and Yahya’s, disastrous in their own way, should have been enough for us. But our cup of sorrow had not filled. So we received the gift of two more: eleven years of Gen Zia, from the effects of which Pakistan has yet to recover, and now seven years of Gen Musharraf with no sign yet of his early departure.

Ayub’s policies served to divide East and West Pakistan. Now we are witnessing another kind of polarisation: between the people and state institutions, on the one hand, and between the centre and the smaller provinces, on the other. As an ex-army man I take no pride in the fact that during these seven years the army has been criticized like never before, the perks and privileges of senior ranks the butt of everyday conversation. How can this be good for military morale?

The American connection pushed the army into an unpopular intervention in Waziristan. Meeting stiff resistance, the army, mercifully, is having second thoughts about that enterprise. But there has been no such luck in Balochistan where shortsightedness and arrogance, the inevitable consequences of military rule, tipped the scales in favour of a military operation against Nawab Mohammad Akbar Khan Bugti.

Whether he was killed by a missile fired from a helicopter gunship or the cave he was in collapsed because of a “mysterious” explosion is now immaterial. What is important is that he is dead at the hands of the army and has become a hero for the people of Balochistan.

The Baloch have a long history of grievance against the Pakistani centre. Their land is rich in minerals but remains the poorest of Pakistan’s provinces. Gas from Balochistan has kept kitchen fires burning in other parts of Pakistan for the last 50 years. But the Baloch feel they have not received a fair deal.

This history has given rise to an embittered culture of resistance. In Balochistan a hero is someone who stands up to central authority, someone like Sardar Nauroz Khan who took to the mountains in the 1950s but was persuaded to come down and then hanged despite a promise of safe conduct, an incident which rankles in Baloch memory and is still quoted as an example of ‘central’ perfidy.

To this narrative of heroic resistance is now added a chapter more smouldering and heavy in symbolism than any other, centred on a defiant Baloch chieftain, already a legend in his lifetime, taking to the mountains when he was almost 80 and, fighting to the last, dying at the hands of the Pakistan army.

Possessed of a personality at once flamboyant and commanding, Nawab Akbar Khan was in any case a larger-than-life figure, the centre of attention wherever he happened to be. But in death he has attained a status far greater than anything he might have achieved in his lifetime. For generations to come he will be considered as one of the leading symbols of Baloch resistance.

Which is not a little ironic given the fact that among the three Baloch sardars considered anathema by central authority — the other two being Nawab Khair Bux Marri and Sardar Attaullah Mengal — Nawab Akbar Khan was the only one whose politics lay squarely within the ambit of Pakistan. Marri and Mengal make no bones about their conviction that Pakistan is a failed enterprise from which they can expect no justice or fair play. Right until the end Nawab Akbar Khan spoke a different discourse.

But we seem to have a talent for turning moderates into extremists. The Awami League was very much a centrist, mainstream party in Pakistani politics. Yet a gathering sense of deprivation managed to transform it into the standard-bearer of separatism. To begin with, Nawab Akbar Khan was willing to settle matters politically, through dialogue. But then attitudes hardened on both sides — one of his faults being that he couldn’t bend, much less grovel — and so he rode off into the mountains, on the back of a camel, there eventually to embrace a Baloch version of immortality.

He had his faults. Which mortal doesn’t? But just as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s shortcomings (and he had many) stand eclipsed and largely forgotten by the manner in which he looked death in the face, Nawab Akbar Khan’s shortcomings stand erased at the bar of martyrdom.

For it is as a martyr or shaheed — someone dying for whatever he considered to be the path of honour, justice and freedom — is how he will be remembered by the Baloch and even by most Pakistanis with any spirit in them.

Nothing more becomes a man than the way he faces death. Nawab Akbar Khan was fearless in life and fearless in death. These lines from Julius Caesar could serve as his epitaph:

Cowards die many times before their death; The valiant never taste of death but once. Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, It seems to me most strange that men should fear; Seeing that death, a necessary end, Will come when it will come.

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