AS the Martyrs Reverence Day was officially marked this week with pledges that their supreme sacrifice would always be cherished and honoured with gratitude, one image from that dreadful day, May 9, stuck in my mind and will long haunt me.
The pulling down of Capt Karnal Sher Khan’s bronze statue from the Martyrs Memorial by a mob enraged by the arrest of their leader, may have appeared to them like the making of some sort of revolution, but to me it translated into renewed heartbreak for the fallen soldier’s family. That is, if they hadn’t suffered enough pain when the Kargil conflict was raging in 1999.
I remember writing about it in one of my columns in this newspaper that appeared on Nov 25, 2011. Here are some excerpts from that column, based on a phone call that was put through to my office, by the switchboard, when I headed the BBC Urdu Service.
“After identifying himself, the frantic caller told me he was calling from Sharjah airport, was en route to Pakistan and needed the help of BBC Urdu Service which, he had been told, had carried the news of his brother’s death in Kargil.
The pulling down of Capt Karnal Sher Khan’s bronze statue by a mob translated into renewed heartbreak for the soldier’s family.
“Within minutes, I was on the line to our Srinagar correspondent Altaf Hussain who told me the Indian army had brought some bodies from Kargil to Srinagar and showed them to the media.
“Altaf described the young officer and said he’d been identified by a signed letter in his pocket ostensibly written by his sister. I called back the Sharjah mobile and gave all the details including the letter’s contents and the sender’s name.
“The person at the other end went quiet but quickly recovered his composure to say: ’That is most certainly my younger brother, Captain Karnal Sher Khan. My sister did tell me about the letter and no one else would have known her name.
“‘I will forever be grateful to you for letting us know. Our own government tells us nothing. In fact, they haven’t told us anything for several months since he first went away on this long assignment. He was last posted to the NLI (Northern Light Infantry).
“‘We have a right to know. Don’t get me wrong we are several brothers and each one of us will gladly give his life for Pakistan. But why doesn’t our government own its shaheeds? They may not be proud of our brother’s sacrifice but we are. He beat us to it.’”
As I wrote in my column, “Wouldn’t you be lost for words? … In a sense, it was a relief when the call ended … When the fallen soldier’s brother complained of being kept in the dark I obviously put it down to operational reasons. It was to emerge later that even the air force and naval chiefs were not told.”
“The operation first hailed by some Pakistani defence analysts as ‘tactically brilliant’, soon turned out to be a strategic nightmare as the planners had no exit strategy especially since the scenario they had predicated it on was all wrong.”
“When Capt Karnal Sher Khan’s body was being returned to Pakistan, even the Indians talked of his valour; of how the young officer on a mission impossible did the honourable thing: fight to the very end. Finally, Pakistan also extended recognition: it awarded him the Nishan-i-Haider. … But those who had sent this valiant young man and hundreds of others like him to die in a pointless conflict … have not been held to account.”
I can’t emphasise enough that those who desecrated the martyr’s memory, whose valour was recognised by even the enemy, as the Indian military commander in a note accompanying his body spelt out, should face the full might of the law after due process.
Equally, the architects of the failed political engineering project should also be placed in the dock as their culpability is far greater than the misguided youths who were emotionally charged and vulnerable to be exploited and manipulated.
What was once the edifice of a carefully crafted political order that represented ‘same page’ harmony was soon to start crumbling, such were its contradictions. What we have today are the brutal and painful consequences of that folly of letting that genie out of the bottle.
Even as politics captures all our imaginations and dominates our discourse, the economy is sinking. Our multitudes are hard-pressed to put food on the table. Surely, with a population approaching a quarter billion, over a third of which exists below the poverty line, the implications of such desperate want can be explosive.
It does not take a rocket scientist to say that our priorities are all wrong. There seems little focus on the economy apart from day-to-day firefighting. Has anyone actually considered the impact of near-zero growth on jobs and incomes of a population that is growing the fastest in the region?
How did we get to this pass? Who doesn’t know the answer? We all do but somehow we seem to have taken our own equivalent of the Sicilian vow of Omerta (silence) out of fear or blatant vested interests where our personal and institutional considerations trump all others.
Tragically, we aren’t going anywhere worthwhile till we acknowledge our own follies and have the courage to assign responsibility for the mess we find ourselves in, even if we are not in the habit of doing any such thing.
As I hope for such across-the-board accountability, all I am witnessing for now is a steady exodus from a political party, with all the ashen-faced leavers reading from virtually the same page. This is how far the much-acclaimed (engineered) same-page harmony has got to. Is anyone surprised?
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, May 28th, 2023