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Forty-winking through the past

March 23, 2011


FORTY years ago, the nation marked its last Pakistan Day as a two-winged entity. Within days the last vestiges of the country constituted less than a quarter century earlier had been drowned in a bloodbath.

The consequences were not exactly incompatible with the Lahore Resolution of 1940, which had demanded “that the areas in which Muslims are numerically in majority as in the north-western and eastern zones of India should be grouped to constitute independent states in which the constituent units shall be autonomous and sovereign”.

It hadn’t quite turned out that way in 1947. A country whose two parts, roughly equal in terms of population, were divided by 1,000 miles of terrain was by any standards a rather novel experiment. Its bona fides were brought into question not long after the state’s inception when its founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, encountered a hostile reception in the eastern wing over the question of a national language.

Jinnah himself wasn’t comfortable communicating in Urdu, but was nonetheless persuaded to institute it as the national language. Whereas there was some logic behind the case for a West Pakistani lingua franca, cultural and linguistic homogeneity in the land of Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam inevitably made East Pakistanis wonder why the privilege of independence entailed embracing a foreign tongue.

Barely five years into Pakistan’s history, language riots gave Bengali nationalists their first martyrs. Ultimately, Bengali and Urdu were jointly recognised as national languages, but the eastern wing’s sense of relegation in both political and economic terms could never be ameliorated.

The elections scheduled for October 1970 were the first opportunity Pakistanis had been afforded to elect parliamentary representatives on the basis of a universal franchise. The balloting was postponed until December on account of devastating floods in East Pakistan, but it was West Pakistan’s lackadaisical response to a subsequent catastrophe — a cyclone and tidal wave that claimed an estimated million lives and was decreed the all-time worst natural disaster in the world — that arguably sealed the nation’s fate.With Maulana Bhashani’s National Awami Party having bowed out of the contest, the December elections gave Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League all but two National Assembly seats from East Pakistan, affording it an absolute parliamentary majority. Mujib’s party had contested the election on the basis of its Six Points, which sought substantial political and economic autonomy for East Pakistan. It is arguable whether it was an incontrovertibly secessionist agenda, but it clearly enjoyed majority approval.However, the assembly elected in December 1970 never met. Powerful elements in Gen Yahya Khan’s military junta were incorrigibly averse to allowing democracy to run its course. They enjoyed the support of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, whose PPP had done remarkably well in Sindh and Punjab, although its overall tally was less than half that of the League. The prospect of sitting in the opposition held as little appeal for Bhutto as the possibility of playing second fiddle to Mujib in a coalition government.

The extent to which Bhutto was complicit in the genocidal military operations launched on March 25, 1971, remains controversial. On his return to Karachi from Dhaka shortly afterwards, Bhutto infamously expressed his gratitude to God for “saving” Pakistan. Over the decades, acolytes and sympathisers have sought to explain this away as a petrified response to the prospect of Sindhis being subjected to a similar treatment.

In retrospect, that argument doesn’t hold much water. Bhutto undoubtedly acted wisely in liberating Mujib, who was languishing in a Punjabi prison under the shadow of death, shortly after assuming power in what remained of Pakistan.

It was another couple of years, though, before his government formally recognised Bangladesh. Mujib’s appearance at the 1974 Islamic Summit in Lahore, through the conciliatory efforts of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, yielded some powerful imagery — inter alia, Bhutto and Mujib smilingly holding hands on a Shalimar Gardens balcony (alongside Muammar Qadhafi, who survived them both by decades), but there is no conclusive evidence that Bhutto ever expressed any remorse for his role in the appalling events of 1971.

It is not the division of Pakistan that was a tragedy so much as the atrocious circumstances in which it was accomplished. The death toll entailed by Pakistan’s attempted abortion of Bangladesh continues to be controversial, but there can be no doubt that enormous crimes against humanity were committed.

The aspect that singularly blighted the future of Bangladesh was the arbitrary execution of the intelligentsia, not least students in university hostels — establishing a template, perhaps, for the depredations of the Khmer Rouge later in the decade.

Notwithstanding the targeting of Awami League functionaries and East Pakistan’s substantial Hindu minority, the mass murder was broadly indiscriminate, and there were ostensibly racist aims behind an unconscionably disgusting campaign of rape. Gen Pervez Musharraf’s lament at the Martyrs’ Memorial outside Dhaka for all lives lost in the 1971 conflict was a step forward for Pakistan, but it barely sufficed as the kind of apology that could help the nation to come to terms with transgressions open to interpretation as the most reprehensible campaign of extermination since the Second World War.

At the time, Pakistan’s actions enjoyed the blessing of both China and the US. Dr Henry Kissinger diagnosed Bangladesh as a basket case at birth. He wasn’t entirely mistaken, in that Bangladesh’s troubled trajectory since liberation has all too frequently appeared to follow that of Pakistan, especially when Gen Hossain Muhammad Ershad seemed keen to emulate Pakistan’s worst ruler, Gen Ziaul Haq, in all too many respects.

However, although an analysis of Bangladesh’s post-1971 polity cannot be accommodated here, one can hardly ignore the fact that whereas Bangladesh is competently co-hosting the current cricket World Cup, Pakistan is clearly on the outer, with little hope of a recovery in the foreseeable future.

It may be too late to convene trials for suspected Pakistani war criminals — too many of them have gone to their graves without expressing remorse or regret. But an unqualified apology from Pakistan to Bangladesh, albeit 40 years too late, would still not go amiss.